Converting color photos to black and white images that harken to the golden age of black and white photography is an art form. Read on as we show you how to capture the crisp contrast and mood of vintage photographs with today’s digital tools.

Why Do I Want to Do This?

Black and white photography is a really enjoyable genre of photography that gives you an opportunity to showcase a subject, scene, or other elements of your photo in a, proverbially speaking, new light. Things that we’re used to seeing in full color take on new and interesting characteristics when seen in black and white. Cityscapes and portraits take on a certain intensity and shapes and patterns take precedence over colors.

The problem, however, for the modern shutterbug is that there isn’t an immediately accessible way to capture the soul of old school black and white photography with a digital camera.

Every digital camera and image editor under the sun has a simple black and white/monochrome setting that simply dumps all the color data from the image. This is the most awful and least elegant way to convert a color image into a black and white one. You have zero control over the output, and as such you’re unable to make any fine adjustments to the process that will yield a vastly superior product.

When shooting with a traditional SLR camera loaded with black and white film and outfitted with a filter or two to emphasize certain light wavelengths, you’re doing more than simply capturing the world without the color data. With that in mind, any digital workflow that seeks to create a vibrant and interesting black and white image needs to be heavily informed by what the old way of doing things was comprised of.

In this tutorial, we’ve outlined several techniques for converting color photographs to black and white ones that capture the character of traditional black and white photography. Whether you pick the simplest or the most advanced techniques, we’re confident you’ll be pleased with the results.

What Do I Need?

You’ll only need two things for this tutorial:

Although we’ll be using Adobe Photoshop CS6, most of the tools and techniques featured here have been included in Photoshop for years now so feel free to follow along with older editions. Furthermore, the general principles can be easily adapted to Photoshop Elements and other advanced photo editing software tools like GIMP.

If you’re armed with some photos to play with and your copy of Photoshop, it’s time to get started. For this tutorial we will be using a photo of our tireless sidekick Medieval Spawn–he’s an ideal model as he never complains, doesn’t mind the scorching sun, and only asks that we occasionally dust him. The above photo is the base image we’re working with. Every technique we use in the various sections of the tutorial will be applied to this base image so that you can see how the different techniques yield different outcomes with a stable frame of reference.

Converting Your Photo Via Channel Mixer

Using the Channel Mixer tool to convert images to black and white is one of the oldest tricks in the Photoshop book. The principal reason it has remained such a well loved technique is that it allows you to easily emulate the way black and white film and the accompanying lens filters reduce or emphasize various color wave lengths.

To use the Channel Mixer navigate to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Channel Mixer. This will create a new non-destructive adjustment layer over your current image as well as open up the Channel Mixer–as seen in the screenshot above.

You can use the Channel Mixer manually or you can use the presets. When Adobe noticed how much people were using the Channel Mixer to recreate the look of black and white photos, they started including presets that automatically tweak the channels to emulate black and white film with an infrared filter and various color filters (like red, green, and yellow). You’ll find all those under the Preset drop down menu.

In order to have more consistent results with your digital workflow, it’s important to understand the basics of how camera filters work. When you place a red filter, for example, on a camera the resulting image will lighten the color associated with the filter (and adjacent colors on the color spectrum) and darken colors opposite to it on the color spectrum. So a red filter will make red (and to a lesser degree orange, yellow, and magenta) appear lighter while making greens and blues darker.

Armed with that knowledge, we can easily predict what will happen when we use the Black and White with Red Filter preset, right? The red detailing on the Spawn figure will be lighter and the blue portions will be significantly darker. Let’s apply the filter and see:

If you opt to make manual adjustments to the image, make note of something important from the output of the preset: the total sum of the RGB values is 100%. In the case of the Red Filter, the red value is 100% and the Green and Blue values are 0%.

When you are tweaking the channel values in the Channel Mixer, in order to maintain the exact exposure value your photo originally had (albeit with different color/tonal values) you need to keep the total sum of the RGB values below 100%. Feel free to experiment with spiking them above or below that level but be aware that doing so will blowout or darken your photo, respectively.

With that in mind, run wild with the manual adjustments. All you need to do to use the Channel Mixer in manual mode is to check the Monochrome box and adjust the sliders until you are satisfied with your image.

Converting Your Photo via the Black and White Menu

We mentioned in the previous section how Adobe had started including Black and White filter presets in the Channel Mixer menu for all those black and white enthusiasts. Starting with Photoshop CS3, they went one step further and added in an entire Black and White adjustment layer fine-tuned for creating really fantastic black and white images.

