As Simple As Black And White

Shoot in B&W or convert in Photoshop? That is the question...

treesWhen I think about great landscape photography, I dream in black-and-white. Fortunately, re-creating the delightful richness and depth that monochrome offers doesn’t have to be a nightmare. There are many different ways to produce images that are without color. Which is best?

One painless way is to capture the scene directly in monochrome by using the Black and White setting on your digital camera. Digital SLRs and many compact cameras offer various in-camera preset black-and-white options. Some HP cameras even allow you to shoot in color and then create a black-and-white copy right in the camera so that you have both, right on the scene.

There are advantages and disadvantages to the in-camera option. Clearly, this is the easiest way to create a monochrome image, and it doesn’t require any knowledge of Photoshop. No postprocessing of any kind is necessary. The biggest benefit, even for advanced photographers, is the ability to preview the image in monochrome. Especially when shooting landscapes, architecture and other geometric forms, it’s more accurate to preview the final monochrome outcome without the distraction of color.

CanonUsing the in-camera setting on a D-SLR opens the door to using glass photographic filters in front of the lens, just like in the film camera days. Use a deep red filter to severely darken a blue ocean or a green forest, or use a green filter for the opposite effect. Glass filters transmit (lighten) their own color and absorb (darken) their complement, so you can darken a blue sky to varying degrees by using a yellow, orange or red filter. In the case of many D-SLRs, you can choose a simulated filter effect from a menu. The Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi, for example, has the electronic equivalent of yellow, orange, red and green filters that can be chosen from the Picture Style > Monochrome menu.

As Simple As Black And White Personal preference plays a role. Some people simply prefer the way an image looks when it’s captured directly using the camera's monochrome setting. "Many photographers have told us that they prefer the look of black-and-white images they’re able to get directly from their Canon camera," says Chuck Westfall, photography expert and Director of Media & Customer Relationship for Canon U.S.A. "There’s a richness of tone and a pleasing contrast that may be difficult to match in postprocessing."

The disadvantages? Color information is something that can't be restored later. If you shoot in black-and-white, you’re stuck with black-and-white. Of course, you could shoot the exact same scene both in monochrome and in full color—but that’s not always possible, considering subject movement and subtle lighting changes. On the other hand, if you shoot in color, you’ll always have the choice, even years later.

As Simple As Black And WhiteThere are many ways to convert a color digital image to monochrome after it has been shot and downloaded. Regardless which postprocessing path you choose to follow, the overall best practice is to shoot RAW format. Doing so will allow more complete control, including exposure compensation and tone curve manipulation. Best of all, all color data remains available.

Whether the image file is RAW, JPEG or TIF, one simple, straightforward way to convert from color to black-and-white is to change the Mode setting in Photoshop to Grayscale (from the menu bar, Image > Mode > Grayscale). You'll be asked if you want to discard color information, and if you click "Yes" that’s exactly what happens. Immediately save the file using a different name to avoid accidentally overwriting the original image and thereby losing the color data forever.

As Simple As Black And WhiteThere can be up to 256 shades of gray in an 8-bit image. Each pixel has a brightness value ranging from 0 (black) to 255 (white). The shades (gray levels) of the converted pixels represent the luminosity of the original pixels.

Converting to grayscale provides very limited creative control; however, you can use Photoshop’s Channel Mixer command (Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer) to mix information from the color channels to create a custom grayscale by specifying the percentage contribution from each color channel.

Another easy way is to use the Desaturate command (Image > Adjustments > Desaturate) to convert a color image to grayscale values without changing the color mode of the image. Photoshop assigns equal red, green and blue values to each pixel in an RGB image without changing the lightness value. One advantage of this method is that you can use the History brush to selectively restore color to portions of the image to combine spot color with monochrome for creative effects.

Nikon D80If you’ve ever experimented with Kodalith Ortho film to create high-contrast back-and-white images, you’ll appreciate the effect produced by the Photoshop Threshold command (Image > Adjustments > Threshold). The Threshold command converts color (or grayscale) images to high-contrast images that are devoid of grays. You can specify a particular level as a threshold. All pixels lighter than the threshold are converted to white and all pixels darker are converted to black.

There are many Photoshop plug-in filters that provide a wide variety of options. Unlike the basic Mode command in Photoshop, plug-in filters include tools that enable you to convert color images to monochrome with extensive control over the outcome. Two of the best are Color Efex Pro from Nik Software and Exposure from Alien Skin.

