A better path for black and white photo conversion


I've used several methods over the years to convert digital photos to black & white. Here's what I've learned. And don't worry if you don't have Photoshop (PS), I’ll discuss a solid free software option as well.

Starting out, the Desaturate tool in PS was the obvious choice. Using that in conjunction with the Contrast and Levels controls offered some tweakability control beyond the basic desaturation operation. While these methods may suffice for some applications, I learned a better (and more fun) way to pop some fantastic black and white photos by digging a little deeper.

If you're not familiar with the Channel Mixer in PS, prepare to meet your new black and white tool - this is the one we came to see. Your first step in the Channel Mixer dialogue is to check the “Monochrome” box – the default mix is 100% red, 0% Green, 0% Blue. Here you’ll already see a night and day difference from the desaturation method, especially if there is red involved (see desaturate vs. channel mixer 1 below). From here, we can customize the mix. Add a little green, drop a little red and blue (see channel mixer 2 below), and you’ll quickly grasp the power of this method. Generally, sticking to a total of 100% between the three channels will keep your exposure in the ballpark, but of course there is artistic freedom to push the envelope however you see fit.


Picasa is a free photo management program that in its latest version offers a color-based black and white conversion option. It’s basically the same idea as the Channel Mixer, except with a visual interface that allows you to pick your highlight color from a palette. Open your photo in Picasa 3, select the “Effects” tab, then select the “Filtered B&W” tool. Now pick your highlight color on the palette.

Similar results to PS can be achieved with Picasa, but with slightly less fidelity.  PS gives you control over each channel right down to the percentage point and allows you to "color outside the lines" a bit more with exaggerated color mixes. Whichever software you use, this method gives you more control than simple desaturation and can produce much more visually arresting black and white photos.


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