Making Your Best B&W

Conversions in the computer have become easier, allowing you to get better results than ever before


Today, the choice to make a color or a black-and-white image is far different from the era of film. With film, the decision would be made when you loaded your film. If you were shooting a large-format camera, you might have some color and some black-and-white holders ready to give you flexibility, but if you were shooting medium format or 35mm, it was unlikely that you’d be eager to switch back and forth between color and black-and-white on a whim because you’d probably be losing the bulk of a roll of expensive film with every switch. Of course, this is one of the many areas where digital holds an intrinsic advantage over film. You can shoot everything in color and experiment with black-and-white or any other look in the computer. Let’s look at how you can get your best results.


Go With Color
Do you want a color image or a black-and-white image? Don’t give it a second thought. I suggest that you always shoot color and decide afterward whether you want to see the color or convert to monochrome. The choice will be yours, and if you make pictures with your camera’s RAW file, you’ll retain the versatility of changing back and forth from the original color to monochrome to color values through the benefit of nondestructive editing.

Cameras give you the choice of shooting RAW, and with that advantage, you can experiment throughout the process. For example, I use Nikon cameras and can shoot for color in the camera or switch to monochrome in-camera using the Picture Control System; later, using Nikon Capture NX 2 software, I can make changes in-software through Picture Control to switch back. I can do this from monochrome to color or color to monochrome. It gives me incredible versatility.

Fig.2 Fig.3 Fig.4 Fig.5
Making the best black-and-white conversion used to be a complex affair involving sophisticated use of tools like the Channel Mixer in Photoshop. In the past year or so, some very easy-to-use but powerful software has become available to make it a simple process with better results. Richard Lopinto’s photograph of the Tetons gives you an idea of the possibilities.

An available RAW file format (each camera company has its own version) plus popular JPEG and TIFF formats provide the opportunity for creative variety through available software. I like to experiment, and here, I used Photoshop CS4, Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex plug-ins for Photoshop, onOne Software’s Plug-In Suite 4.5’s PhotoTools for Photoshop, Nikon Capture NX 2 and Nik Software’s Color Efex plug-in for Capture NX 2. Together with the technique that I call “file jumping”—switching back and forth between TIFF, JPEG and NEF—I can take advantage of the benefits from nondestructive editing at steps determined during the process, as well as the versatility of color-monochrome-color choice.

Fig.6 Fig.7

Can You See Or Think In Black & White?
What your eyes and mind see is color based on lightness, contrast and color values. Most photographers would agree that to make a good monochrome image, you need to envision what you see as grayscale when you make the picture—but do you? For me, first I have to like the image as a color image and then evaluate the brightness and saturation of individual colors, as well as overall tonal value and contrast. Later, in-software, I experiment with a monochrome conversion, using the advantages provided by the software and my analysis of the screen display. That’s when I begin to intellectually and visually convert my color image to monochrome. If you shoot primarily for monochrome, you need to learn how your software and/or camera renders in grayscale so you can anticipate what you’ll get when you’re back at the computer. You’ll need to practice and hone your skills so that your subsequent renderings will meet your expectations.

In reality, however, I’ve found that even after I’ve adjusted exposure in-camera to make what I thought was a better exposure, those adjustments affected the entire image. It’s inevitable that you’ll either need to or want to make adjustments in-software, selectively tweaking highlights, midtones, shadows, disparate color values, dynamic range, black-and-white extremes and more. For me, the tweaking process begins with the original color file; I make adjustments as desired for a better color image, and sometimes make adjustments that will make the conversion to monochrome better, as well. The objective is to make an image that’s not necessarily identical to the original scene, but rather a complex combination of the original scene’s character, plus my creative adjustments.

Fig.8 Fig.8a

Making individual colors lighter or darker will affect the rendering when you convert to monochrome—likewise if you adjust each color’s saturation level. Also, if you decide to change the color space of the image, you need to do this at the beginning of the process and not after you’ve done your monochrome conversion. The reason? When you change color space, you’re modifying the dynamic color range and, ultimately, affect any monochrome conversion you’ve done.

There’s A Big “But” In The Process
How you use your software for color to black-and-white conversion will vary, depending on which software program you’ve chosen.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 offers the opportunity to change from color to grayscale. When using this approach, I recommend that you thoroughly adjust the image’s color characteristics (saturation level for each color, brightness level for each color, dynamic brightness range and tonal value differences among


the various objects within the image), so that when you convert to monochrome, you’ll achieve the brightness, contrast and tonal range that are most effective for your “complete” image. Note that Photoshop alerts you that when changing to grayscale, color data will be discarded.

I also edit my image (in color) using Nik Software’s Viveza. This software, with Color Control Points, facilitates the fine adjustment of individual objects/areas within the image for brightness, contrast, saturation, hue, RGB colors and warmth. The ability to choose different objects within the image and to affect individual colors and color ranges helps me immensely as I work to achieve an ideal balance among the various areas and objects within the image.

Another useful and creative tool that can be plugged into Photoshop is Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro. This software provides you with the versatility of Nik U-Point technology and in a manner similar to what Color Control Points do in Viveza; you can apply many of Silver Efex Pro’s monochrome adjustments. It’s very powerful and versatile.

I also like to use Nikon Capture NX 2; using Nik U-Point Technology, NX 2 allows you to apply all of its adjustments and filters universally across an image and selectively among various objects and color values within the image. Together with a collection of additional built-in tools that work universally on an image, I can fully adjust a color image’s characteristics so that when I convert to monochrome, either within NX 2 using NX 2’s built-in tools or with Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro for Capture NX 2, I have the option to make monochrome images that meet my objectives.

