As you may have realised, creating striking black and white images with Adobe Photoshop takes a little more than checking the “Convert to Greyscale” box. There are lots of different ways to optimize your monotone masterpieces, and this particular technique is my favourite for creating high contrast black and white images.
You can complete the process within the Adobe Camera RAW interface, which means RAW files work best. If you’ve got a hard drive full of JPEGs then hope is not lost, provided you’re running Photoshop CS3 or above.
First thing’s first – decide whether you’re using a photo from RAW or JPEG, and take a good one. RAW files are uncompressed images, and contain all the data that a camera sensor naturally captures. You can adjust simple settings like exposure, white balance and contrast with ease in Photoshop. As JPEGs are a compressed file format, then data is inevitably lost in the compression process. This makes JPEGs a weaker candidate for post processing. Personally I can’t help shooting RAW all the time now, just in case.
If you wish to use and process JPEGs using Adobe’s Camera RAW tool then you’ll need to fire up Bridge, navigate to your chosen images and right click the file you would like and choose Open in Camera RAW. If you’re using a RAW file, open in it Photoshop and you’ll see Adobe Camera RAW with an image preview and a box full of sliders.
You can use this technique on just about any photo, but it will work better on some than others. I’ve chosen a picture of a classic race car I took a few years ago. The original file is a RAW, and pretty ordinary looking.
The first thing to do is desaturate the image. Under the HSL/Greyscale tab check the Convert to Greyscale tick box. Photoshop will present you with a fairly flat looking black and white image, and a number of colour sliders.
Now for the fun bit! Go back to the first Basic tab and slide the Blacks all the way up to something like 70. Watch as your image loses much of its familiarity and resembles a couple of black blobs with a few really bright white bits. Seeing as this is a high contrast conversion technique, I usually double the contrast to somewhere around +50, though this is relative to the image you are using and the look you’re after.
Next we’ll be bringing back some of that lovely detail the Blacks tab removed. This part will vary on each image you process, so remember to play around at this stage. Move the Fill Light slider gradually higher until you reach your desired level of detail. Not too much, as lastly you’ll want to bring the Blacks down from 70 to something a little more normal. There’s a fine balance between the right amount of Fill Light and Blacks, so experiment to see what looks good. For my image, I reduced the Blacks to 52 and increased the Fill Light to 56.
Finally, you’ll want to fine tune your colours. Switch to the HSL/Greyscale tab and uncheck Adobe Camera RAW’s Preview box in the top right of the window. Take note of the main colours within the image, and enable the Preview again.
Tweak each colour’s appearance using its corresponding slider, deciding whether you want dark or light shades. The race car photo featured a light blue sky, green car and a reddish bin in the background. To intensify the sky, I reduced the Blue slider to -70 to make it very dark. I also reduced the green car to -48, and made the bin less noticeable by sliding the reds down to -40. There really is no right or wrong way of doing this and it’s all down to your personal taste.
Finally I used the Graduated Filter tool to darken the edges by -1.5 EV. This is a great technique for drawing the eye into the image as well as hiding unwanted foreground, and provides a less linear effect than adding an artificial vignette.
Once you’re happy with your image, head back to the Basic tab to make a couple of last minute touch-ups. To finish off, I increased the exposure by +0.6 EV as I felt it was still a little dark.
There you have it, an image with a lot more impact. You will find that the technique will differ depending on the image, so play around and see what you come up with. Don’t be afraid to lose some detail, black and white conversion allows you to fine-tune and pick out the best bits. Good luck!
Have you tried this technique? Do you have another way of converting your black and whites? Add a comment and let us know!