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More Black And White / Mono Conversion Techniques In Photoshop

Inspired by Andreas Overlands excellent black and white tutorial, I thought it was about time I got some practice in with Photoshops other Black and White / Mono Conversion techniques, instead of just stripping out the colour with a hue / sat adjustment layer....

So, in this tutorial I'll be looking at converting to grey-scale, the channel mixer, the desaturate option, and the convert to black and white filter. Then I'll have a quick look at adding a colour tone to your image as well. So fire up Photoshop, grab a coffee, open up an image you want to convert to mono or black and white, and lets get started!

Start Photos. I've copied together two examples of images I like to take at the moment, to show what the different black and white / mono conversion techniques have on different styles of photographs. The one on the left is a HDR landscape, the one on the right some detail from a stone building.

Convert To Grayscale.

In Photoshop, click "image", "mode", "grayscale". Discard the colour information:

Make sure you convert back to RGB once you've got the b&w image - "image", "mode", "rgb color".

So we've now got this:

Photo's converted to grayscale.

This would be a more than acceptable starting point for further editing - we could increase the contrast, play around with levels and curves, and of course work on separate parts of each photo using layer masks.

However, Photoshop has controlled how the colour / brightness information has been turned into grey, when we can in fact decide on those values ourselves- so lets look at those techniques next. (If you're working on your own image use the history palette to go back to your start settings.)

Channel Mixer.

We really always want to avoid working on our original image - so we're going to be using adjustment layer techniques from now on. This makes it easier to make changes as we go on, and saves us from permanently altering our original photos - always a good thing!

Click the new adjustment layer icon at the bottom of your layers palette, then "channel mixer":

The layer dialogue box will pop up. Make sure "monochrome" is ticked, then play around with the sliders. Keep the Total value to around 100 to avoid "blowing out" parts of the pictures, and you can also change the overall brightness of the image by moving the "Constant" slider:

Here's what I came up with:

Photo's converted with channel mixer.

The sky's a bit darker, I'd have to play around more with each individual image to get the look I wanted. I find the channel mixer a bit complicated to use - you've got to slide one colour back when you increase a different channel, so I prefer to use a Hue / Saturation Adjustment Layer.

Hue / Saturation Adjustment Layer.

Revert back to your original image, then click the new adjustment layer icon, and this time choose "Hue / Saturation":

The dialogue box will pop up, make sure the "master" channel is selected, the preview box is ticked, then drag the saturation slider all the way to the left:

Now we can play with the other colour channels, changing their "lightness". Do this by clicking on the "Edit" drop down menu, choose each channel in turn, and play with the "lightness slider:

So, if you're working on a landscape photo and want to make the sky darker, change the blue channel. Want bricks darker? Change the red channel. Just play around to see what you can come up with. If you're not sure which channel to choose, click on your photo, Photoshop will choose the channel, then move the slider.

Here's mine:

Desaturated Image.

By now you're probably thinking, big deal, there doesn't seem to be much difference between these black and white methods! And you'd be right, so next let's try the best way to convert to b&w, the Black and White Adjustment layer.

Black And White Adjustment Layer.

OK, click the new adjustment layer icon, and then "Black and White.":

When the dialogue box pops up, all you have to do is click "Preset" drop down box, then just work your way through the options, seeing what you like:

The Black and White Adjustment Layer is simulating the effect you'd get using the traditional method of shooting b&w film, and then putting a coloured filter on the front to darken specific parts of the spectrum. The red filter for example leads to darker skies.

You can also customise the effect by clicking on parts of your photo and dragging to the left or right to change the lightness of that part of the image. How cool is that!

Here's what I came up with:

Black and White Adjustment Layer. (Red Filter Preset).

Remember, these are all just starting points, the photo's could still do with levels, curves or contrast adjustments, but hopefully you'll know give the different black and white adjustment techniques a go, and see what works best for you.

Adding A Colour Tone.

While we're in the Black and White Adjustment Layer, click the "Tint" box, then you can move the "Hue" slider to adjust the colour of the tint, and the "Saturation" slider to control how strong the colour is:

And end up with something like this:

Image Tinted In Black & White Adjustment Layer.

Add A Coloured Photo Filter To A Black And White Photo.

You could always simply add a coloured filter to a photo that's already been converted to black and white.

Just click the new adjustment layer icon, and choose "Photo Filter":

Then just choose a filter (sepia is popular, but I like Blue too), and adjust the "density" to change how strong the effect is.

Black and White with Blue Filter Added:


In my opinion, Photoshops "Black and White" Adjustment Layer is the best method for converting your photo's, but I have to admit that in Elements I often just strip the colour out with Hue / Saturation. I think that in newer versions of Elements, Adobe have included a better b&w converter.

As I've already said, the black and white / mono conversion is only the start of the editing process, a foundation to build on, and usually not a finished product.

Cheers, Rob.

Reader Comments (4)

Just wanted to thank you Rob for all the pointers you've shared for black & white conversions.
After a good study of your techniques and the link to Andreas Overlands work I've finally managed to crack what I was after.
Using adjustment layers has made this a lot easier than previous methods I had tried and I can 'tweak' ad infinitum to achieve the desired results. With this new knowledge I've found that I can actually replicate some of the darkroom processes I used to use for film and wet prints. I've even found I can replicate subtle variations similar to selenium for increased Dmax, split-toning and split-grading for midtone boost. I thought I needed 'Lightroom', but this is all working fine with my old copy of paintshop.

Thanks again for the inspiration and I really look forward to enjoying some good old black & white work again!

All the best,

October 31, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

Hi Victor,

Glad the article helped, for me I also like to play around with levels / curves and the blend mode of those layers to increase contrast.

You really should start a Blog to explain all about your techniques for recreating the Film Look - lots of people would be really interested!

Thanks again, Rob.

October 31, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

Thank you for this tutorial. I just took a photo, that I thought might look better in black and white. I now remember why I would always use a yellow filter on my lens in my black and white film days. The yellow Photoshop filter proved perfect, although it was nice to be able to try others.

Here is the picture:

November 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterC0mdrData

Great shot.

There's something special about Black and White Photographs, I love 'em.

Cheers, Rob.

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRob_Nunn

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