How To: Covert Images to Black and White

You don't need a plug-in to get great results.

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Our version of this image (left) uses all five tips, but you can choose the ones that suit your picture. Want to go monochrome? We prefer to use plug-ins, such as Nik’s Silver Efex Pro or AlienSkin’s Exposure, for the conversion process. But if you don’t make black-and-white images often enough to warrant buying special software, you can still get a nice result using tools built into both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw. The trick is to start with a great color image and use its wealth of tonal information to make choices about which hues should go bright and which dark. What follows are five tips to help you create beautiful b&w images and then add some finishing touches to make them stand out from the rest. FYI: When you shoot and image in RGB channel (red, green, and blue) is actually monochrome. Photoshop combines that information so we see a color picture. To check out each channel individually, go to the Channels panel, the tab usually just to the right of your Layers. Click on the eyeball next to RGB to turn them all off, then turn on each channel one by one. You’ll get a sense of three ways your b&w conversion could go.Luisa Mohle
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1. Adjust Tonal Range:
A great monochrome usually needs great tonal range, so begin by making sure your color image contains true black and true white, even before you take the colors out. To do so, create a Levels Adjustment Layer. Drag the white triangle inward until it abuts the beginning of the histogram, and do the same thing with the black triangle. If you need to, drag the center triangle left or right to brighten or darken the midtones.
Luisa Mohle
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2. Use the B&W Tool:
While Photoshop's built-in black-and-white tool isn't as versatile or as feature-laden as a plug-in, it's the best and easiest place to start when you're doing a b&w conversion. Use the tool in its Adjustment Layer form—to open it, just click on the button for Black & White in the Adjustments Panel. Click the Auto button to try out a potential starting point. Then grab the hand-shaped tool, and place the hand on your image. Drag right on any tone to lighten it, left to darken it.
Luisa Mohle
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3. Try Presets:
Next, try filters and presets. Use the pull-down menu in the Black & White tool to experiment with wildly different looks for your image. If you go for the High Contrast Blue Filter, you'll get a very gritty, dirty effect. A sure way to bring out any imperfections if you have a portrait subject, this may be best left to still lifes and urban scenes (unless, of course, you really don't want to flatter your subject). Try a Red Filter for soft skin tones, but if the effect is too much, move the Reds slider left to mellow it out.
Luisa Mohle
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4. Add Grain:
Want to add a film-like grain? Adobe Camera Raw has a much more sophisticated method for adding grain than Photoshop does. So save your image as a flattened TIFF and head to Bridge. Then go to File > Open in Camera Raw. Choose the Effects tab, and zoom in on your image to 50%. Once you increase the grain by moving the Amount slider to the right, the automatic Size and Roughness will kick in. The defaults are good for adding subtle texture, but you can increase all three sliders to make your image look really grainy.
Luisa Mohle
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5. Split Tone:
Another thing ACR has over Photoshop is its tool for Split Toning, which can add a slightly different tint to your highlights than your shadows, and can add a feeling of extra depth to a black-and-white photo. Click on the Split Toning tab to get started. A classic split tone creates warmer highlights and cooler shadows. To try it, select a warm, yellow-orange hue for the Highlights and a cool blue for the shadows. Then slowly increase the Saturation for each. Shift the Balance slider left to see more of your cool Shadows tone, or to the right to see more of your warm tone.
Luisa Mohle