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Boost Color Contrast With A Black And White Adjustment In Photoshop

Written by Steve Patterson.

Back in Photoshop CS3, Adobe introduced the Black & White image adjustment, which finally gave us an easy and natural way to convert color photos to black and white. Yet just because something was built for a specific purpose doesn’t mean we can’t find other uses for it as well, which is exactly what we’re going to do in this tutorial. Rather than using the Black & White adjustment to remove the color from a photo, we’ll learn how it can also be used, when combined with one of Photoshop’s layer blend modes, to quickly and easily make custom brightness and contrast adjustments to a full color image!

I’ll be using Photoshop CS5 for this tutorial. Since the Black & White adjustment was first added in Photoshop CS3, you’ll need CS3 or higher to follow along.

Here’s the photo I’ll be working with:

A photo of two horses on a ranch. Image © 2012 Steve Patterson.

The original photo.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Add A Black & White Adjustment Layer

Before we can do anything with a Black & White adjustment layer, we first need to add one. There’s a couple of ways we can do that. One is by clicking on the New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Photoshop New Adjustment Layer icon. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking on the New Adjustment Layer icon.

Then choosing Black & White from the list of adjustment layers that appears:

Adding a Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Choosing a Black & White adjustment layer.

Or, if you’re using Photoshop CS4 or higher, an easier way to add a Black & White adjustment layer is by simply clicking on the Black & White icon in the Adjustments panel:

Choosing a Black and White adjustment layer from the Adjustments panel in Photoshop. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking on the Black & White icon in the Adjustments panel (Photoshop CS4 and higher).

Either way adds a new Black & White adjustment layer above the image in the Layers panel:

The Layers panel showing the new Black & White adjustment layer. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

The Layers panel showing the newly added adjustment layer (Black & White 1).

The adjustment layer will go ahead and do what it was originally designed for and convert your photo to black and white. We’ll bring the color back in the next step:

The photo has been converted from color to black and white. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

The photo has been temporarily converted from color to black and white.

Step 2: Change The Blend Mode To Soft Light

To bring color back to the image, change the blend mode of the adjustment layer from Normal to Soft Light. The Blend Mode option is found in the top left corner of the Layers panel:

Changing the blend mode of the Black & White adjustment layer to Soft Light. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Changing the blend mode of the Black & White adjustment layer to Soft Light.

The color returns to the photo. You may already notice a change in the overall contrast of the image, but we’ll make our own adjustments in the next step:

THe photo is once again in color. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

The photo is once again in color after changing the layer blend mode.

Step 3: Drag The Color Sliders To Adjust The Contrast

If you’re using Photoshop CS3, the controls and options for the Black & White adjustment layer will appear in a dialog box. In Photoshop CS4 and higher, they appear in the Adjustments panel. In either case, you’ll see six sliders, each controlling a different color in the image (from top to bottom – Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues, and Magentas):

The six color sliders for the Black and White adjustment in Photoshop. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Six sliders, each controlling a different color.

We can use these sliders to adjust the brightness of different areas of the image based on their color. Dragging a slider towards the left will darken all areas in the image that contain that color, while dragging the slider towards the right will brighten those same areas.

For example, let’s say I want to darken the sky in my photo. The sky is blue, so all I need to do is click on the Blues slider and drag it to the left:

Dragging the Blues slider to the left to darken the sky in the image. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Dragging the Blues slider to the left.

And just like that, the sky now appears darker, changing the overall contrast of the image:

The blue sky now appears darker after dragging the Blues slider. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

The blue sky has been darkened after dragging the Blues slider.

If I want to brighten the grass and the trees, it’s as easy as dragging a different slider in the opposite direction. There’s actually more yellow than green in the grass and trees, so I’ll click on the Yellows slider and drag it towards the right. Photoshop gives us a live preview of the results as we’re dragging the sliders, so keep an eye on your image in the document window to judge the results:

Dragging the Yellows slider to the right to brighten the grass and trees in the image. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Dragging the Yellows slider to the right.

