Converting Color Photos To Black and White In Photoshop
Desaturating The Image
Before we look at how a Black & White image adjustment works, let’s quickly desaturate the color in our image to see what we end up with. You won’t need to do this every time you convert an image to black and white. We’re just doing this here so we can compare the result we get from simply desaturating the image with what we’re able to achieve with a Black and White adjustment.
Since we want to avoid making any permanent changes to the original color image, we’ll desaturate it using one of Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation adjustment layers. Click on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:
Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.
Then choose Hue/Saturation from the list that appears:
Choosing a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
Photoshop places the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer above the original image that’s sitting on the Background layer. This means that anything we do with the adjustment layer will be kept separate from the image itself:
The Layers panel showing the adjustment layer above the image.
The controls and options for the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer appear in Photoshop’s Properties panel. To desaturate the image, simply click on the Saturation slider and drag it all the way to the left, to a value of -100:
Dragging the Saturation slider all the way to the left.
This removes the color, leaving us with a black and white version. In my case, the result isn’t terrible; it’s just not very interesting. The sky, grass and mountains in the background are all looking rather flat and dull, and the overall image is lacking contrast:
The black and white version after desaturating the color.
The reason is that, even though colors look very different to us in, well, color, they can actually look very similar to each other in black and white. Depending on their shades, many of the colors in your image may share similar brightness values. When you remove the color, and all you’re left with are areas of similar brightness, the resulting black and white image looks flat.
What we need is a way to compensate for the similar brightness values; something that will let us lighten certain colors and darken others so that our once flat-looking image suddenly pops with contrast, detail and definition.
Let’s turn off the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer for now by clicking on its visibility icon in the Layers panel. We’ll turn it back on later so we can compare this result with what we achieve using a Black and White adjustment layer:
Turning off the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
With the adjustment layer turned off, we’re back to seeing our original, full color image once again:
The original color image returns.
Adding A Black & White Adjustment Layer
To add a Black & White adjustment layer, click once again on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:
Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.
Then choose Black & White from the list:
Choosing a Black & White adjustment layer.
Just like with the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer that we added earlier, Photoshop places the Black & White adjustment layer above the image on the Background layer, keeping our black and white version and the original, full color version completely separate from each other:
The Layers panel showing the Black & White adjustment layer above the image.
The Default Settings
If we look at our image, we see that Photoshop has already gone ahead and converted it to black and white. The result isn’t great, but it’s a start:
Photoshop applies an initial black and white conversion to the image.
To understand what’s happened, let’s look at the options and controls for the Black & White adjustment layer. You’ll find them in the Properties panel. Notice the various color sliders. There’s six of them in total; one for each of the three primary colors (Reds, Greens and Blues) and one for each of the three secondary colors (Yellows, Cyans and Magentas):
The Properties panel showing the six color sliders.
Each slider controls the brightness of a different color in the image. The Reds slider, for example, will lighten or darken any areas containing red. The Greens slider will lighten or darken areas of green. The Blues slider affects areas of, you guessed it… blue, and so on. Using these sliders, we can easily target specific areas in the image based on the color of those areas and then lighten or darken them as needed.
Notice that Photoshop has already gone ahead and set the sliders to specific values (Reds are set to 40, Yellows to 60, Greens to 40, and so on). These are the default values, and they’ll be the same for every image. Our current black and white version is the result of these default values. We’ll see how to adjust the values and create our own custom black and white version in a few moments:
The default values for the sliders.
Color? What Color?
Of course, it may seem odd that we’re talking about adjusting the brightness of colors when the image has already been converted to black and white. Or has it? Remember, our Black & White adjustment layer is completely separate from the original image. If we turn off the Black & White adjustment layer by clicking its visibility icon in the Layers panel:
Turning off the Black & White adjustment layer.
Our original, full color image returns:
The original image.
And, when we turn the Black & White adjustment layer back on by clicking again on its visibility icon (the empty square):
Turning the Black & White adjustment layer back on.
