Black and White—Done Right


For many of us, our first foray into photography involved black and white film. It was readily available, and cheaper to process than color. Also, you could easily set up a home darkroom to process black and white film and prints. Color processing wasn’t for the average home user, due to its complex requirements for temperature control and chemicals.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we now find ourselves in a world where black and white film is almost an afterthought. Labs no longer process black and white film readily, and let’s face it—we’re all moving into the digital world.

One of the best things about working in black and white is that it expands your opportunities for shooting. With color, you might not want to shoot in midday light. Or maybe you’re indoors, and you don’t want to boost the ISO too high, in fear of making noisy images. Maybe the lighting is mixed, or just plain ugly, as you’d get with sodium vapor lamps. Converting to black and white can save the day, as color casts no longer matter, and grain (noise) is considered part of the norm.

The challenge with DSLRs and other digital cameras is that they produce color (RGB) images by default. Sure, you can set the camera to B&W mode, but the results are usually quite uninspiring. Our editing software has been really designed to work with color images, and until recently our inkjet printers just couldn’t deliver a good neutral-toned grayscale print. The good news is that we can embrace color information in our software to produce black and white images that are as good or better than anything that came out of our film cameras. You just have to know what you’re doing.

Manhattan Bridge
Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn, NY.

Don’t Touch that Dial!

For a long time, the only way to make a black and white digital image was to go into your editing program, such as Photoshop, and click the “Desaturate” command. Talk about an uninspiring result!

If anything, the “convert to grayscale” modes left us even less apt to do black and white work. Moreover, when you convert to black and white, you’re discarding color information. Ever wonder why you get the dialog warning when moving to grayscale mode in Photoshop? It’s warning you that you’re discarding valuable information!

Of course, with Photoshop, you do have access to complex channel-mixing controls (which, if used properly, can deliver great results), but let’s face it—most of us want to use our image editors like a darkroom, not like some kind of software engineering lab. We want to use the same techniques that we were comfortable with in the film darkroom, but we also want to be able to do things that we couldn’t do with chemicals.

After all, 21st century techniques should be able to give us something better than 19th century techniques, right?

Traditonal Tools for Black & White

Any good black and white editor should be able to replicate the traditional techniques and tools we used with film. These effects should include color filters (to modify complementary color contrast), film grain, and paper toning. If you use Photoshop, you’ll find that recent versions have introduced better conversion tools. You can create color filter effects using the “Black & White” controls, either directly or as an adjustment layer. But unless you’re a full-time Photoshop guru, other effects are not as easy to apply, or are just rudimentary. Moreover, many of the built-in Photoshop filters don’t work in 16-bit color mode, which is something I like to do.

photoshop b&w panel
The Photoshop Black and White Conversion Controls

Fortunately, there are some 3rd-party-software tools that you can use with Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture to create powerful black and white effects. My personal favorites are Alien Skin’s Exposure and Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro. Both offer some very nice black and white film emulation effects, but Silver Efex Pro does something else; it allows you to make local adjustments based on the original RGB color image.

RGB Color for the Best Black and White?

The fact that your digital camera produces a color image is, in reality, a blessing in disguise. While it’s true that the color starting point requires us to do a little more work in creating a black and white image, the original RGB image is your friend. No matter what editing application you work with, converting to black and white should be treated as a final step. By doing so, you can preserve the color information for making better selections (masks) for local editing.

Distinct color tones (left) may be eliminated in a black and white image (right).

Here’s the basic problem when converting to black and white: You might have an image with strong color contrast, but those tones may end up matching each other when you convert to grayscale. When your image is in color, you can use a diverse array of selection tools to make selections. My personal favorites are the tools that use Nik Software’s Control Points to make smart selections. I do this with Nikon’s Capture NX 2 all the time (Photoshop/LR/Aperture users could use Nik's Viveza 2 for the same tools).

Selection tools that work great on RGB images (left) don't perform so well on grayscale ones (right).

