Tutorial: Converting to Black and White

Convert to B&W In-Camera or in Post?

There’s an acronym that I like: ELBIBAW – Everything Looks Better In Black And White. However, it’s not necessarily always true.

If you decide to set your camera to shoot in black and white mode, you’ll eventually notice a phenomenon in which your images look pretty similar. The ranges of gray values are much more limited and static. Bland, even.

Also, if you shoot in JPEG, it also limits your editing choices in the post-process stage. Your camera strips all color data information, which makes it difficult to tweak the tonal values. However, if you shoot in RAW, the image file will retain the color information while displaying the image in B&W (yet another reason to shoot in RAW!).


A Tip

If you don’t have access to editing software or can’t shoot in RAW (and even if you do/can), keep this in mind:
Before you press that shutter button, try to mentally strip away the colors. Is there enough variation in your light, dark and gray tones? The more tones you have in your scene, the more likely your camera will be able to process the image with a more dynamic range of B&W values.


Here’s an example of a rather bland scene that I converted using the default B&W setting:

by Zombie Photography

While there’s some black and white, the tonal values of the grays don’t vary much. If it weren’t for that wave in the background, the sky would blend in with the water nearly seamlessly.

In contrast (also converted using default B&W setting):

by Zombie Photography

Because of the light values ranging from light to very dark, the default B&W conversion is a bit more striking.

Converting to B&W

Let’s say you have a color image that’s bland and dull, similar to the pelican shot, and you really like it despite the flat tones.

Side note: I normally edit my images in Adobe’s Raw Editor because it’s less destructive to the image, but it’s a pita to take screenshots. So, for this tutorial, I’m editing in CS4 Photoshop.

This is the original pelican image in all its glory.

by Zombie Photography

It’s an okay image. There’s a few other problems, other than its bland colors and tones. The composition isn’t the greatest, to name one issue. Regardless, I like it.

First thing I’ll do is adjust the contrast – it’ll help bring out the different light values. You can use either Curves or the Contrast slider. I find that Curves is more destructive and the image can get pretty noisy if I get too heavy-handed. Remember, less is more!

I decided to mask out the bird and the frothy waves because I didn’t want the bird to be a black blob, and the foam, which was already in danger of being blown (aka overexposed), to turn into formless white.

by Zombie Photography

After some deliberation, I decided to pull down the dark in curves while using the same mask as the Contrast adjustment. This helped boost the contrast in the water.

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Very minor and subtle change, but it will make a difference when converting to B&W.

The next part is fun. Well, fun for me. Converting to B&W! I set the sliders to the default to compare it against the original default b&w.

by Zombie Photography
Left is with curve and contrast tweaks; right is the original default b&w

Big improvement already. If I had gotten this kind of tone variation in-camera in the first place, I could’ve avoided making these little tweaks and skipped ahead to B&W conversion.

Next I played with the sliders in the B&W adjustment a bit until I get a result I liked the best. I tend to like high-contrast B&Ws, but that’s just personal tastes. I had to be careful here, however – because I’m editing this in Photoshop instead of Adobe’s Raw Editor, it’s quite easy to overdo it, which can result in artifacts or noise.

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Compared to original default.

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Left is with custom B&W settings; right, original default

Very subtle editing, but it does help improve the image.

Here’s the final image in its entirety.

by Zombie Photography

There are a number of other ways to convert to B&W; my method is by no mean the best and only one. This tutorial, I hope, helps illustrate how shooting in color and converting in post can be the better method.

P.S. Thanks for the well wishes! It was probably a 24-hour bug.

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4 thoughts on “Tutorial: Converting to Black and White

  1. Thanks, interesting. Every time I look at my pix in B&W I think they lack animation. Your pelican does look better, but the other colour shot doesn’t which I guess is the point of the tutorial….

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing! I love reading about the editing process of others.

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