With just a couple of exceptions, all digital cameras capture in colour, so if you want black and white images, you have two choices. You can use the camera’s monochrome mode, which will simply convert the image in-camera, or you can carry out the conversion on a computer.
This gives more control and better results, but there are several methods to choose from.
01 Convert to greyscale
If you’re using a regular photo-editor like Photoshop or Elements this looks like the simplest route as it translates colours into shades of grey in a single step. However, you’ve got no control over how the software translates colours into shades of grey – a very important tool for creating tonal contrast in black and white. Second, this is a file format with a single greyscale channel, so you can’t then add colour toning effects, e.g. sepia toning.
02 Desaturate the image
You convert colour images to black and white without swapping to greyscale mode simply by reducing the image saturation to zero. That’s fine, except that this also offers no control over how colours are translated into shades of grey.
03 Channel/colour mixing
The more sophisticated way to create monochromatic images is by adjusting the strength of each colour as it’s converted to a greyscale tone. By increasing or reducing the strength of each colour in the mix, you can make it come out darker or lighter in the black and white image.
You can only take this so far, though. Camera sensors use a mathematically interpolated ‘mosaic’ of red, green and blue photosites and by giving too much weight to specific colour ranges you soon start to exaggerate noise, edge effects and other digital processing artefacts.
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04 Profiles and LUTs
These are a comparatively recent development. Essentially, they ’remap’ the original image’s colours on to new values and can come in both colour and black and white versions. Black and white profiles and LUTs convert colour values into shades of grey, just like the previous methods, but the ‘remapping’ as been carefully crafted for specific ‘looks’.
05 Gradient Maps
This is a type of adjustment layer found in Photoshop and other programs which ‘maps’ a gradient you choose on to the brightness values in the picture. It’s not designed specifically for black and white but is very effective when you use a black-white gradient. You can even add a colour stop between the white and black end points to create toning effects.
Conversions are just the start
Successful black and white imagery depends on more than choosing the right conversion method. Black and white images also benefit from skilled dodging and burning to intensify some areas and lighten others. Toning effects can add depth and atmosphere to a black and white image, and you can recreate the appearance of traditional film and darkroom processes with borders, textures and light effects.