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Black and White: A Photoshop Tutorial

Good morning scrappers! Tamara here back with your Monday morning Photoshop tutorial! I had planned on bringing you part two of the text on path tutorial..and I will in the weeks ahead…but as I was working so diligently this week, (well, maybe not diligently…more like playing around on Facebook)  I had a request from one of my very favorite designers (Mye)  to show her how to convert  a color photo to black and white. I figured, if Mye wanted to know how to convert a photo to black and white, you might want to know too!

If you have ever seen any of my layouts and pictures, you would know that Black and White photos are my ABSOLUTE favorite. There is something about taking away the colors in a photo that allows you to really see your subject, and sometimes, when you are dealing with a layout that is full of color, you don’t need to add MORE color with a photo, instead, you want to draw the attention to your photo by taking AWAY its color. The best way to do that is to convert it to black and white.

Of course, as we have discovered on almost every tutorial I have written, there is a ton of different ways to convert a photo to black and white! Converting a digital color photo into black and white goes WAY beyond simply desaturating the colors! In fact,  if we want our photos to appear more like those used in Black and White photography, then understanding HOW black and white conversions work so that you can make a better choice in converting them is something that EVERY photographer/scrapper should know!  If you simply desaturate a photo without taking into account the image’s original color you may lose any artistic message you could create with the photo and may even create an image that appears washed out or lacking in tonal range.  And you thought black and white photos were just photos without color right??

In all actuality, black and white photographers and those of us who convert to black and white digitally, actually have to be attentive to the type and distribution of color in their subject. Photographers control the color in their photos by using color filters on their camera lenses. Color filters are used by photographers to decide which colors will produce the brightest and the darkest tones. Converting a digital color photo into black and white uses the same principles as with color filters in film photography,but,  instead of using filters on our camera to determine the brightest and darkest tones, we use the RGB color channels in our Photoshop or like programs. The best Black and white conversions will allow you full control of the three RGB (red, green, blue) channels, so that you can make your photo shine!  Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used conversion tools in Photoshop! (adobe)

Probably the most  often used way to convert color photos to black and white photo is to Desaturate the colors. In Photoshop, this is accomplished by going from Image > Adjustments > Desaturate or choosing the Hue/Saturation adjustment level and sliding the Saturation slider to the left to remove the color from the photo. Desaturating the colors in an image is the simplest type of conversion. You can use this option in both Photoshop CS and PSE versions, however, this, to me, is the worst choice for converting your photos because it  does not allow for user control over how the primary colors combine to produce a given grayscale brightness. When you choose to convert to black and white by using this method, it leaves your black and white photo washed out and flat.

Hue/Saturation conversion

Another popular  way to convert a photo to black/white is  by going to your Adjustment layer icon in your layers panel (the black/white circle) and selecting the Black/White feature. This feature is only available in Photoshop CS versions, but Photoshop Elements has a similar feature found at the top of the workstation under Enhance>Convert to Black and White. The Black & White command lets you convert a color image to grayscale while still giving you full control over how individual colors are converted. This is a good option if you understand the way the color filters work because it allows you to use the sliders to adjust your photo.   If you are wanting to add a color to your photo as well as converting it to black and white, this is also a good option as it will allow you to select a tint and apply it while you are working with the color filters.

 Black and White conversion in CS5

Black and white option with tint applied

The channel mixer tool  is probably the best tool when it comes to creating your black and white photos, however, it is also one of the hardest to master! It definitely takes some time to figure out how to adjust your photo properly using the slider keys, but it allows the user to control how much each of the three color channels (red, green and blue) contribute to the final grayscale brightness. To use the Channel Mixer tool, go to  Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer in Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop PSE does not offer this tool, however I did read that GIMP offers this option for all of it’s users. In order to use the Channel Mixer to convert your photo to Black and white, you need to make sure that you click on the  box entitled “Monochrome” first. You can also choose the Adjustment layer icon in your layers panel and select the Channel Mixer option from the drop down list.

Once you have opened up the channel mixer, the world of black and white photography is at your fingers.  You can use the presets that are available in the drop down menu of the adjustments panel or, you can play with the sliders and discover what numbers will make your photo shine. A note to remember when dealing with the channel mixer is this: The sum of the red, green, and blue percentages need to equal 100% in order to maintain a constant brightness, although overall brightness can also be adjusted by using the “Constant” slider at the bottom. I always set my beginning numbers as follows:  red=30%, green=59% and blue=11% because these are the numbers that best mimic the human eye’s perception of luminosity. If however, it needs some adjusting, you can move your sliders back and forth. Just remember that if you move one slider and it reduces your overall total (found underneath the three sliders) then you will need to move another slider to increase it back to 100%.

Just by playing with the presets, you can see here how it affects the overall image.  In the photo below, I chose the Black and White with Blue Filter preset.

In this photo, I chose the Black and White with Red Filter Preset:

 and in this one, I chose the Black and White with Green Filter preset:

Isn’t it amazing the difference the difference the channel choice can make on the photo? If I was going to choose a preset to go with, it would definitely be the green one! The blue filter left her looking muddy and without contrast; the red filter left her looking totally washed out and actually she lost some of her features; the green filter, however,  gave her just the right amount of contrast and interest to make her look JUST RIGHT! ( hmmm…I think that kind of sounded like Goldilocks and the three bears right there didn’t it?)

