Converting to Black and White

Intro | Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color | Converting to Black and White | Using LAB Color Adjustments | Inverting Backgrounds with LAB | Intro to Compositing | HDR in Adobe Photoshop CS5 | Using Image Apply Image | Aging Photos Roundup | Making Colors Pop in Photoshop

Intro Image: This black and white HDR image comes from a composite of three captures.

As a photographer, why would you intentionally limit yourself to the values available in one color channel when—with a full color model—you can have a virtually unlimited palette of color values? If this limitation sounds crazy, or unfamiliar, it is neither. Monochromatic photography has a role that is deeply entwined with the history of photography, and there are some very good visual reasons for eschewing color.

Before I explain further, let me get a preliminary issue out of the way.

It’s common to refer to “black and white” photography. People certainly know what you mean by “black and white,” but in the digital era the term is neither accurate nor a good description. Digital black and white photos are usually archived as standard RGB color files, so in this sense these files are not really black and white at all. (On a few occasions, it does make sense to convert a “black and white” RGB or CMYK image to grayscale for printing purposes.)

In addition, if you tint or tone your black and white images—a common practice to enrich their appeal—then the color values strictly speaking do not go from white to black. In the chemical darkroom, toned prints were made from black and white negatives—but digital files that are toned, even if they are essentially monochromatic, are naturally color files. Otherwise, how could you reproduce the desired toning effect?

Therefore, “monochrome” is probably a better term than “black and white” to reference an image that displays values in a single color hue going from light to dark—but either term doesn’t fully describe what is happening when a color image file is manipulated so that it mostly appears black and white.

This discussion may seem to be about semantics and splitting hairs, but it is important because one thing becomes crystal clear if you think about it: digital black and white is about presentation and (unlike in the film era) does not correspond to an inherent limitation in the medium of capture. Digital black and white is virtual black and white—black and white in name only. The term “black and white” is shorthand for a style, aesthetic and mode of image preparation and presentation—and that’s how black and white is used in this column.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to my original question. Why would you limit your presentation to black and white? There are a number of possible answers to this question, but here are my leading contenders:

  • Black and white resonates with associations with the history of photography.
  • When people look at a modern black and white photo, they immediately assume you are serious about your work.
  • The simplicity inherent in many monochromatic images can create a very attractive visual aesthetic. Of course, the black and white look is not appropriate for all photos—a winter scenic is likely to work better in monochrome than an environmental portrait of a balloon seller at work.
  • In some situations, insurmountable problems with color “go away” when a photo is presented in black and white.
  • Self-limitation—such as presenting work only in black and white—can be very good for creative juices. For more on this topic, check out my column in the Becoming a More Creative Photographer series, Setting Limits.

Now that we’re clear on why serious modern digital photographers might want to present their work in black and white, let’s move on to how. The first steps are to understand the black and white conversion process—or workflow—and to adjust one’s visual thinking to the black and white image.

Black and White Workflow

Figure 2: The starkness of the winter patterns in this scene made it a natural for black and white presentation.

Here’s an overview of the workflow that I recommend:

  1. Consider the world in black, white and shades of gray (for example, winter landscapes like that shown in Figure 2). If you can’t find patterns—or striking graphics—that work in this limited palette then you probably shouldn’t shoot a photo with a black and white presentation in mind. True, I’ll sometimes decide after the fact that an image should be converted to black and white. But most of the time, great black and white images don’t just happen—they are the result of pre-visualization and planning.
  2. Shoot for black and white in the RAW format. Here, the specifics depend upon the image you have pre-visualized. For example, high key black and white photos usually call for overexposure and low key black and white images work best with underexposure.
  3. Since sensors don’t capture in black and white, it’s important to shoot in RAW so you aren’t throwing visual data away needlessly. Take advantage of the color data inherent in the RAW file before you convert to black and white. This may involve multiple RAW processing. You should plan to archive the color version of your photo before you begin converting it to black and white.
  4. Using Photoshop (see “Conversion Tools” later in this column) convert your color photo into black and white using more than one conversion technique because most of the time different processes are required for the different parts of your photo. Lightroom works very well for the preliminary stages of black and white conversion, but if you are working with different conversion techniques for different parts of your image you’ll probably want to take the photo into Photoshop to finish the job even if you start with Lightroom.
  5. Once the image has been converted to black and white, consider adding special effects—such as layers to lighten the image (for high key), darken the image (for low key), or toning.

