Rekindling the Romance of Black and White, Part Two: Photoshop

The thrill of romance wanes when we fail to appreciate uniqueness and recognize differences. When we downplay distinctive traits, the spark of romance gradually mellows and we settle for the bland and predictable. Instead of identifying and appreciating those small differences, amplifying distinctions that stimulate the senses, we settle for what is merely tolerable, and we end up with boring.

I’m not talking about human relationships here, I’m talking about black and white conversions from color images. When color is transposed into monochrome, billions of colors are reduced to a couple-hundred monochromatic steps. It doesn’t take a genius to see that with this transition something can easily be lost in the translation. But if we handle it correctly, we can exchange color for detail, drama, and power.

Look closely at the images below. While the color picture is colorful but the monochrome image presents an additional level of drama.

Hawaii Lava Rocks +

For the sake of this post, I’ll refer to B/W as Monochrome. There are only 256 tones between black and white in this photo, but this reduced number is actually a benefit. Detail is the result of internal contrast control, NOT sharpening. When you control the contrast, you control the detail. Distinguishing individual tones in the shadows and the highlights creates detail.

Hawaii Lava Rocks

Notice that as an RGB image, you have a minimum of 16.8 million colors/tones. Making a distinction between all those colors is a real challenge. The very nature of overlapping red, green, and blue channels reduces the visual distinction. While the “dynamic range” is much larger in color than in B/W, the “dynamic distinction” is much harder to achieve.

The intent and purpose for this Black and White series of posts is to showcase the power of contrast and edginess possible with monochromatic images; an exchange of subtile color for detail and drama. You’ll learn that sometimes color can actually diminish detail instead of enhancing it. Because color is inherently lacking in dynamic contrast, the transitions between tones is much more gradual. This may work well for subtle beauty, but if the colors present little contrast, the photo will present little visual detail.

Photoshop Black and White Conversions. There are a number of ways to convert color pictures to monochrome in Adobe Photoshop as well as a number of RAW software products. Photoshop offers a number of ways to transpose colors to tones of gray, commonly known as Grayscale. In this post I’ll present four powerful processes available in Photoshop. In the next post, I’ll dive into the RAW Interpreter methods.

PS-Black and White

Black and White Panel. All six primary and secondary color channels can be lightened and darkened by the sliders in this panel. Only the luminance of each color can be adjusted here but the Preview checkbox allows you to reference the original color image while you adjust each color’s effect on the grayscale. Increasing or decreasing of each color channel affects the corresponding gray tones. The Hue slider at the bottom has a profound effect on the overall monochrome image though the Saturation control has very little effect. All of the sliders have influence over the interpretation of the grayscale conversion.

PS Channel Mixer

Channel Mixer Panel. This panel provides interesting (Red, Green, Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Infrared-filtered interpretations of the color image. While both the Black and White and the Channel Mixer panels render the file as a grayscale image, each produces very interesting results. Once the color influence has been established, further tonal controls can be made in the Shadows/Highlights dialog.


HDR Toning. HDR Toning provides many controls over the image’s color and shape. While primarily a color tonality tool, once other adjustments are made, simply dial back all the Saturation (bottom-most slider) and you have a unique monochromatic image.


PS Shadows and HighlightsShadows/Highlights Panel. Shadows/Highlights dialog from the Image/Adjustment menu. Shadows: the top three sliders allow you to lighten and shape the Shadows (the darkest parts of the image). Highlights: the next three sliders let you affect the internal contrast within the Highlights (the lightest parts of the image).

Adjustments: Since this image is now grayscale, the Color slider will have no effect, though the Midtone slider will have a major effect on the overall contrast. Don’t change either the Black Clip or the White Clip since we will address both the Black point and White point next.

Any one (or even combinations of all) of these workshop areas can be employed. If additional contrast and middle tone adjustments are needed, the trusty Levels dialog can provide the finishing touches.

Levels Panel. Graph vs Index HistogramThe Levels panel is where we set the darkest and lightest tones in the image.

PS Levels

I’ll cover additional methods of producing very rich black and white prints from digital image files in subsequent posts. Stay tuned. That’s the way I sees it. Let me know what you think.

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If you’d like to understand even more of what makes color work, how light behaves, and how easy it is to shape the light in your photographic images, go to and get Bright About Light!

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know
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