The black and white version returns. Not only does this mean that our original image remains safe and unharmed, but it also means that, even while we’re seeing the black and white version, the original colors are still there. Photoshop still knows that the sky is blue and the grass is green even while we’re seeing them as shades of gray:
Back to the black and white version.
Before we look at adjusting the sliders, let’s take a quick look at the various presets that are available to us with the Black & White adjustment. We can access the presets from the Preset option above the sliders. Initially, the Preset option is set to Default, which is why we’re currently seeing the default slider values:
The Preset option in the Properties panel.
Clicking on the word “Default” opens a list of presets that we can choose from, many of which are based on filters used in traditional black and white photography:
The Black & White presets.
We won’t go through all of the presets here since you can easily try them out on your own, but let’s take a quick look at a few of them. I’ll choose the Blue Filter preset from the top of the list:
Choosing the Blue Filter preset.
In traditional black and white photography, color filters are used to lighten or darken different areas in the image by allowing or blocking different colors of light. A blue filter, for example, would allow blue light to freely pass through it while blocking other colors to various degrees. This causes areas of blue to appear much lighter in the black and white image, while other colors appear darker.
Since the sky in my image is very blue, it appears almost entirely washed out with the Blue Filter selected. Meanwhile, the greens, yellows and reds in the rest of the image now appear much darker:
The result using the Blue Filter preset.
If we look at the color sliders with the Blue Filter preset selected and compare them with the default values, we get a better sense of what’s happened. The default settings are on the left and the Blue Filter settings are on the right.
Notice that the Reds, Yellows and Greens values have all been lowered in the Blue Filter preset, while the Cyans, Blues and Magentas have been increased. Lower values darken the colors; higher values lighten them:
Comparing the default settings (left) with the Blue Filter settings (right).
Let’s compare that to what happens when we try the Red Filter preset. I’ll select it from the list:
Choosing the Red Filter preset.
A red filter would allow red light to freely pass through it, causing areas of red to appear lighter in the black and white image, while other colors would be blocked to some degree, making them look darker.
And here, we see the result. Since blue (and more specifically, cyan) is furthest away from red in the color spectrum, my blue sky becomes the darkest part of the image. Reds and yellows are the lightest (yellow contains lots of red), while areas of green fall somewhere in the middle:
The result using the Red Filter preset.
And if we compare the color slider values for the Blue Filter and Red Filter presets, we again get a better sense of what’s happened. The Blue Filter preset is on the left; the Red Filter preset is on the right.
Notice that the Reds, Yellows and Magentas values are all higher with the Red Filter preset, which explains why those areas now appear lighter in the image. The Greens value is slightly lower than it was with the Blue Filter preset, so not a huge change there, but the Cyans and Blues values are much lower, making them the darkest part of the image:
Comparing the Blue Filter settings (left) with the Red Filter settings (right).
Let’s look at one more preset. The give our black and white image a more unique look, we can try the Infrared preset:
Choosing the Infrared preset.
Infrared photography captures light that’s just beyond the visible spectrum (“infra” means “below”, so “infrared” means “below red”), and it can give black and white images a magical, ethereal look. Grass and foliage become white, while skies and water darken to near black, creating striking contrast.
Notice the effect that the Infrared preset has on my image, as the area of yellow and green grass along the bottom is now almost pure white, while everything else, especially the sky, appears much darker:
The result using the Infrared preset.
And if we look at the color sliders in the Properties panel, we see that sure enough, the Infrared preset has set Yellows to the highest value, making them the lightest part of the image, with Greens not far behind. All of the other color values have been set much lower, with Blues, Cyans and Magentas being the lowest (and therefore the darkest):
The Infrared preset values.
Related: Non-Destructive Infrared Glow Effect
As I mentioned, we won’t go through all of the presets here since you can easily try out the rest on your own. But after looking at a few presets and comparing their settings, we have a good idea of how the color sliders impact the brightness in different areas of the image.