Thinking in Monochrome

Figure 3: This subtle black and white composition works because of many gradations of gray tones in the photo.

The absence of color does not mean there is no color. Black and white is a choice—and this choice often calls attention to the color that is not there. A black and white image potentially shows a range from very white white to very black black. You won’t find these extremes in most color photos because pure white means highlight blowout, and absolute black is shadow without color details. Mostly, color photos don’t usually feature these values.

Thinking in black and white can mean thinking in contrasts. The building blocks of composition are shape, design and form. In black and white, these compositional elements appear with stark simplicity, and are often reduced to edges. Experienced black and white photographers know that creating, or emphasizing, the edge adds an element to a photo that cannot be present in a color image. Since life doesn’t often present us with hard edges between black and white to photograph, finding these edges requires effort. Look for one of the following:

  • Strong, interesting shadows: the shadows themselves may create a hard line between darkness and light.
  • Compositions that are monotonic: if color is already mostly absent, then it is likely you can add light, expose, or add post-processing effects to create high contrast imagery.
  • Extremes between brightness and shadow areas in a subject: if there are extremes between light and dark then a composition may lend itself to a high contrast black and white treatment.
  • Black and white subjects that present long gradations of gray, as in Figure 3.

Conversion Tools

Figure 4: Before converting this image of a chambered Nautilus shell to black and white in Photoshop, I took advantage of the color information in the RAW file to create a color version.

There are many ways to convert a color digital photo to black and white, range from the cheap and simple (and inflexible) to the more powerful and nuanced (but complex to use and expensive). Assuming you are a serious creative photographer there’s essentially an inverse ratio between the two scales of ease and low cost on the one hand, and beauty of the ultimate conversion on the other.

Most digital cameras will create black and white JPEGs for you without even having to transfer your photos to a computer, although you probably won’t be very happy with the results if you plan to show others your black and white work.

Inexpensive software like iPhoto and Picasa can do a reasonably credible job of black and white conversion, although these photos work best with JPEGs (rather than RAW) images, and do not provide a great many options for your black and white conversions.

Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), Lightroom and Photoshop provide the best tools for black and white conversion, generally in exactly that order of flexibility, power and complexity.

Adobe Camera RAW (ACR)

It’s easy to convert a RAW file to black and white using ACR. The first step is to open your RAW file in ACR, for example by double-clicking on it in Adobe Bridge. The Photoshop ACR plug-in will open.

On the Basic tab of the ACR window you can use the Temperature, Tint, Exposure, Contrast and Saturation sliders to enhance the color and contrast in the image.

When you are satisfied with how the image looks in color, open the HSL/Grayscale tab, located the fourth from the left of the ACR tabs and shown in Figure 5. Check the Convert to Grayscale box. The default settings on this tab simply drop the color information when the image is converted to grayscale.

Besides these default values you can tweak how the color data in the RAW file is applied in the grayscale conversion by playing with the sliders.
When you are pleased with your settings, click Done. The grayscale image will open in Photoshop. Note that you may need to convert the image to RGB in Photoshop to further enhance it.

Figure 5: I converted the image of winter reflections to black and white using the ACR HSL/Grayscale tab.


Sometimes used as a preliminary to Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom can be an excellent starting place for black and white conversions.

The easiest way to convert an image to black and white using Lightroom is to simply use one of the presets that are provided as part of the Lightroom grayscale conversion feature. This can be done using the Develop module or in the process of importing a RAW image into Lightroom. The available black and white presets are shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: The Lightroom Grayscale conversion presets are a convenient and effective way to convert many RAW images to black and white.

