Rekindling the Romance of Black and White, Part Three: A Walk in the Park

This is part three; the final installation in this series. Before I talk about converting color digital to black and white, you should appreciate how different the monochromatic (black and white) photo process is today compared to what it was in days past. For those of us who lived and produced monochromatic prints in the film years, today’s digital process is a walk in the park by comparison.

35mm-dev-tankBack in the days of silver halide film photography, black and white photos were either shot on black and white film or shot on color negative film converted to black and white prints in the photo lab. By far, the most successful B/Ws were shot on B/W film. Professional photographers in the film days always carried both B/W and Color film on assignment. Not only did they carry multiple kinds of film, each of the films were kept in a refrigerator to preserve the “freshness” of the silver halide. Color film came in two general types; color negative and reversal (slide transparency) film.
MinoltaThe silver halide days of processing color photos for monochrome prints offered little control over the tonal shape or internal contrast in the process. This process required a color negative to be mounted in an enlarger and projected onto panchromatic (emulsion sensitive to all colors of light) photo paper in total darkness. Typical black and white print paper (orthochromatic) could be processed under typical dim red safelights.

Dodging-BurningOnly the most basic dodging and burning (literally funneling the light through a hole formed by your hand, or card) could influence the exposure. The exposed paper was then processed in a temperature-controlled development solution under a very dim amber light for a very specific time.

The result was far from an creative effort and afforded very little artistic expression. Honestly, converting a color photo to black and white was a rare experience and a pain in the neck. If you wanted predictable black and white results, you shot B/W film.

But digital photography is quite different indeed. All photography is shot in color and the conversion to black and white is truly an artistic endeavor rather than a dreaded process. In truth, the latitude and controls afforded with digital photography is much more creative than film ever was, even with the most elaborate lab equipment and in the best facilities.

durstlabrator.0I was fortunate to own three to-die-for photo labs in my career and loved every minute, but could never have produced the kind of results that I enjoy today. But while producing digital black and white prints is a relatively simple process, producing great black and white results takes skill and understanding. The best black and white prints are produced by those who understand the science of color and light.

There are various RAW interpreter software packages on the market that afford tremendous conversion controls (Camera Raw, Lightroom, On1 Photo Raw 2018, Alien Skin Exposure 3, etc.). The nearly exhaustive number of chromatic tools provide control over the entire spectrum of colors that translate into gray values.

Processing. I’ll present one conversion process using Photoshop’s Black and White palette and Shadows/Highlights controls first, then, I’ll describe basic RAW processing using Adobe Camera Raw software. Since the adjustments found in CR can be achieved similarly within most other RAW interpreters, you’ll get the idea.

Individual colors can be boosted and diminished to influence the internal contrast of the black and white result. Virtually EVERY photo is unique, so consider the individual color makeup of each image as you make your adjustments. Color becomes contrast in B/W.

1) Photoshop

Black and White: This is a general color/tone shaping adjustment that lets you develop internal contrast using the image’s color channels. Within this very powerful interpreter, each color can be tuned to a specific gray range, giving you to the total control over how each color is transposed into the monochromatic mode.

PS-Black and White menuPS-Black and WhiteUsing the individual primary (RGB) and secondary (CMY) color sliders, you can determine the gray tones. Make good use of the Preview checkbox to see how your interpretation compares to the original RGB colors. This step puts you in control of the conversion process and gives you the power to shape your black and white images. Once you’re happy with how the colors transpose to tones, click OK to produce the basic monochromatic conversion. This will cement the basic conversion process, but you won’t be finished quite yet.

PS Shadows and Highlights

Shadows/Highlights. The overall tonal range of the resulting monochrome image probably won’t be ideal; there are two more major controls to shape your black and white conversion into a monochromatic masterpiece. Remember, detail is all about internal contrast, and these additional Photoshop tools (Highlights/Shadows and Levels) will deliver all the control you need.

This amazing group of sliders allow you to adjust the internal portions of the shadows (darkest tones), the highlights (lightest tones), and the middle tones, all in one dialog. This will form the internal contrast but will still require a final setting of the lightest and darkest points in the picture. That will be accomplished with the Levels dialog.

BlackGammaWhiteLevelsThe final touch is determined by the Levels  command. There will be no need to adjust the middle (Gamma) slider since all the internal contrast will have been set by the Shadows/Highlights control. These two outside controls should be set visually. There is no right or wrong with this setting, it is a matter of personal taste. Don’t be afraid to “invade” either side of the graph slightly to achieve the level of depth and contrast you desire.

2) Camera Raw

Basic Panel: Black & White: This conversion method is similar to Photoshop’s version of the tool but inside Camera Raw, all adjustments can be accomplished and previewed while the original image is still in color. The three basic adjustments for Monochromatic conversions, and all three can be interactively adjusted at will. These three tool bins can be accessed by three mini-icons located just below the histogram graph. These bins include Basic (Black and White), Tone Curve, and Black and White Mix. You can preview ALL three adjustments before exporting (opening) the final monochromatic conversion in Photoshop. Even after the conversion, the file can be reopened in Camera Raw for readjustment and reassignment of tones.

Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.37.27 PMScreen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.36.44 PM   Screen Shot 2018-04-19 at 4.34.46 PM.pngWe’ll start opening a color image in Camera Raw and choosing the Black & White radio button near the top of the Basic panel.

Camera Raw’s Basic Black and White sliders shape your tone curve. Photographically speaking, there are five major tone regions in every image; Blacks, Shadows (three-quarter tones), middle tones, Highlights (quarter tones), and Whites. Each region is controlled by the named slider except for the middle tones, which are affected by the Exposure and Contrast sliders.

Tybee Window S-SThe Tone Curve delivers additional tone shaping capabilities by allowing you to determine the latitude of the tonal regions. These regions are labeled in a straightforward way, Highlights, Lights, Darks, and Shadows.

Flower-framed window Flower-framed windowCR

The Black and White Mix panel provides the typical additive and subtractive colors of Reds, Greens, Blues, Cyans, Magentas, and Yellows, and offers an additional two color channels that affect the conversion process: Purples and Aquas. The same Mix panel sliders that serve as the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) adjustments for color pictures, serve as the color conversion channels for Black & White. While the image editing process displays a monochromatic view of the color image, tapping the “P” key at any time will allow you view the original color image as a reference.

BountyColorizeIf you wish, you can open the Hue/Saturation dialog to convert your Black and White image to a toned image. Simply check the Colorize checkbox at the bottom of the dialog and adjust to please. Be careful, it is quite to overdo the color. Remember intent of tinting is to add depth to the image and break the monotony of purely black and white.

Get serious about learning photography and then stay focused. Invest in yourself and determine to understand the process. Sign up for the regular blog series by entering your email address at the top-right corner of this page.

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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