While the presets can serve as a great starting point, the real fun is in creating our own custom black and white version. Let’s restore the sliders back to their default values by setting the Preset option back to Default:
Selecting the Default preset.
This returns us to the original, default black and white version of the image:
The image with the default values restored.
The Auto Button
There’s one more important feature in the Properties panel that we need to look at before we start manually adjusting the sliders. That feature is the Auto button. The Auto button lets Photoshop look at the full color image to figure out what it thinks the black and white version should look like, and then lets it adjust the color sliders automatically.
Of course, Photoshop is just a software app with no sense of artistic style or creative vision. Yet while the Auto results probably won’t win us any awards, they can still give us a place to start. I’ll click the Auto button, located above the sliders:
Clicking the Auto button.
With the simple click of a button, Photoshop examines the image and creates its own black and white version. In my case, the result isn’t much different from the initial, default version. The sky is a little brighter, while everything else is a little darker. Keep in mind, though, that the Auto result depends on the image, so you may be seeing a bigger change with your image than what I’m seeing here:
The image after clicking the Auto button.
If we compare the sliders, with the default settings on the left and the Auto settings on the right, we see that my sky is now brighter because Photoshop raised the values for the Blues and Cyans, and everything else is darker because Photoshop lowered the values for the other colors:
Comparing the default (left) and Auto (right) slider values.
Manually Adjusting The Sliders
Clicking the Auto button is usually worth a try, if for no other reason than to see what Photoshop comes up with. But whether you’re starting from the Auto settings, from one of the Black & White presets, or from the default settings, at some point you’re going to want to take control and create your own custom black and white image. And to do that, all we need to do is drag the sliders! Dragging a slider to the left will darken any areas containing that color, while dragging to the right will lighten them.
For example, let’s say that I want to make the sky in my image darker. I know that the sky is blue, so to darken it, I’ll simply click on the Blues slider and drag it towards the left. There’s also lots of cyan in the sky, so I’ll click on the Cyans slider and drag it to the left as well. There are no specific values to use here. Just keep an eye on your image as you drag the sliders to judge the results:
Dragging the Blues and Cyans sliders to the left.
Here’s my image after darkening any areas containing either blue or cyan, which is mainly the sky, as well as the mountain tops:
The image after dragging the Blues and Cyans sliders.
The grassy area on the bottom of the image contains lots of green and yellow, so to balance out the contrast with the darkened sky, I’ll lighten the area by dragging the Yellows and Greens sliders to the right:
Lightening the Yellows and Greens.
On a related note, while grass, trees and plants may look very green to us, they actually contain more yellow than you might think. When trying to lighten those areas, you’ll often find that the Yellows slider has more of an impact than the Greens.
Here’s the result after lightening the grass:
The image after dragging the Yellows and Greens sliders.
The Targeted Adjustment Tool
As if dragging sliders wasn’t easy enough, there’s an even easier way to customize your black and white version, and that’s by using the Targeted Adjustment Tool. You’ll find it directly under the Preset option. Click on the tool to select it:
Selecting the Targeted Adjustment Tool.
The Targeted Adjustment Tool lets us target a specific area in the image just by clicking on it. We can then lighten or darken that area by simply dragging left or right on the area itself, rather than dragging the slider.
For example, I think the mountain tops in the background are looking too dark. I know that the main color in that area is blue, so to lighten it, I could drag the Blues slider in the Properties panel. Or, with the Targeted Adjustment Tool selected, I can simply move my mouse cursor over that area in the image. My cursor will temporarily change into the Eyedropper Tool icon. The Eyedropper Tool is what Photoshop uses to sample colors from the image:
Positioning my mouse cursor over an area that needs adjusting.