You get a bit more control of your conversion if you don’t apply a preset before bringing your photo into Lightroom. Once it’s in Lightroom, you can use the HSL/Grayscale tab in the Develop module (Figure 7) to determine the way in which the colors in your image are used to blend to grayscale.

Figure 7: As in ACR, you can use the color info in Lightroom to control the black and white conversion.

Photographers often deal with exposure situations in which part of a scene is considerably brighter than the other part. In the days before digital photography, I could have used a graduated neutral density filter to solve this kind of problem—for example, darker on upper part for the bright sky and lighter beneath for the dark earth.

If portions of the photo were still too dark or too light, they could be “burnt” or “dodged” in the darkroom. Burning made a print darker by exposing selected areas longer; dodging made the print lighter in selected places by withholding exposure of the enlarger from specific areas.

RAW photos in Lightroom can be adjusted for the kinds of exposure problems that were treated with graduated neutral density filters or burning and dodging quite easily using exposure gradients and/or the Adjustment brush.

To adjust the exposure of the top part of the image using a gradient, choose the Graduated Filter tool, found fourth from the left right under the Histogram. Choose the exposure adjustment you want. For example, to make the top part of the photo darker, choose a negative value for the Exposure slider.

Figure 8: By moving the exposure slider to the left, a negative exposure value is applied using a gradient.

Next draw a line on the image to represent the gradient. This will control how the change in exposure is applied, from most at the top of the line to least where you end the line. Note that you can view the impact of your changes in the main photo window of the Develop module, and adjust as necessary.

When your exposure adjustment is just right, click Close.

To darken or lighten specific areas in your photo as if you were burning or dodging, choose the Adjustment Brush (fifth from the left, right under the Histogram).

Lightroom Graduated Filters and the Adjustment Brush function a great deal like Photoshop layers—more precisely, like Photoshop adjustment layers. But if you really want to take advantage of the full power and precision of Photoshop layers and masking, you’ll need to bring your photo into Photoshop itself.

Fortunately, it’s easy to integrate Lightroom with Photoshop. You can use the streamlined workflow interface provided by Lightoom and then pull your work into Photoshop for the finishing touches.

The trick is to create different versions at different exposures settings. Lightroom makes it easy to create these different versions using the Photo > Create Virtual Copy command. Once the virtual copies have been edited, all three versions can be exported into a Photoshop layer stack. To do this, with the virtual copies selected in the filmstrip, from the Lightroom menu choose Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.

Black and White in Photoshop

Figure 9: I shot this flower in a vase on white, using overexposure for a high-key lighting effect. Then I added transparency in Photoshop.

One of the wonderful things about Photoshop is that there are always many ways to do anything. When it comes to black and white conversion, I’ve dubbed the situation “the good, the bad and the ugly”! Less facetiously, there can be enormous variation in the effect and impact of the different conversion techniques—which is why, as I’ve mentioned, I like to combine different black and white conversions of a single image into layers in a layer stack. The different layers are combined using layer masks, the Gradient Tool, and the Paint Brush Tool.

Photoshop is immensely powerful and flexible. This can make decisions seem complex because there are so many ways to accomplish anything that it’s hard to know which one to use. Except in very special circumstances I would always start with one of the more sophisticated black and white conversion methods

The simplest way to translate a color photo in Photoshop into black and white is to simply drop the color information. This can work reasonably well with images that are not high contrast, and where there isn’t much color information available in any case.
To convert to black and white by dropping the color information, you can simply do one of the following:

  • With an RGB image select Image > Mode > Grayscale (see the example of a conversion accomplished this way on the facing page)
  • With an RGB image select Image > Adjustments > Desaturate
  • Convert your image to LAB color, and drop the A and B channels

Note that you may need to convert the resulting grayscale image back to RGB to continue working on it.

Another pretty straightforward approach is to use the Color blending mode to combine the photo with a black layer. This can work well with photos that have strong blacks and whites in the color version.
More sophisticated black and white conversion methods in Photoshop include:

  • Using the Channel Mixer to specify the color mixture that will go into the black and white blend.
  • Using a Black & White adjustment layers (the presets settings that you can use are shown in Figure 10). Photoshop’s Black & White Adjustment layers combined into a layer stack are my most used conversion tool at this point.
  • Using a third-party black and white conversion filter, such as nik_silver-efex from NIK Software.

