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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Less colour, more drama

Getting good black and white digital shots doesn't require rocket science.
ST701 Editorial Team - January 22, 2008
By: Mike Lee
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Less colour, more drama

Getting good black and white digital shots doesn't require rocket science. MIKE LEE gives some tips

BLACK and white photographs hold a special allure of their own.

Think of the rush of nostalgia you feel as you look at your grandmother's youth portrait, and the emotional impact of a photojournalist's shot such as Sebastiao Salgado's portraits of toiling workers or Huynh Cong Ut's shot of the screaming girl hit by napalm in the Vietnam War.

The neat thing about digital photography is that you can start with a colour image and convert it to black and white - and have the best of both worlds.

Yet you may ask: why not shoot directly in the camera's black and white mode setting, if my final goal is a black and white image?

This may be convenient, but it seldom creates optimal results.

The camera disregards colour contrast, and relies only on luminance or brightness values to create the black and white image.

So, two different subjects - say a green leaf on a brown table - that has the same luminance would be easily differentiated in a colour photo, but not so if shot in the camera's black and white mode setting.

So, shoot in the original colour mode, and you retain more image information to do conversions in the digital darkroom.

As opposed to 256 levels or 8-bits of grey to start with, you have 16.7 million colours or 24-bit colour to convert from.

Also, if you have been converting colour photos to black and white by changing the mode of the photo to greyscale within your photo-editing program, stop. The results tend to be flat. With manual conversion, you alleviate such problems.

Here are two methods to get you going.


There are various ways to manually convert colour to black and white on your PC. The most common method cited is the Channel Mixer method. Here, data from the Red, Blue, and Green channels of the photo are 'mixed' into a single monochromatic one.

However, consumer-level photo-editors such as Photoshop Elements do not have the Channel Mixer function.

So, I will talk about the Hue-Saturation method here, instead. It works both in Photoshop Elements as well as in its scaled-up, professional-level Photoshop program.

First, open the photo to be converted. Select Layer, New Adjustment Layer, then Hue-Saturation. Repeat to create another Hue-Saturation Adjustment Layer. On this top layer adjust the Saturation slider all the way to the left to remove colour from the image. Then click on the other Hue-Saturation Adjustment Layer, and click Edit. Adjust the Lightness settings of various colours to create the tones you want - slide left to darken, and right to lighten (see photo above).

To further refine your image, you could also use the Dodge and Burn tools to lighten and darken specific areas in your photo - say, to clear up shadows under the eyes or to reduce the silver-hair effect. That's just like how it used to be done in a traditional darkroom, except that it's faster with mouse-clicks than shielding or exposing specific areas of the photo paper to light.


Pure black and white shots can be given a subtle twist with a technique called toning. It has its origins in traditional darkroom processes where black and white photo prints are toned with noble metals such as platinum and palladium to increase the print's archival quality, as well as subtly warming the neutral - and somewhat duller-looking - monochromatic tones.

To tone your converted image, add a new Hue-Saturation Adjustment Layer upon the existing layers, and check Colorise. Then, set the Saturation to around five, and adjust the Hue slider to find a tone that you are comfortable with. Too subtle an effect? Set the Saturation higher.

Simpler, direct interface

If the Hue-Saturation method is too troublesome - particularly if you have multiple images to convert - there's a single interface you can turn to.

With Photoshop Elements versions 5 and 6, and Photoshop CS3, you can pull up a single interface to quickly convert colour to black and white. In that interface, you can adjust sliders and preview changes instantly within a single dialog box.

In Photoshop Elements 5 and 6, go to Enhance, Convert to Black and White. While this method doesn't offer as much control over settings as the Hue-Saturation method, it provides various quick presets such as for landscapes and portraits.

Photoshop CS3's Black and White Adjustment Layer option (found under Image, Adjustments) offers the most controls: besides being able to adjust the additional cyan, blue and magenta channels as in the Hue-Saturation method, the interface also allows you to easily create toning effects.

Plus, quick presets emulating the effects of photographic lens filters commonly used in black and white photography can be selected - such as using a red lens filter to accentuate contrast.


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