I’ll click on the image to let Photoshop sample the color from the area, then I’ll keep mouse button held down. My cursor changes from the Eyedropper Tool icon back into the Targeted Adjustment Tool icon:
Clicking and holding on the area.
With my mouse button still held down, I can either drag to the left to darken the area, or to the right to lighten it, just like I would do if I was dragging a slider. In my case, I want to lighten the area, so I’ll drag to the right. I only need to lighten it a little bit, just enough to bring back some of the detail, so I’ll drag a short distance:
Dragging to the right to lighten the mountain tops.
If you keep an eye on the Properties panel as you’re dragging with the Targeted Adjustment Tool, you’ll notice that the slider for the color you clicked on is moving along with you as you drag. In my case, since the original color of the area was blue, and I’m dragging to the right, the Blues slider moves to the right as well:
As you drag on the image, the color slider moves with you.
Keep in mind, and this applies whether you’re dragging the sliders or using the Targeted Adjustment Tool, that when you adjust a certain area, you’re not adjusting only that one area. You’re adjusting every area in the image which contains that color. In my case, lightening the mountain tops also lightened the sky because both areas contain blue:
The blue sky is now lighter after lightening the blue mountain tops.
Now that I’ve been looking at the image for a while, I’m thinking it might have been a mistake to lighten the grass in the bottom of the photo. Darkening that area would bring out more detail. Since nothing we do with the Black & White adjustment layer is permanent, it’s easy to make changes and try out different ideas.
To darken the grass, I’ll click on it with the Targeted Adjustment Tool to sample its color. Then, with my mouse button still held down, I’ll simply drag to the left until I’m happy with the result:
Clicking on the grass and dragging to the left to darken it.
Since the area I clicked on with the Targeted Adjustment Tool was yellow, Photoshop moved the Yellows slider in the Properties panel as I dragged:
Dragging on the yellow grass moved the Yellows slider.
Finally, I’ll lighten the barn by clicking on it with the Targeted Adjustment Tool to sample its color, then I’ll keep my mouse button held down as I drag to the right:
Clicking on the barn and dragging to the right to lighten it.
Since the main color of the barn was red, Photoshop moved the Reds slider to the right. If you look back at the image, you’ll notice that along with the barn, other areas that also contain lots of red, like the wooden fence, the hay behind the barn and some areas of the grass, were also lightened:
Dragging on the red barn moved the Reds slider.
Comparing The Results
In a moment, we’ll learn how to easily bring back some of the color from the original image. But now that we’ve created our own custom black and white version using a Black & White adjustment layer, let’s quickly compare our result with what we first achieved back at the beginning of the tutorial using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
First, I’ll turn off the Black & White adjustment layer by clicking its visibility icon in the Layers panel. Then, I’ll click the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer’s visibility icon below it to turn that layer on:
Turning off the Black & White adjustment layer, then turning on the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
And here, we see the original black and white version that we achieved by simply desaturating the color:
The quick, desaturated version.
To switch back to the custom version, I’ll click on the Hue/Saturation layer’s visibility icon to turn it off, then I’ll click the Black & White layer’s visibility icon above it to turn it back on:
Turning off the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, then turning on the Black & White adjustment layer.
And here is my custom version created with the Black & White adjustment layer:
The Black & White adjustment layer version.
Restoring Some Of The Original Color
At this point, we’ve learned everything we need to know to turn a full color photograph into a beautiful, custom black and white image. But just because we’ve converted it to black and white doesn’t mean it needs to be entirely black and white. Thanks to the power of adjustment layers in Photoshop, we can easily restore some of the photo’s original color.
All we need to do is lower the opacity of the Black & White adjustment layer. You’ll find the Opacity option in the upper right of the Layers panel. The default opacity value is 100%, which means that the adjustment layer is completely blocking the original image below it from view. Lower the opacity to around 90%:
Lowering the opacity of the Black & White adjustment layer.
This brings back just a hint of the original color, giving us our final result:
The slightly colorized black and white version.