In the example above, I’ve placed a Color Control Point on the sky in the color image, and enabled mask view to show the selection. Notice that the selection fidelity is excellent—the sky is selected (white) and the foreground is mostly protected (black). If I convert the image to black and white, and then try to use the same technique, notice how the selection not only picks up the sky, but nearly all the foreground objects, too. That means that if you are working with selection tools, you’ll want to keep the color image data around as long as possible before the B&W conversion.

By making selections on the color image, I could easily adjust the tones in the black and white image.

The other great thing about keeping your color image around is that you can work with selective black and white effects. We’ve all seen this in wedding albums, where one object, like a flower, is in color, while the rest of the image is black and white. If you’ve got the color image data, selecting objects becomes a lot easier, and you’ll get a much nicer selective effect.

selective black & white
Selective black and white image created with Nikon's Capture NX 2.

Modern Tools Make it Easy

The best part about imaging software is that it’s continually getting better. If we take the time to maintain a non-destructive workflow, we’ll be able to go back and easily re-process our images with newer tools as they become available. While Photoshop is still the king of all post-processing, I’ve found that I prefer the ease of using the Silver Efex Pro (SEP) plug-in instead of the on-board tools. With SEP, I get all the traditional darkroom tools (color filters, paper-toning, grain) in one easy to use interface. More importantly, I get the ability to use Control Points to make smart selections based on the RGB color image while viewing the black and white image. That means my dodging/burning and other adjustments can be done with far more fidelity than what I’d get with just a brush tool in Photoshop.

Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro offers intuitive black and white tools and selective editing.

I also work a lot on black and white images directly in Nikon’s Capture NX 2. While SEP isn’t available for Capture NX 2, I’ve been able to use the on-board tools combined with Nik’s Color Efex Pro to achieve very similar results. Because Capture NX 2 has Control Point technology built in, if I order my adjustment steps correctly, I can use the RGB color image to make smart selections on the black and white image, and get fantastic selection fidelity. The advantage for me as a Capture NX 2 user is that all my edits are preserved in a non-destructive format within my Nikon RAW (NEF) files. Silver Efex Pro can be used non-destructively as a Smart Filter within Photoshop CS2 or later. Output from SEP with Lightrooom or Aperture versions of the plug-in is a flattened TIFF file, which means you’ll need to start over from scratch if you want to modify the filter effects.

Regardless of the tool(s) you choose to use, I’m sure you’ll discover that modern black and white doesn’t have to be painful. Keep in mind your workflow options when choosing a software package. With today’s tools and a little practice, you can revive the “lost” art of fine-art black and white images, and go beyond what was ever possible with film.

Printing Black and White Images

If you’re going to take the time to master black and white images, then it’s a good idea to make sure you’ve got a printer that is up to the task. I’m using an Epson inkjet printer with Ultrachrome inks. However, the important feature to look for in a printer, if you’re serious about black and white, is the number of black inks. My venerable Epson Stylus Pro 7800 offers three black inks: Black, Light Black, and Light Light Black. Multiple black inks are the key to getting nice tone-ramps, while avoiding the color shifts that occur when trying to print a grayscale image with CMYK inks. As long as your printer includes multiple shades of black inks, you’ll be able to get great output at home, on both matte and glossy papers.


In a world where all our digital images begin life in color, we can reproduce traditional black and white effects. Modern image editing software not only makes it easy to re-create the looks of our favorite black and white films, but we can go beyond traditional techniques to create fantastic works of art. The color data that we once discarded can be used to make high-fidelity selection masks, if we use the right tools. By preserving the color image during our conversion process, we can end up with results that would have been difficult or impossible to create in the wet darkroom, and we expand our opportunities for shooting in otherwise challenging conditions.

Black & white conversion lets us explore textures without worry of creating strange color shifts.

Discussion 3

Add new comment

Add comment Cancel

Good article.  Thanks.

 Thanks, Jeni!

Thank you Jason for this info!  Yet another way to achieve great B&W results in the digital world!!