Black and white photography takes a special vision, great lighting and a good conversion technique (if you’re shooting in color). The absence of color makes other elements stand out even more. You need to be especially aware of tones, highlights and shadow.
There are lots of ways to convert a color image to black and white. One of the quickest ways to do it is in ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) by simply clicking “convert to grayscale” in the HSL/Grayscale tab.
But chances are that, if all you do is convert to grayscale, your image is going to look muddy and flat, like this:
Do you see how the above image lacks strong tonal range and has an overall gray appearance instead of a wide variety of black and white highlights and shadows? Stronger light while shooting would have helped, but with a little bit of smart post processing I can make this a better black and white image.
Let’s look at my Black and White Photography Conversion Technique in ACR
Here’s the SOOC (straight out of camera) image without any adjustments.
As you can see, it needs a few basic adjustments, including a white balance and contrast adjustment. I’ll go ahead and do that first in the “basic” tab. My edits here are not exactly what I’d do for a color image, by the way.
Since I know I’m converting this to black and white, I’m leaving it a bit darker and adding some clarity to bring out the movement and contrast in her hair and dress.
Next, I’ll click on the tone curve tab and adjust the highlights and shadow to create a little bit more tonal range in the image. I’m basically making the bright areas brighter and the dark areas darker. Make sure to check your histogram so you don’t clip shadows or blow highlights on important areas.
Then I will open the details tab and reduce the luminance noise. I want this image to look smooth and not noisy. This is a personal preference. Some people like a bit of grain in black and white photography. At times, I do too.
Next I’ll click on the HSL/grayscale tab and click “convert to grayscale.” This is where you can really see the difference from the first image. Better already, right?
Although I think this looks pretty decent already, it’s not quite there yet. I’m going to add a few more details to make it better. I want my subject to pop even more.
So, next I’ll add a bit of a vignette by clicking into the Lens Correction tab and moving the lens vignette slider to -10. I just like vignettes. If you add one here, you can play around with the slider until you get the look you want.
Now I’m going to go back into my Tone Curve tab and click on the “point” tab. I’ll create an S curve for more contrast by clicking two points on the line, one on the shadow side and one on the highlight side. Drag the shadow point down slightly and the highlight point up slightly. Don’t go too crazy with this.
And here it is the final ACR edit. This is a pretty solid black and white image. There’s good tonal range and contrast to draw our eye to the important details. We have no real need to pull this into Photoshop…
Except that I always Photoshop! I want to crop this image a bit, add a bit of dodging and burning and add a little glow. I’ll do a ‘how to convert to black and white in Photoshop’ another time, but here’s my final Photoshop edit just so you can see the difference with the subtle extra details.
Black and white photography is an art that takes practice. By eliminating color, we draw attention to movement, time, texture, light and other elements that create emotion in a photograph.
Knowing how to convert an image to black and white can help you achieve your vision and amplify your voice in photos. As your grow in your work, you’ll probably learn many black and white conversion techniques. This is important in finding your own unique style. Have fun!