While I’m on the topic, a word about the Nik Silver Efex Pro filter pack. These filters work with both Lightroom and Photoshop. They provide a great many options, and quite a bit of creative control. If you are interested in black and white and can afford Silver Efex Pro, I certainly recommend the product.

However, Photoshop is expensive enough, and I am hesitant to recommend reliance on any additional third-party product. I use the Silver Efex filters a great deal in my black and white conversion work, but I’ve also found that I can do everything they can using Photoshop’s Black & White Adjustment layers. It may take a bit more work, as well as some post-conversion blending, but Black & White adjustment layers will also get you there.

Figure 10: Converting with a Black & White Adjustment layer in Photoshop offers many useful preset filters. You can start with a preset and tweak the sliders to get the precise effect you’d like.

Beyond the Monochromatic Conversion

Figure 11: Split toning adds to the effectiveness of this image.

Once you have a photo converted to black and white in Photoshop, it will come as no great revelation that there are many options for further creative expression. Some of the options that I cover in my Creative Black & White: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques book are:

  • Increasing high key and low key effects
  • Adding coloring
  • Creating a hand painted effect
  • Using the LAB color space to create striking inversions of black and white
  • Add a selective soft focus look
  • Adding virtual “solarization”
  • Duotone and tritone effects
  • Reducing and adding noise, and converting noise to simulated grain

I often like to finish my black and white images by adding a toned look. In the chemical darkroom, toning was achieved as part of the chemical process, the paper used, and when materials were exposed to light. In some cases, split toning was achieved because some tonal values were more sensitive to light than others.

In the Photoshop darkroom, virtual split toning can be achieved in a number of ways. The photo of winter in Yosemite Valley shown in Figure 11 is split toned so that the highlights are very lightly tinted sepia and the darker tones have more of a brown “wash” applied.

To achieve this effect, I selected the highlights in the image using Select > Color Range and choosing Highlights from the drop-down box. I then used a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to apply a light sepia tone to the highlight areas. Next, I repeated the process, with the highlights selection inverted, and used a slightly darker sepia tone.

As a final step, I lowered the opacity of both adjustment layers so the effect was subtle and not too pronounced.

HDR in Black and White

It may surprise you to know that HDR—High Dynamic Range—photography has a place in black and white. (For background information about HDR, see my column Creating HDR Images by Hand.)

HDR allows you to extend the tonal range of any image by combining multiple captures shot at differing exposures. You can use this technique even if you intend to convert your image for black and white presentation.

In my opinion, many HDR images that are generated by HDR software can look unattractive because of the color rendition. Obviously, HDR in black and white does not have this problem.

For example, I shot three images of the ornate and unused Capitolio Nacional in Havana, Cuba using a 10.5mm digital fisheye at .4 of a second, .6 of a second, and 1.3 of a second. All exposures were made at f/13 and ISO 100, using a tripod.

I ran the three images through Photomatix, a leading HDR program, and adjusted the tone curve as shown in Figure 12.

Figure 12: Photomatix allows you to combine captures to create a single HDR image.

With my HDR blend complete, I opened the combined file in Photoshop and converted to black and white using the Nik Silver Efex Pro High Structure filter—this filter acted to extend the dynamic range even further. The results are shown in Figure 13.

Note: this example is worked through in more detail in my Creative Black & White book.

Figure 13: HDR in black and white means not having to worry about garish color values.


You can learn more about the craft, aesthetics and art of digital black and white photography in my new book Creative Black & White: Digital Tips & Techniques. Click on the link to pre-order the book (available in the spring) and get 25% off the list price from Wiley or any of their affiliate partners.

