Top tips for creating stunning black and white photos

If you’ve ever tried to convert an image to black and white, chances are you’ve ended up with a flat, dull photo with none of the original contrast. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially for photographers who are new to Photoshop.

To help you create stunning black and white images, I explain the key things to understand when shooting for black and white and also share my preferred method of converting images to black and white (this is also covered more in our Advanced Photoshop for Photographers course and also the Individual Photoshop Tools class).

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Black and white photography does require some post production work.

Black and white photography, when done correctly, can be incredibly striking, but to create truly stunning black and white images, it requires a bit more than simply adjusting the saturation slider in Photoshop.

One of the quickest ways to convert images to black and white is to completely desaturate the image. However, although easy, this method results in very flat, boring black and white images. My preferred method is to use the Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop.

I go into more detail about the advantages of this method as well as compare it to other techniques for converting to black and white in this Photoshop class, but first I’ll discuss what black and white photography is and how to get the best from your black and white images.

What is black and white photography?

As the name suggests, black and white photography is any image that consists of only black, white and grey tones. Often used interchangeably with the term ‘monochrome’, black and white refers to images that only contain grey tones, whereas monochrome images may use one colour only.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
A true black and white image, where the RGB values throughout the image are even.
Portrait by Tom Oldham
A monochromatic version of the same image with a selenium tone, where the blue and green values are higher than the black and white image.

What makes a good black and white photo?

Black and white photography can certainly look impressive, but it’s not suited to every genre of photography. For example, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see a black and white product shot of a women’s perfume, nor would you expect to see a black and white food image. Landscapes and wedding shots, on the other hand, lend themselves quite well to black and white photography.

Regardless of what your subject is, there are a few things worth keeping in mind if you plan to covert your images to black and white.

First of all, its important to learn to understand the difference between luminosity and colour. Luminosity refers to the perceived brightness or darkness of a hue, but to fully understand it, it’s important to understand hue, saturation and colour too.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
It's important to understand the difference between hue, saturation, colour and luminosity.

Hue refers to a specific colour on the colour spectrum. Saturation refers to the intensity of that hue, with 0% being grey and 100% being the purest colour. Any colour is therefore a combination of both hue and saturation, as well as some degree of luminosity.

Different colours at different hue and saturation levels, will therefore have different luminosity values. You can more clearly see the different luminosity values of different colours in the illustration below. From this you can see how the colour red, for example, may not work well on a dark background because of its low luminosity value, the same way a light blue subject on a white background may also not convert well.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Different colours at different hue and saturation levels will have different luminosity values, as seen here.

Below are two examples of images shot in colour, but you can see how the fashion image with the model in the red dress does not work well in black and white, whereas the model in the yellow dress does. This is because yellow has a much higher luminosity value than red and although it too is on a dark background, it stands out much more clearly.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Portrait by Tom Oldham
Portrait by Tom Oldham
Portrait by Tom Oldham

Seeing and understanding luminosity rather than colour can be difficult, especially if you're new to photography. However, you can also look out for scenes with high contrast, as these too will translate well into black and white.

To increase contrast, you can also use filters. Before digital, film was already adjusted to make the subject look good (you would generally use different films if you were shooting landscapes or portraits). However, it was still common practice to use a filter to further enhance the contrast. For example, if photographing a landscape where you wanted to accentuate the contrast between the bright blue sky and white clouds, a red filter would be used to cut out the blue light, therefore darkening it and increasing the contrast between the sky and clouds. Polarising filters could also be used to increase overall contrast.

Nowadays, shooting with DSLRs, our cameras are fine tuned to reproduce colour, which means we often have to do a lot more post processing to get good black and white images. Filters can still be used on camera, but another option is to apply preset filters in Photoshop.

Another thing to think about is your composition. With no colour to distract your viewer, elements like composition become much more important. It's important to keep in mind compositional rules such as the rule of thirds and look for things like leading lines and interesting textures.

Portrait by Tom Oldham
Leading lines are a strong element in this street photograph, helping to guide your eye to the subject walking down the street.

How to convert a photo to black and white

Now that you understand what makes a good black and white image, the next question is how do you create a black and white image.

In theory, simply desaturating an image will result in a black and white image, but it will result in a very flat, boring black and white image. When we think of good black and white images by famous photographers such as Ansel Adams or Peter Lindbergh, what you’ll immediately notice with their images is the high levels of contrast or rich tonal values. Simply desaturating images won’t give this result. To achieve the striking black and white imagery often associated with these artists involves slightly more work than simply moving a slider to the left.

As I mentioned earlier, my preferred method for converting images to black and white is to use Photoshop’s black and white adjustment layer. Although there are other methods, I find this offers the most control (especially when combining multiple layers and masking through them).

You can see exactly how to convert images to black and white using this method in this Photoshop tutorial here, as well as in this advanced Photoshop class with professional retoucher Viktor Fejes, but below is an outline of the steps.

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Portrait by Tom Oldham
The Black & White adjustment layer in Photoshop allows you to control individual colour channels in an image to get precise results.

1. Apply a black & white adjustment layer

In the adjustments panel, click the Black & White adjustment icon. Alternatively, go to Layer - New Adjustment Layer - Black & White. This will open a dialogue box and automatically apply a default greyscale conversion.

    2. Select a preset or adjust the colour sliders

    Next, you can either select from one of the preset options (this is where you can add filters, too) or  adjust the colour sliders to adjust the grey tones of particular colours in the image.

      3. Apply a tint

      Using the Black & White adjustment also allows the option for adding a tint to your images. To do this, simply check the ‘Tint’ box and select the colour tint you want to apply.

      Other ways to convert your images to black and white include simply desaturating the image or applying a Channel Mixer or Gradient Map adjustment. Again, I show you exactly how to use these adjustments in this black and white Photoshop class.

      I find using the Black & White adjustment layer somewhat easier than using the Channel Mixer or Gradient Map while still offering far greater control than simply desaturating the image. Whichever method you choose to use, you’ll achieve the greatest control by creating multiple layers and using masks to reveal particular areas of varying contrast (this is similar to using multigrade paper and printing techniques in the darkroom).

      Converting images to black and white in this way allows you to make very precise adjustments, but there are other, more automated ways using various websites or presets. Although these are quick and convenient, I’d always recommend taking the time to learn how to do this yourself. The points above should help you identify what makes a good black and white image and by following the steps outlined here (and by watching our tutorials), you’ll soon learn how to create your own amazing black and white photos.

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