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Fig.10 Fig.11

Finally, whether I’m working on an original Nikon NEF raw file, or a JPEG or TIFF from any camera, or a RAW file from any camera that I’ve converted to JPEG or TIFF, I always can save the edited JPEG and TIFF file using NX 2’s “Save as” control as a NEF file and preserve the accomplished editing as well as future editing with nondestructive control. After I’ve made all my changes, I can resave the file as TIFF or JPEG and export it to other software for additional editing. This is my workflow, which is nearly universal in application, all the while preserving the advantages of the NEF raw format’s nondestructive characteristics.

Selective application of changes to your image is an important approach that can make a meaningful difference in the end results. Photoshop, Nikon Capture NX 2 and all of the software plug-ins I’ve described excel in the ability to provide selective application of their tools, enabling you to dynamically control the relationship among contrast, brightness, dynamic range and underlying color information.

The following examples show moving from color to monochrome and applying some of the software’s creative opportunities. Adapt your skills to meet your objectives—experiment!


Grand Teton Reflection
Nikon Capture NX 2 And Nik Color Efex Pro Traditional Monochrome Conversion
It was late morning, with the sun rising and the light changing from moment to moment (Figure 1). The warm cast of the emerging sunlight created a comfortable mood for the image—but not for me, I was cold! I made lots of pictures that morning, and during editing, this original caught my eye. I saw potential for it and decided to process it for a monochrome rendering. The software used included Nikon Capture NX 2, Nik Software Color Efex Pro B&W Conversion, TechSmith Snagit software for screen-capture illustrations and Windows Vista and Explorer for lots of image handling. A Nikon NEF Codec (free download from Nikon USA) enables viewing thumbnails of Nikon RAW NEF images within Windows Explorer.

I made initial decisions about composition and color and proceeded to crop the foreground to eliminate branches that intruded into the scene (Figure 2) and then applied a Color Control Point to darken the sky and its reflection in the water (Figure 3). I applied a gray point to an area on the mountain and rendered the image without its original warm sunrise (Figure 4). Finally, I applied an additional Color Control Point to the dark area just below the tree line on the right side of the image and lightened it (Figure 5).

Figure 6 is the first-stage conversion to black-and-white, followed by an overall adjustment for brightness and contrast (Figure 7) and applying Unsharp Mask to the mountain, tree line and reflections in the water (Figure 8). Figure 8a reveals the automatically created Capture NX 2 mask made by the Brush tool as I selectively chose the areas to which I wanted to apply Unsharp Mask. Using multiple selections of Unsharp Mask and Brush application, I can easily apply different intensities of USM among various areas of the image—a useful feature and all done with just a few clicks!

Figure 9 is the final rendering in black-and-white.

The image’s original color characteristics were preserved in a NEF file for future use, while the edited color characteristics ensured that the monochrome conversion would meet my creative objectives.

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Photoshop CS4 And Nik Software Viveza Conversion
Beginning with the color image (Figure 5), I opened the image and converted it to a Smart Object. This enabled me to perform nondestructive editing, and move back and forth between considered changes. In the Smart Object mode, I applied a Viveza Control Point to the sky and water areas, tweaking each area. Then I started Nik Silver Efex Pro and prepared a variety of renderings, as shown here. During this process, the image’s underlying color data was preserved for future use in my original NEF file.

The High Contrast Yellow filter was applied using Silver Efex Pro (Figure 10).

The Yellow filter was removed, and the Soft Sepia filter applied (Figure 11).

The Soft Sepia was removed, and the image was changed to an ambrotype and flattened. Finally, an acid burn frame was added using onOne Software Plug-In Suite 4.5 (Figure 12).

What Comes Around Goes Around!
I recently attended the AIPAD 2009 show (Association of International Photography Art Dealers), where I had the pleasure of viewing, in one place, the most incredible collection of monochrome images. From daguerreotypes to tintypes to platinum prints and more, the experience was brilliant and left me thirsting to see more, while at the same time motivating me to render images of my own with today’s digital monochrome techniques. Mind you, I’m not trying to emulate the subjects, but rather want to enjoy seeing my own images in a rendered state that’s different from the norms of color.

My experience takes me back to the days of sending a roll of 620 Verichrome Pan film to the local drugstore and getting back a collection of lovely “deckled-edge” prints. I’ve worked in darkrooms, been tutored by many of the world’s greatest photographers, had the pleasure of working as a photo educator, worked at Nikon for 36 years, participated in the development of digital photography and enjoyed making pictures using some of the world’s greatest equipment. But, in all sincerity, seeing the work of the masters of early photography is humbling, and after hearing stories about their trials and experiments, I fervently hope that the past will continue to influence the future, and that today’s wonderment of digital technology will continue to embrace making timeless images, just as photography’s fathers and mothers did.

Auto FX Photo/Graphic Edges
autoFXOnce you’ve made the black-and-white conversion, you can apply all sorts of effects to your image. For his photograph of the Tetons, Richard Lopinto ultimately decided that the image would look particularly good with a deckled-edge effect. While you can make these effects yourself in Photoshop, an easier and often better solution is to get software that does the heavy lifting for you. Auto FX Photo/Graphic Edges is a favorite of many photographers due to the huge array of options the software gives you. In addition to edges, Auto FX makes a number of other software packages that give you the ability to take an image in any number of directions with special treatments. Contact: Auto FX Software,


    A very nice article, and one I will share with a friend who has expressed interest in converting some color images to B/W. I felt some emphasis should have been placed on the fact that making inkjet B/W prints is not usually straightforward. Some pitfalls colud have been mentioned. But – I really enjoy your magazine and its articles – keep up the good work.

    Interesting article, but those of us who do not shoot Nikon are left out of the FX. Also, Alien Skin makes Exposure 2 as a very strong B&W film characteristeric tool.

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