After dragging the Yellows slider, the grass and trees in my image are now lighter, again changing the overall contrast:

The grass and trees now appear lighter after dragging the Blues slider. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

The image after dragging the Yellows slider.

Clicking And Dragging On The Image Itself

If you’re using Photoshop CS4 or higher, it’s even easier to make changes to the image. In fact, there’s no need to use the sliders at all! Just click on the slider icon (the hand with the left and right-pointing arrows) in the top left of the Adjustments panel:

The slider icon in the top left of the Adjustments panel in Photoshop. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking on the slider icon (Photoshop CS4 and higher).

With this slider option enabled, you can click directly on whatever area of your image you want to adjust, then just keep your mouse button held down and drag left or right to darken or lighten that area (along with any other areas of the image that share the same color).

For example, to make the horses in my photo appear brighter, with the slider option enabled, I’ll move my mouse cursor over one of the horses (I’ll use the one on the right). Since both horses are the same color, brightening one of them will brighten the other at the same time. As soon as you move your mouse cursor over the image, it will turn into an eyedropper icon, ready to sample whatever color you click on:

Moving the eyedropper icon over one of the horses in the photo. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Moving the eyedropper over the horse on the right.

I’ll click on the horse and, with my mouse button held down, I’ll drag towards the right to lighten the horse, as well as any other areas of the image that share the same color (the other horse on the left, plus the red barn in the background). If you watch the sliders in the Adjustments panel, you’ll see the corresponding color slider moving as you drag your mouse (in my case here, the Reds slider would be moving to the right):

Clicking and dragging to brighten the horse. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking and dragging towards the right to brighten the horses.

Since we’re using an adjustment layer, all of the changes we’re making here are non-destructive, which means we can safely experiment with the color sliders, or by clicking and dragging directly on the image itself, until we’re happy with the results. Earlier I lightened the grass and trees, but if I want to see how the image would look with the grass and trees darker instead of lighter, I can just click anywhere on the grass or trees in the image and drag my mouse towards the left:

Clicking and dragging to darken the grass and trees in the photo. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking and dragging to darken the grass and trees.

Before And After

If, at any time, you want to compare the original and edited versions of the image, simply click on the adjustment layer’s visibility icon (the eyeball icon). This will temporarily turn the Black & White layer off:

Clicking the layer visibility icon for the Black & White adjustment layer. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking on the visibility icon to hide the adjustment layer.

With the adjustment layer turned off, the original image re-appears in the document window:

A photo of two horses on a ranch. Image © 2012 Steve Patterson.

Back to the original photo.

Click on the visibility icon again (the empty box) to turn the Black & White adjustment layer back on:

Clicking the layer visibility icon again to turn the Black & White adjustment layer back on. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Clicking the empty visibility icon to turn the adjustment layer back on.

The edited version re-appears:

The photo with custom contrast changes using a Black & White adjustment layer. Image © 2012 Steve Patterson.

The work in progress.

For Photoshop CS3 users, click OK in the top right corner of the Black & White dialog box when you’re done to close out of it and accept your changes. Photoshop CS4 (and higher) users can leave the Adjustments panel open.

Step 4: Lower The Layer Opacity (Optional)

As a final step, if you think the image contrast is now a bit too strong, you can reduce it and fine-tune the results simply by lowering the opacity of the Black & White adjustment layer. You’ll find the Opacity option directly across from the Blend Mode option at the top of the Layers panel. The further you lower the opacity value, the more the original image below the adjustment layer will show through. I’m going to lower my opacity value down to 75% or so:

Lowering the opacity of the Black & White adjustment layer. Image © 2012 Photoshop Essentials.com

Lower the adjustment layer’s opacity to fine-tune the contrast level.

Here’s my final result:

The final result. Image © 2012 Steve Patterson.

The final result.

And there we have it! That’s how to quickly and easily make specific brightness and contrast changes to a full color image using a Black & White adjustment layer! Check out our Photo Retouching section for more Photoshop image editing tutorials!

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