Every photographer seems to have their own way of converting their digital photographs into black & white depending on their style. I write this tutorial as a way to offer you just one way of doing it, certainly not the only way or the right way. I should also say that I like my black & white photographs to be just that…black and white. I suppose you could call it “high key” which not everyone likes. High key means that the image is high contrast or even over-exposed. So if you don’t like that kind of image, you may want to tone things down, but don’t worry, I hope this tutorial will show you that it’s easy to adjust to your own taste. I have a number of different things that I do to create different effects in my images but this is what I do when I just want to keep it plain and simple.
These instructions should be straightforward enough for a novice photoshop user although it presumes you’ve used Photoshop before and know a few of the terms like Layers and Opacity. No filters are used, just basic settings that should be in all versions of Photoshop (although I’m not sure about Elements since I’ve never used it).
So, without anymore faff and disclaiming, fire up Photoshop and give this a go:
1. I’ve chosen this photograph of my baby brother Peter, mostly to cause him some embarrassment (hey bro!) but also because this is a portrait I think will look good in black & white…not all photographs do. Generally I like to choose images that already have some level of contrast between background and subject. Above is the image as it looks straight from my camera.
2. Now, the easiest method, and the way I did it when I first started out, would be to strip out the colour and just change the photo to Grayscale like I’ve done above. All well and good except grayscale is not black & white…it’s gray and that makes for a pretty flat image. So, I never use grayscale anymore (or desaturate since that gives a similar result).
3. Instead, the first thing I do is I duplicate the original layer and I set the new layer to “Soft Light” as shown above. This gives the image a bit of a pop in contrast and I often use it in my colour photography too. If it seems a bit harsh, just tweak the opacity of the duplicate layer (you can see the opacity setting at the top right of the image above). I set mine at 50%:
4. Next, for a little more pop I create what’s called an adjustment levels layer over the top. You will find this under Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Levels (see above). Now you could just go to Image>Adjustments>Levels and tweak the levels that way, but with adjustment layers you can go back at any stage and tweak again or go back to the original. There are other benefits but that could be a whole different tutorial!
5. After creating the levels layer (click OK to the little info window that pops up) I pull the slider on the right slightly to the left as shown above. Not too much or it will start to look like pop art. Here’s the result:
6. Now we can finally move onto the black & white part. You could always skip the steps up until this if you don’t like that “High Key” effect I was talking about and you will still get a good black & white image.
7. Create another adjustment layer…this time the Channel Mixer as shown above. Click OK to get to the options box.
8. The Channel Mixer is like applying coloured filters to your lens. Red, Green and Blue filters all give very different results. I have the settings I use for a basic black & white image pictured above but have a play with the different colours and see what you come up with. Don’t forget to tick the Monochrome option at the bottom left! Result:
9. Once you’re finished tweaking, click OK…the result’s not bad, we could probably leave it there…but I like to push it a little bit more. So I create a final adjustment layer. This time I choose a Curves layer (see above) and click OK to get to the options.
10. You will be given a box with a graph and a straight diagonal line going through it. You can manipulate that line by clicking on it and then dragging the points. Click once near the bottom of the line and once towards the top and then pull the line so that it becomes a loose “S” curve as shown above. This is another layer I like to add to my colour images too as it really brings out the contrast in an image giving it a real pop. Once you’re happy, click OK…
TaDaaa! And you’re done! Now the nice thing about the adjustment layers is that you are free to go back and tweak until you have an image that you are happy with. You can do this either by double clicking the icon on the left of the layer or by adjusting the opacity of the layer like I have shown in this image:
What you should have at the end is a nice clean Black & White image rather than a flat Grayscale image.
I hope I have written this in a way that wasn’t too complicated…please leave me a comment if you have any questions about what I have done or just to let me know what you think. Have fun!