The final way I am going to show you today, and the way that I use the most, is the Gradient Map tool.  We have discovered some of the many ways to convert an image from color to black-and-white in Photoshop, and, like some of the other tools we discussed, the Gradient Map gives you a lot of control over how your image is converted. The great thing about the Gradient Map is that not only can you use it to convert your color photo to black and white, but you can also use it to colorize your black-and-white photo or to change the colors in your color photo!  I love a tool that is versatile…let’s just say it is the MOTHER of all tools! 🙂

You can apply a Gradient Map by using an adjustment layer. Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Gradient Map or by clicking on the  adjustment layer icon in your layers panel and selecting Gradient Map (it is located at the bottom of the drop down menu–DO NOT CHOOSE GRADIENT) The way the Gradient Map adjustment layer works is by altering the photo by applying a gradient of color to your photo depending on the tones in the image.  That means that where the photo is darker the tones at the left of the gradient are applied and where the photo  is lighter the tones at the right of the gradient are applied. The midtones are colored with the color in the middle of the gradient.

Once you have made your choice, the Gradient Map dialog box will appear.  By default, your gradient map uses the current foreground and background colors, so if your foreground and background colors where not set at default, you will need to click on the gradient map in the Adjustments window. A Gradient Picker box will appear and you can then select the Black to White gradient ( third from the left).  Your color photograph should now be converted to black-and-white.

Now remember I told you that using the Gradient Map offers us a lot of of control over how the image is converted? Well, now is the time to show you what I mean!  Since we are working with a gradient that affects the tones of our photo, if we change the gradient, we can affect what parts of the image go to black and which parts go to white.

Let me show you what I mean.

Here is the photo that I just converted to Black and White using the Gradient Map tool:

To adjust the way the gradient is applied, we need to double click on the adjustment layer and then click again on the gradient to open the Gradient Editor box.When you look at the box, you can see the gradient bar located under the Presets. It should look like the gradient and go from black to white.  At each of the four corners, there are four arrows that are called Stops.  If you add more stops to the gradient bar, you can adjust how the colors are applied. So,  if you add a second black stop to the right of the first one, you are now telling Photoshop that everything that is within that range of the two stops is now going to be considered black.
By adjusting the midpoint marker between two stops you can control how the gradient transitions from one color to the next. (to add a marker, use your mouse to point at the area you want to add the point to and click. Then, in the box that is under the arrow, click and add the color you are looking to change (black, white or gray)
Here is the photo I applied the gradient Map to:
and here is the one that I adjusted using the Gradient Editor Box:
The contrast is greater, the blacks are blacker, the whites are whiter and the transitions are a little softer!  It is just how I love my black and White photos!
As you may recall, not only does the Gradient map change your photo to black and White, but it also adds color TO your black and white photo! To apply a color gradient to an image to give it a more creative look, first, flatten your new black and white image. Then apply another gradient map just as we did earlier. This time however, we can either add one of the preset gradients or we can customize one to our liking.
Lets start by showing you how to use a preset gradient. Just as you did before, click on the gradient to get to the Gradient Editor box. Instead of leaving the gradient as black and white, this time, we are going to add a color preset. To do this, locate the small arrow to the right of the Presets and click on it to reveal a drop down menu. At the Bottom of the menu under the Replace Gradients choice, is a listing of all your different Gradients.
I chose the Color Harmonies 2 Selection and the selected the Orange Yellowgradient.  DO NOT BE ALARMED when you first convert your photo gradient. It will look pretty scary!
As with any adjustment layer, you can change the setting of the blend mode to achieve a better looking photo! That, along with changing the opacity of the layer, will give you the look of a tint on your photo.
For a sepia toned photo, I changed the mode to Soft Light and decreased the opacity of the adjustment layer to 20%
Soft Light Mode Opacity 20%
If you want your photo to appear like it has a haze to it…like the vintage photos, change the layer mode to Screen.
Screen Mode set to 20%
and if you want to add a bit more color and contrast, change your mode to Overlay:
Overlay mode set to 20%
And that is it! A quick and easy way to turn your color photos into beautiful black and white photos!  I hope you enjoyed the tutorial this week, and I will see you back here next Monday!

comments +

  1. Mye says:

    Love this tutorial, Tamara! I enjoyed the way it was done with the gradient map. I was sooo used to doing it the “desaturate” way until you showed me it can be done better!
    Thanks for sharing this to our dear readers 🙂

  2. Edna says:

    WOW! Tamara. I love this tutorial. Thank you for telling us about this great tool in photoshop.

  3. […] Black and White: A Photoshop Tutorial – 1 freebie(s)? […]

  4. […] our  beautiful layouts, but to improve the photos that we are scrapping! Last week I showed you how to convert your photos to black and white which is one way to drastically change your photo, but using the Filters in your program are […]

  5. jg says:

    fabulous tutorial. thanks!

  6. […] Girl”. It’s hard to look tough in a blue uniform and a pink bat. However, by converting the photo to black and white, you don’t see all that color, you see her expression and the way she is holding the bat and […]

  7. […] Colors – consider your photos and the kit that should go along with it. If you are not sure about the photo but like to use a particular kit, you can always turn the photos to black and white. […]

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I'm Mye De Leon

I'm a mom with a desire to give the best for her family and turned a lettering hobby into a multi6-figure business. These days, I eat strategy for breakfast and turn other businesses into successful empires.

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I'm Mye


My business is to help your business generate more revenue so you can be who you want to be.

I'm Mye


My business is to help your business generate more revenue so you can be who you want to be.