Black-and-white photography is easier than ever. Rather than relying on specialized film, papers and chemistry, photographers are now free to take pictures and then decide to make them black-and-white.
But black-and-white photography is also harder than ever. Instead of the materials that made exquisite black-and-white images practically automatically, now it’s up to individual photographers to determine how best to convert color into black-and-white, and with such a variety of techniques available today, that’s no easy task. Here are some of the most popular methods for turning color photographs into beautiful black-and-white.
Found in the Image > Mode menu, this is the easiest way to convert a color image to black-and-white. It isn’t the best, however. This ham-fisted approach throws out a ton of image information and produces a frequently flat image that doesn’t bear much resemblance to a true silver print. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in speed—it’s the only one-click conversion option from color to black-and-white.
Desaturation (Shift-Ctrl-U) isn’t more nuanced than grayscale mode, but it works differently. Whereas grayscale values colors independently, desaturation converts all colors evenly: one-third red, one-third green and one-third blue. This also creates flat images, but some photographers (such as the übertalented Howard Schatz) prefer this approach on skin—a niche for which it’s well suited. Usually, though, desaturation isn’t the ideal approach either.
A typical digital image file comes out of the camera in RGB Mode (one channel for red, one for green and one for blue). Switching to Lab Mode, though, is a great starting place for a black-and-white conversion. The A and B channels contain color, while the L channel is only luminance information, meaning that channel is only black-and-white. In the Image > Mode menu, click on Lab Color, then open the Channels palette and delete the A and B channels. The resulting image may need some Levels or Curves adjustments to create an ideal mix of tonal brightness and contrast, but it’s a good start on black-and-white, and it’s not especially complex.
If there’s an ideal approach for black-and-white conversions, channel mixer may be it. Though not as efficient as the previous methods, it offers infinitely more control. Channel Mixer doesn’t waste any detail by randomly eliminating color. In the Image > Adjustments menu, click on Channel Mixer, and then be sure to click Monochrome in the bottom left of the window. You can use presets from the drop-down menu, or adjust the sliders to affect how colors translate into black-and-white. Drag red down, and red tones from the original become darker in black-and-white. Drag blue up, and blue tones turn into lighter grayscale values. Make sure the values total 100% (or close to it) to avoid wasting information. Exceed 100%, and light areas will become white; a total below 100% will look dark and underexposed.