How to convert photos to black & white
Monochrome images can sometimes achieve something that colour photos can’t. Removing the colour from a picture can change the feel of it and create a whole new mood. It might enable you to look more at patterns and shapes, for example, without the distraction of colour. (See also my blog post on snow photography & winter landscapes). Digital cameras can be set to record black and white jpeg files. However, you are then limited in what you can do in post-production. It is normally better to shoot RAW files so that you can play around with the image with more control and less chance of losing quality. You may find it helpful (if your camera allows it) to shoot a RAW file and a jpeg black and white image at the same time. This would enable you to get a rough idea of how a monochrome version might look. I prefer to shoot in colour, using my imagination to pre-visualise a possible black and white conversion.
As an example of the process I go through, here is a recent monochrome landscape image I created:
This is a photograph of Whitby Abbey on the coast in Yorkshire, England. It is an iconic landmark, despite being in ruins, and is looked after by English Heritage. From the Abbey you can also get wonderful views over the bay at Whitby, so it is well worth a visit.
This is the starting image that I chose to convert to monochrome:
The first step is to neaten up the composition. I shot this one with the intention of cropping later to a 2:1 format, losing a lot of the blank sky. My main processing tool is Lightroom. There are others available, of course, but I find this easy to use, effective and love the fact that the editing is non-destructive. So, after importing the image into Lightroom, I cropped it to my intended shape and removed a couple of little blemishes and a seagull that was in the way (just off-centre above the Abbey). I then balanced the image a little more with some tweaking of the shadows and highlights and the overall exposure before clicking “black & white”.
The resulting image is not bad, but I felt that it could do with some remixing. For me, the building was still a little dark and the stonework didn’t show off its character quite enough. So, the next step was to tweak the colour levels. Lightroom allows you to control how bright or dark each of 8 colour types becomes in the black and white conversion. For example, by sliding the orange slider to the right, I was able to lighten the stonework. On the right is the image after changing the grey mix levels.
Clearly now the image looks a little washed out. However, I got it to this state because of the next step I had in mind. Now, I spent some time working on the contrast/clarity levels. For me, I find I get the best results when working at different levels of contrast or clarity rather than applying one universal change. By that I mean changing the micro contrast to bring out the details in the clouds whilst keeping the broad level contrast between pure blacks and whites still fairly low. Sometimes with an image like this, if you simply bump up the contrast slider you can get a very polarised black and white image. I didn’t want that. I was after more nuances in the image. So, I made adjustments using Topaz plugins. This enabled me to achieve the finished result seen at the start of this post.
So, as you can see there is more than one way to convert photos to black & white. You can achieve quite different results depending on how you process the file. You may prefer one of the other stages to my final image, in which case go for it. As with all photography processing, do what you like the look of and enjoy. Don’t just copy me or anyone else – find your own unique style.
I don’t simply run everything through presets either. Yes, you can create presets to help you along the way, but I prefer to respond to the individual needs of each image in the conversion process. Here is another image with the in-between stages of conversion:
The original file (after a little cropping) on is on the left. I changed my mind about the crop when doing the initial conversion to produce the image on the right.
Below you can see the final two stages of the conversion process. In some ways I could have stopped with this 3rd image, but I wanted to make the scene look a bit more rugged and rough so I decided to push things further to create the final version. I would be quite happy using either of the two, depending on the feeling I wanted to evoke in the viewer.
My style is to go for quite strong levels of contrast in a monochrome conversion. I am usually not keen on black and white photos that are all gentle shades of grey. For me, a good monochrome image will have many shades of grey but will also push towards the limits of black and white as well. I find this gives a more dynamic, arresting feel to the final image. Again, this is personal taste, so do what you prefer.
It helps to have appropriate images when trying to convert photos to black & white. Not all images will convert equally as well. It often helps if the scene has a fair bit of contrast already present. See if you can begin to pre-visualise what the scene before you might look like in monochrome. After you’ve done the processing, did it turn out as you thought it might? Did removing the colour add something to the image or take away from it? Sometimes you might need to leave it in colour. Experiment as much as you can and you will find that your skills in taking the images and processing them will keep improving. I’m still learning too!
© Joe Lenton, March 2015