You can find it by navigating to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Black & White. As soon as you select it, Photoshop will create the new adjustment layer and, unlike the Channel Mixer, automatically desaturate the image.

In addition to the presets we found in the Channel Mixer menu, there are quite a few extra in the Black & White menu, including Neutral Density, Maximum filters, and more.

When you’re venturing beyond using the presets, there are a few important considerations and tricks to keep in mind. First, like the Channel Mixer menu you want to pay attention to your values. You can blow out or underexpose individual colors very easily (pushing the Reds, for example, all the way to 300 or all the way down to 0 will turn all the red values in the picture pure white and pure black, respectively). Unlike the Channel Mixer, however, there isn’t a clean cut formula for making sure you’re not over/underexposing. Depending on the settings you use, the sum of your color values can fall anywhere between 250-650 quite easily and you’ll still have a well balanced image.

In addition to the extra color channels to play with, the Black & White menu also includes some handy tools. Near the Presets drop down menu, you’ll find a small hand icon and a checkbox labeled Tint. Let’s talk about the hand icon first.

By clicking the hand icon your cursor will turn into a dropper tool. You can then tap anywhere on the photo and the slider that corresponds to that color/shade will blink. This makes it extremely easy to make fine adjustments to just that color. For example, you may find that in a portrait you’re converting the sky, an expanse of grass, or the shirt the subject is wearing are overpowering the image. You can easily click on whatever portion of the image seems too overbearing and then adjust things accordingly to de-emphasize it.

With that in mind, let’s say that we wanted to really mute the background of our image and place extra focus and emphasis on Spawn. Recall that the background of the original color image was mostly greens and yellows. When we click on the background using the dropper tool those are the channels that blink in response. By adjusting those channels down we end up with the image seen above–the background is understated and the figure stands out.

The other tool of interest here is the Tint tool. If you have a hankering for some old-school toning and tinting, you can add a tint to your photo here without the hassle of making another adjustment layer. If we check Tint, it defaults to a sepia-style tint, but you can easily click on the color swatch to pick a different color.

Converting Your Photo via Gradient Map and Overlays

When you have time to tinker, it’s a lot of fun to use the previous two techniques. But let’s say you’re crunched for time and you want to convert some photos quickly to black and white, but at a higher quality than simply desaturating them would provide.

In such a case, it’s a perfect time to speed up your workflow with a few little shortcuts. The first shortcut is to use the Gradient Map to respectfully dump the color values of your photo while preserving the contrast and richness of your image. To do so, navigate to Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Gradient Map. The default gradient map is black and white (but feel free to poke around in the drop down menu if you’re in the mood for, say, a red and green gradient).

Once you create the layer, you’ll have a black and white image similar to the one seen above. As far as color to black and white conversions go, it’s not bad (and it’s certainly better than just dumping the color values completely by converting your base image to grayscale). It does, however, lack a certain punchiness. We can remedy that by quickly adding in another layer.

Right click on the Gradient Map layer we just made and select Duplicate. Your image will become a little more intense as the effect of the Gradient Map is enhanced. It’s fairly subtle, but you might be happy with that tiny bit of extra punch. We’re going to take things  step further.

At the top of the layers window, where it says “Normal” in a drop down menu (next to Opacity), pull the menu down and select “Overlay”. You’ll end up with a very intense black and white image like this:

So intense, in fact, that the whites are blown out and the black are quite black. If what you’re going for is a gritty photo with hard light, then you’ve certainly arrived. Most people will want to make one final tweak, though.

Select Opacity in the Layers window and adjust the slider down from 100%. We find that somewhere around 20-30% or less is perfect for most photos. In the case of this particular photo we were happy with 26%. It adds a very pleasing punch to the photo that’s reminiscent of old fashioned high-contrast black and white photos.

The overlay-and-opacity trick, by the way, is a great one to apply to just about any black and white photograph you’re working with–we’re huge fans of sneaking a little semi-opaque layer into the photo at the end as a means of really emphasizing the contrast of the photo.

Armed with these tips and tricks, you can take the great photos you’re snapping and turn them into stunning black and white compositions in a flash.

If you have a tip or trick of your own to share (and there’s certainly more than one way to tweak a picture in Photoshop), join in the conversation below to help your fellow readers on their path to photo editing Nirvana.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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