Nine Steps to Better Digital Black and White

By Cort Anderson Back to

(Left to Right) Original color file with no corrections. Color and density corrected color image. Black and white version after Image > Mode > Grayscale conversion. (Left to Right) Original color file with no corrections. Color and density corrected color image. Black and white version after Image > Mode > Grayscale conversion.

Since my 7th grade science teacher took the time to show me how to develop film and make prints, almost everything I made was on black and white film. As I started shooting digital about ten years ago I wanted to do black and white digitally but was disappointed in the results I was getting. It took a couple of years of experimenting with different methods and various printers but I slowly created a digital black and white process that is simple, repeatable and has great results. Here are the nine steps that make up my basic digital black and white workflow.

Final black and white with Curves Adjustment Layer and sharpened

1. Great digital black and white starts before you even press the shutter. Not every shot is going to look good in black and white. If your goal is black and white you need to think about that from the beginning.

One of the hardest things to do is to be able to look past the color in the image and look at the luminance or brightness. Items with very different colors but similar luminance values will blend together into similar shades of gray when you convert to black and white. Different shades of the same color will often convert to distinct shades of gray.

Color can cover flaws in a photograph, people are ‘hit’ with strong colors and often miss small things like an area that is a bit soft in focus or a composition that is a little off. When we take the color away all of those little details become much more important. In black and white good basic photographic skills such as focus, composition and lighting become critical.

2. Good black and white starts with good color. This is something that many photographers miss when converting to black and white. They often see black and white as a way to deal with poor color in an image. A poorly exposed photograph with bad color is not going to convert well to black and white. The problems you have with the color image will carry over to the black and white version and in some cases can be worse. You will get much better results if you take a little extra time to get the color and density correct on the color version.

Night Church

3. Keep as much image data as possible throughout your workflow. Many processes in digital photography are destructive and remove data from the image. While this may not be a problem early on in a workflow, it can be an issue later when working with that image— the data may be needed but is not there.

When possible I shoot RAW and convert to 16-bit ProPhoto RGB files and maintain a 16-bit workflow until I save a final version for printing. This allows for maximum flexibility and quality when making adjustments to the photograph.

4. Get a full scale conversion. There are almost as many different ways of doing color to black and white conversions as there are photographers doing black and white. The problem with many conversion methods is they reduce the tonal range in the conversion leaving you with little or no room to make any contrast or density adjustments after the conversion.

Many photographers disagree, but I have found using Mode to convert to Grayscale to be a simple and effective method of doing conversions. You get a good, full tonal range and maintain a maximum amount of image data. For the occasional problem image you can use Channel Mixer to take full control of how much of each channel is included in your final image. This is where you should spend some time and experiment to find the method that gives you the best result for your images.

This is an example of different colors with similar luminance values being converted to grayscale. Although you start with very different colors you end up with very similar shades of gray. This can be fixed by using different conversion methods that give you control over how much of each color is included in the conversion.
This is an example of the same color with different luminance values being converted to grayscale. Even though the color is the same you have three distinct shades of gray.

5. Less is more. Photographers often get caught in the thinking that things have to be complicated to work well. Often there are simple processes and procedures that work as well if not better than the complicated ones. You can use a single Curves Adjustment Layer in Adobe Photoshop to make a variety of density and contrast changes to your image. It is a non-destructive process that takes advantage of a full tonal range and maximum image data.

6. A pure black is key to contrast. If you have areas in your photograph that are black make sure they are a true 100% black in grayscale or 0/0/0 in RGB. If your blacks are even the smallest bit lighter than pure black your final image is going to look flat and weak. Make sure that you have more than just a few tiny areas of black—this may mean sacrificing a small amount of shadow detail to get the needed amount of pure black.

7. Keep in balance. A good black and white photograph is a delicate balance of contrast, detail and tonal range. If you go too far with one, the others suffer. This three-way balancing act is different for each image and you need to be aware of what happens when you weight one side too heavily.

8. Master your files. Preparing files for printing includes some destructive steps like resizing and sharpening. It is a good idea to save a “Master” version of your file after you have completed all of your work but before resizing or sharpening. Then make copies of your master file to use for printing.

9. Know your prints. There are two basic methods, photographic and inkjet with variations of each and hybrid methods combining both.

MT’s Gate of Faces

Labs can make black and white photographic prints using standard color paper. The problem with this method is it is difficult to get totally neutral black and white on color material. It usually results in an unwanted color cast of some kind. This is why many photographers choose to intentionally add an overall color tone to their black and white images to overcome any unwanted cast.

A few labs use true black and white photographic paper for digital black and white prints. The digital image is exposed in a digital enlarger onto a special photographic paper designed for digital exposure. This process eliminates any unwanted color cast to the final image. While these prints sometimes cost more and are less available than standard color prints, there can be a big difference in quality and are worth the additional investment.

Wigwam Motel, Route 66

Labs that output using inkjet printers use either color or dedicated black and white ink sets. One advantage of inkjet prints is the wide range of papers available for creative effect. Newer color inkjet printers usually include at least one shade of gray ink in addition to black ink. Getting neutral black and white prints from an inkjet printer is usually much easier than getting neutral results from a color photographic lab.

You can also get inkjet prints using dedicated black and white ink sets that can have as many as six different shades of gray plus black. These inks can produce a range of tones and print quality that is above any other method. The drawback is these prints are usually much more expensive that any other type of prints.

Resources: Black and White Photographic Prints: Dalmatian Black & White: dalmatianlab.com, Fromex-trueblackandwhiteprints.com, H&H Color Lab – hhcolorlab.com, PC Color Lab – pccolour.com, Digital Silver Imaging – digitalsilverimaging.com; Black and White inkjet: Jon Cone’s Inks – inkjetmall.com, MIS Inks – inksupply.com, Quad Tone RIP – quadtonerip.com


About the Author

Cort Anderson
00094
Cort Anderson studied photojournalism at Kansas State University and went on to work for newspapers and a wire service. Cort is the owner of Oypx, LLC, providing graphics software and digital black and white training for photographers. He offers guided trips for photographers in rural areas and along parts of Route 66. Cort enjoys leaving his home in Belle Plaine, Kansas, to travel America’s back roads looking for interesting images in uninteresting places. cortanderson.com