How to create black and white photos with a DSLR camera

A photo... without color! Photo copyright Adam Geitgey

What is a black and white photo anyway?

This might seem like a dumb question, right?  Obviously a black and white picture is a color picture... just without the color.  But it's not that simple!

Look at this photo of a yellow butterfly in front of a red background ground:

In color, the natural contrast between red and yellow makes the butterfly stand out clearly from the background.  But in black and white, you don't have contrasting colors.  If we turn this into a black and white print, what shade of gray should represent red and what shade of gray should represent yellow?  There are a lot more colors than shades of gray, so it is up to you to decide how to covert colors to grays.  And your choices have a huge impact on the final image.

If you convert red and yellow into very similar shades of gray, you will get a muddled mess:

In this image, there is no separation between the butterfly and the background.  Everything blends together.

By simply choosing different shades of gray to represent the original colors, we can get a very different result:

In this photo, the butterfly stands out from the background and is clearly the subject of the shot.

The point is that turning a color photograph into black and white is an art that takes practice.  It's not something as simple as clicking "make black and white" in a program.  If that is what you are doing, then you are doing it wrong.  Read on to find out how to do it right

Step 1: Choose a photo

Not every color image is going to be interesting in black and white.  Typically, black and white images are interesting because of texture and contrast of light and dark.  Images that depend on color for their impact are not going to be good in black and white.  A perfect example of a poor subject for black and white is a sunset:

This image is interesting because of the color.  The yellows, reds, and purples look great.  The colored lights on the ship add a nice touch.  But let's try this in black and white:

Wow, that's a crappy shot!  Without the color, there is nothing much going on.

Instead, try to find images with motion and texture.  People also make good subjects for black and white.

Photo copyright Adam Geitgey

This photo works in black and white because it has light and dark textures and motion.  It wasn't depending on color for impact.

Step 2: Convert to black and white

Now that you've picked a photo, let's explore different ways of converting it!

Option 1: Very bad - Convert to Grayscale or Desaturate

The most obvious way to convert an image to black and white is also the worst.  Never ever load an image into Photoshop and select "Make Grayscale".  Similarly, don't use the "Desaturate" option in Photoshop.  Both do basically the same thing - they remove the color in the simplest way possible.  They give you absolutely no control and the results are often terrible.

This is a terrible idea.

Just don't do it!

Option 2: Good, but harder - Photoshop's Channel Mixer

Photoshop (and similar programs like The GIMP and Paintshop Pro) has a tool called the "Channel Mixer."  This tool allows you to create a black and white image by mixing the "channels" of an image.

In a standard image (such as an RGB jpeg file), each pixel in the image is made up of red, green, and blue components mixed together.  All the colors you see are made by mixing those three primary colors.  By using the Channels window in Photoshop, you can see each of these color components separately:

Every color image can be viewed as separate channels.

Notice how the "Blue" channel is darker around the head of the butterfly while the "Red" channel has a little more separation there.  By using the Channel Mixer, we create our final image by mixing percentages of each of these original channels:

To use the channel mixer:

  1. Click the "Monochrome" check box at the bottom.  This tells Photoshop that you want to make a black and white image.

  2. Adjust the Red, Green, and Blue sliders to control how much of the each channel ends up in the final image.  Make sure the sum of all three percentages adds up to 100%.

  3. Also, try using the "Preset" drop down to try different present mixes. Notice how each present makes your final image look different.

  4. When you are happy with the mix, click Ok.

The advantage of the Channel Mixer is that it gives you great control over the output.  If you are an expert with the Channel Mixer, you can even play around with different image modes like LAB color for even more control.  But that is another article.

The disadvantage is that it is a pain to use and takes a lot of practice.  If you don't make black and white images often, you are just as likely to make something bad with the Channel Mixer as you are to make something good.

Luckily, we now have even better options!  Read on.

Option 3: Very Good - Photoshop's Black and White Adjustment Layer

More recent versions of Photoshop (CS3, CS4 and newer) have added the ability to put a Black and White "Adjustment Layer" over your image.  This gives you the control of the Channel Mixer tool but it doesn't permanently alter your image.  Since it is a layer, you can always tweak the settings up until you make a final print.

