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Stand out in style by creating digital black & white images

Added on Tuesday 15th of March 2011 10:33 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows



The process of creating a high-quality digital black and white image presents a number of confusing options. We’ll eliminate the confusion by explaining these options and show you how to best use them to produce an amazing final image.


To help you understand the various methods for creating a digital black and white image, we’ll:

•  Explore the technical and aesthetic reasons to create black and white images.

•  Review the various methods of converting color images to black and white.

•  Use our preferred method to convert a color image example to black and white.

•  Apply a tone to our black and white image for added visual interest.



Black and white photography is exciting for many reasons. It has many looks—of history, of style, and even the face of gritty reality. Using black and white helps to remove visual clutter from photos and is just plain pleasant to look at. In addition, black and white images stand out with style in a world of color photos that often look ordinary. Let’s first take a look at a few reasons why black and white images stand out from color photos. Then, let’s see how to obtain digital black and white images from both in-camera processing and software conversions. 


Vive black and white

Consider a color image, as shown in Figure A. The viewer might think to himself, “Look at those brown, dead leaves,” instead of focusing on the tree’s beauty. Notice, how the conversion to black and white, as shown in Figure B, changes the feel of the image.





In color, a photo may look like a normal snapshot, as shown in Figure C. Notice how your eye races around the image from the bright blue sky to the bright pink clothing in the background. Most of what’s grabbing your attention in the photo is based on its color. After a black and white conversion, as in Figure D, you look more at the interesting shapes and details of the image.







Another area where black and white photography shines is portraiture. Black and white has a smoothing effect on skin tones. It lets you take in the features of a subject, as shown in Figure E, without your brain working overtime on such things as hair color, and eye color.



You may wonder why else you should consider black and white imaging. The creative control and fun you can have with the final image is fantastic. After taking a color image, you typically perform basic adjustments to color and brightness to make the photo look natural. With a black and white image, however, you can jump right in and make the image look dramatic not just better, as shown in Figure F. Let’s now examine several ways of obtaining digital black and white images.



Use your digital camera in black and white mode

If you’ve never created a digital black and white image before, you can get started by choosing the black and white mode (sometimes B/W mode or something similar) from your camera. Nikon’s placing the black and white settings with the saturation controls is understandable since these images are really the same as your normal photograph but with the color information removed.



TIP: As you are getting started learning to visualize how a scene will look in black and white, let your camera help you by choosing the B/W mode. This should switch your LCD viewfinder to monochromatic and you’ll get an idea of how the final image will look.





Note: The saturation of an image is the intensity of its color. A desaturated color image can then be called a black and white, grayscale, or monochromatic (i.e. one-color—Black) image. An example of the opposite, a very saturated color image would be a rich, blue sky on a summer day.



Use image-editing software

Although it’s a simple thing to take a black and white image using the black and white mode, it isn’t the best way. Like any of the automatic settings on your camera, letting go of too much image control can decrease image quality.

If you look at your surroundings now, you’ll see many different colors in the scene composed of reds, greens, and blues. Typically one subject color dominates. An outdoor scene, for example, may be composed mostly of green colors. Because your camera doesn’t know which color dominates, it removes color from everything equally when it converts an image to black and white. Even though your camera may use advanced formulas for black and white conversions, nothing matches your eye for detail and your brain for decision-making. Let’s examine several ways you can do this.


Go from okay to wow!

The main reason for shooting in color and later converting to black and white is that it leaves all of your options open. You’ll always be able to use the image in color, while still making unlimited variations of blacks and whites from the file as well. There are numerous ways to do this, but we have a favorite. However, let’s take a look at some of your options first.

One way is to switch the image mode from color to grayscale using an application such as Photoshop. Another way is to desaturate or reduce your image saturation to zero. But these options are only a little better than allowing your camera to make the black and white conversion for you. 

A third way, which is our preferred method, is to use the complete color information stored in an image’s color channels. Since this is a more complex technique, let’s take a closer look at how the channels in your image work.




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