For maximum control and the most options, try Nik Color Efex Pro. Version 2.0 includes three black-and-white conversion filters, each with its own characteristics. Controls differ from filter to filter, but all allow you to adjust the outcome with incredible precision and choose between Basic or Advanced manipulation. The B/W Conversion filter utilizes a Spectrum slider that allows you to target a particular color range and manipulate how it’s rendered. The B/W Conversion: Dynamic Contrast filter includes a Contrast Enhancer slider that’s used as the name implies. The B/W Conversion: Tonal Enhancer filter has a drop-down Contrast Method menu with three options that provide three separate starting points for contrast enhancement. Color Efex also includes conversion filters that are task-specific: Old Photo, Infrared Black & White, Paper Toner and Duplex Monochrome all allow you to quickly achieve predictable effects without surrendering control over the outcome.

Thoughts On Digital B&W Photography
My first formal training in photography was in the B&W film Zone System. This early experience gave me a deep appreciation of how grayscale transforms the complex expressions of color into basic but powerful elements of monochrome composition. I also learned early on that various colored filters could significantly change the way colors were translated, thus giving me more control over the final image.

With the switch to Photoshop and color digital photography, this control has been extended far beyond anything I could do with camera filters or even the manipulation of the final black-and-white print in the darkroom.

Today, I shoot everything in color but with the experience of a B&W Zone photographer lurking in the background. Thus, I’m always looking at the potential of a scene to be rendered in black-and-white. The tools in Photoshop, especially CS3, to control the translation of color are as complete as one can imagine—for example, the use of Channel Mixer functions in conjunction with hue and saturation or the direct application of color camera-filter equivalents as well as the ease of adding a tone to the final print. I also rely on specialized plug-ins that are particularly fast and efficient for showing a wide range of filter effects, for example, Imagingfactory’s Convert to B&W Pro and Tiffen’s new Dfx software.
—Joseph Meehan

As Simple As Black And WhiteIf you’d like to simulate the results produced by specific films or film/developer combinations, reach for Exposure from Alien Skin. Based on detailed analysis of actual film stock, Exposure not only re-creates the film coloration and contrast, but also actually reproduces the size, shape and color of the film grain. If you like the look of push-processed Kodak TRI-X, for example, you can re-create it digitally—with authentic results. Exposure performs other editing functions as well. The options include a monochromatic toning filter set (blue, gold, sepia, selenium and sulphide) that allows you to re-create the look of old-fashioned image recording techniques.

You can perform superlative grayscale conversions without launching Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom includes robust grayscale conversion and manipulation tools. A set of sliders allows you to adjust eight separate color channels quickly and easily. An Auto-Adjust button provides a good starting point, and a Reset button recovers from overly aggressive modifications.

As with the other editing functions that Lightroom provides, you can evaluate the effect on the fly by viewing pairs of before-and-after images side by side, above and below, or as a single split image. In addition to freehand experimentation, you can select from an assortment of monochrome presets. Options include Antique Grayscale and Grayscale Conversion. What's the best way to create black-and-white digital images? All of the above. Each method has its own special merit. After all, the preeminent characteristic of digital imaging is the ability to create variations that are predicable and fully replicable. In other words, we can get what we want, when we want, over and over again, whether the images are in color or black-and-white.

As Simple As Black And WhitePrinting Black-And-White
What to do with those gorgeous monochrome images? Print them using an inkjet printer that’s optimized for black-and-white. The Epson Stylus Pro 3800 inkjet printer, for example, employs a three-level black ink system to produce superior black-and-white images. It uses nine separate ink colors and automatically switches between photo black and matte black ink while utilizing the same physical ink channel. The HP Photosmart Pro B9180 also employs three black inks, automatically switching between matte black and photo black (or using both) to suit the paper being used. The Canon PIXMA Pro9500 uses gray, photo black and matte black inks to produce excellent black-and-white prints. Also, third-party ink suppliers offer special black-and-white products, such as Media Street’s QuadBlack inkset.

Joseph Meehan has been a photographer, editor and teacher for 35 years and is the author of 25 books on photographic techniques. His latest book, Moods, Ambience & Dramatic Effects in Photography, will be released in Fall 2007 as part of the new Kodak Art of Digital Photography series. See more of his work at

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