Adding a Black and White Adjustment Layer works just like adding any other Photoshop Adjustment Layer.  Click on the Adjustment Layers icon on the Layer palette and choose Black and White:

Once you have added the Adjustment layer, you'll see the Black and White options dialog:

It works almost exactly like the Channel Mixer, but with a few extra options.  Here is how to use it:

  1. Adjust the Red, Green, and Blue sliders to control how much of the each channel ends up in the final image.  You can also control Cyans, Blues, and Magentas the same way.  Make sure the sum of all six percentages adds up to 100%.

  2. Also, try using the "Preset" drop down to try different present mixes. Notice how each present makes your final image look different.

  3. The "Tint" option lets you add a color tint to your final image for that "old-timey" sepia effect.

  4. When you are happy with the mix, click Ok.

If you have CS3 or newer, there's really no reason not to go ahead and use the Black and White Adjustment Layer instead of the Channel Mixer.  Unless you are doing something very unique (like mixing LAB channels), the Adjustment Layer gives you all that the Channel Mixer gives you with the ability to go back later and tweak the effect at any time.

Option 4: Very, Very Good - Lightroom's Grayscale Mixer

Lightroom provides it's own version of Photoshop's Black and White Adjustment Layer.  In Lightroom, it's called the Grayscale Mixer.  This gives you the ability to mix channels like Photoshop but it's integrated into the Lightroom workflow saving you lots of time.

The tool is located in the Develop module towards the bottom:

This tool works exactly like the Channel Mixer and Black and White Adjustment Layer options in Photoshop except that it gives you 8 color channels to mix.  That gives you slightly more control.

However, it also lacks some of the convenience of Photoshop.  It doesn't tell you the sum of the color percentages, so you don't know when you've hit 100% without doing a little mental math.

On the positive side, it's tied into the Lightroom preset system.  That means that you can store presets easily and apply them to any image.  Also, it is integrated into the Lightroom history system, so you can always go back and make tweaks until you make a final print.  Finally, it is really easy to apply a black and white effect to one photo and then cut and paste that effect to a large range of photos.

As long as you can find an effect that you like using the Grayscale Mixer, you should get great results.  The ability to quickly apply the same effect to a range of photos while still being able to make tweaks to individual photos really makes this a great option for processing a large photo shoot.

Option 5: Great - Nik Software's Silver Efx Pro

The best solution I have ever seen for creating great black and white images is a software package from Nik Software called Silver Efx Pro.  Silver Efx Pro is a plug-in for Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture that allows you to convert an image to black and white quickly and with amazing results.

Please note that I have no business relationship with Nik Software and get no benefit from recommending it.  Silver Efx Pro is just so good that I can't ignore it.

Silver Efx Pro is very easy to use.  Once you open it, your image will be in the center and all of the different presents will be in a strip along the left:

Just click on each preset to see your image in that style.  If you find a style you like, you can use the controls on the right to fine-tune your image.

Creating a black and white image in Silver Efx Pro could not be easier:

  1. Click on each preset until you find the look that you want.  There are many presents to choose from.

  2. Use the "Color Filter" to control which colors in your original image stand out in the final black and white image.  Just click on each color filter until you find the result that you like the most.  This is especially important in images where there are large areas of single colors.

  3. If one part of your image is too dark or too light, use the "Control Point" tool to add a new control point.  Each control point can brighten or darken one specific area of your image.  This is great for brightening up a face to give it emphasis or darkening a bright and distracting background element.

  4. That's it!  Click Ok and you are done.

I used a control point to make sure the playing card in the foreground was brighter than the white sign behind it. Photo copyright Adam Geitgey.

Extra Credit

If you come from the film world or are a fan of old grainy photos, you might be looking for a way to get a true "film look" with digital black and white photos.  If that's the case, you may want to explore a little further.

Silver Efex Pro has some basic film settings, but another plug-in called the DxO FilmPack is specifically designed to mimic different types of film.  It allows you to choose from a wide range of film simulations to get anything from a gritty 1970s look to a modern art look.

Three other similar film simulation programs worth trying are Alien Skin Exposure, AndyPRO, and ImageNomic RealGrain.  All of these applications have free or time-limited demo versions, so try them all until you find something that lets you get exactly the film grain look that you want.

Play around!

Now that you now how to choose a good image and convert it to black and white, go try it out!   Use every different method mentioned here once and decide which makes the most sense to you and gives you the best results.

Also, try combining other techniques you have learned with black and white processing - long exposures, panoramics, etc.

Have fun!

It's a black and white panorama!