This article has:

  • Explained why you might want to work in black and white
  • Observed that digital black and white images are likely not “really” black and white in the same sense as prints made from black and white film
  • Shown you my suggested workflow for making serious black and white images
  • Provided some guidelines for thinking in black and white
  • Discussed the range of black and white conversion tools available
  • Shown you how to convert to black and white in Adobe Camera RAW
  • Shown you how to convert to black and white in Adobe Lightroom
  • Discussed the range of black and white conversion tools available in Adobe Photoshop
  • Explained some of the post-conversion creative options available in Photoshop
  • Shown you an example of split toning in Photoshop
  • Provided an overview of HDR in black and white

Other Photoshop Tutorials

Creativity in the Photoshop Darkroom by Harold Davis: Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color

Advanced Photoshop Tutorials by Jay Kinghorn: Layer Masks | Smart Objects | Advanced Masking | Image Sharpening | Burning and Dodging


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text and photos ©2010 Harold Davis.

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    • Wonderful article on the basics, and well said. I have only one quibble, and as I teach the subject, I believe that understanding this point helps the student: digital camera sensors do -not- capture "in color." (ref: your paragraph beginning "Since sensors don’t capture in black and white ...") In fact, that's -all- they do. They capture in luminosity value (aka "black and white") with color filters, just as using a color filter over B&W film did. Channels (R, G, B) in Photoshop are not "colors" - they are the gray-scales for those values. And -that- is why you can use them to create a great looking B&W print. (You most likely know that, of course, but it didn't seem clear to me in the above.) Other that that bit, again: nice job! Best wishes, Tracy Valleau "Don't believe everything you think."
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    • I have this book on pre-order and am looking forward to studying Harold Davis’s techniques for converting raw digital files to monochrome images. Based on the author’s recently released book of, January, 2010, The Photoshop Darkroom, Creative Post-Processing, I know this will be an excellent book, well written-illustrated with clear, easily followed explanations of each of his several conversion techniques. If you do not already have a copy of The Photoshop Darkroom, I highly recommend getting a copy to study while waiting for, Creative Black & White: Digital Tips & Techniques. My guess is that these two texts will very much complement each other. Will Davidson
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    • Harold, Thanks for the great article. There is a small issue there: Figure 8 is a duplicate of Figure 7, showing HSL/Color/Grayscale LR dialog instead of ND filter exposure slider. Cheers, David
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    • Mr. Davis, As a Black and White photographer (this is the way I started in 1972 in Romania) and developing my own films and prints, I really appreciate your approach of this subject: black and white in the digital era.Now living in US for the last 26 years I enjoy very much so the journey of digital photograhy. Thank you very much for wonderful articles. Florin Sgondea
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    • Thanks Harold. This is one of the most comprehensive explanations I've read about the art form of B&W. This is a beautiful medium which is largely mis-understood within the photographic community. Nicely done sir!
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    • This is a very well-written and informative article. I haven't done much "monochromatic" photography of late, but this has inspired me to give it another go.
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    • This is great article and very well written. At Digital Silver Imaging, we are big fans of all things B&W and have switched all of our production at our lab over to Nik Silver Efex Pro. We are encouraged when we read articles that help photographers become more comfortable working in black & white. At the WPPI show in Vegas last week, I saw a lot more black & white images up in the booths and during some of the presentations. I think it goes beyond nostalgia and people are genuinely interested in the simple beauty of a good mono print. Thank you again!
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    • Thanks for the great article. Black & White in Photoshop CS4 and Lightroom Online book (full page) Link:
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    • Thank you soo much for a such a very well written article! I will be referring to this article again and am very keen to buy some of your books. If only the other contributing authors could write so clear and concisely from start to finish. All the right words used, Bravo!

      Andrew Graham 

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    • Great article and very interesting points.

      I shoot mostly underwater and I like to convert to B&W sometimes as I think it can add something special.

      The problem I have is with blue water backgrounds which when converted reveal horrible tone bars where the deep water is darker than the shallow water. I have tried a few methods, some of which work ok but nothing which seems to give me the smooth tones I would like.

      I would love to hear if you have any ideas!?


      Many Thanks


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    • Been looking for a book that covered the latest photoshop black and white techniques when I found your book at my local bookstore. Very Happy with it! Thanks!

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