To start off, black and white to me just means not in color; desaturated, but can be tinted. Not sure if I’m following photography law to the red letter here, but I’ll lay that out there to clarify terms for the purpose of our discussion here.
When I first bought a digital camera and took an image into Photoshop I knew that I could take that original color picture and turn it into a black and white. What took me by surprise was that I hated it. Every single shot looked flat, gray, and dull (both in the luminance sense as well as the visual interest sense). I was perplexed. I had seen vibrant, dynamic, engaging black and white images before. And I’m using professional software – why the dumpy results?
I discovered by reading texts and online guides that black and white images are not just desaturated versions of the color originals – at least not the ones I’d remembered liking. I discovered that the colors under that black and white ‘filter’ would need to be enhanced or muted in such a way to generate contrast in the image (at least that is a big part of the conversion magic to bring the image to life). I found out that when Ansel Adams took dramatic black and white landscape images one of the techniques he employed was using a red filter on the lens to create deep, rich, even black skies and luminescent cliff faces. Pretty cool I thought.
Ok, so I did have the right tools, but not the right technique. I wasn’t going to put a red filter on my lens, but I could simulate the effect in post processing. In Photoshop CS4 and above (and maybe 3?) there is an adjustment layer you can apply called ‘black and white’ which will desaturate the image and give you sliders to control the luminance of different colors. You can also use a slider within the image by clicking on the hand-icon-with-the-two-opposing-arrows-button (whatever it’s called) and then drag left and right with the image on elements / colors within the image you want to brighten or darken. You can even choose from color filters to apply as if you were, in fact, using color filters on your lens while shooting in the first place.
Or…. you can use some very handy Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets. I often loves me a shortcut and these are slam dunks. Below I’ll show you three different images with three different processing styles applied and I’ll point you in the right direction to do these yourself should you feel so inclined.
The dramatic effect here is owed to a Lightroom preset sold by Cuba Gallery, a graphic design and photography group out of New Zealand. The preset used here is called Dark Chocolate Fashion and I’m very fond of it. One click and you get a very high contrast black and white + tint + vignette. Again, very fond.
Processing here leaning heavily on Totally Rad Actions (and presets). Love ‘em. So, great to have in your workflow. I have the actions (both libraries 1 and 2). I have the presets. Love ‘em both. What you’re witnessing in this image is me loving the Totally Rad Actions (TRA) AND presets. I converted the original image to black and white in Lightroom using TRA : BW | Great White. Then I took the image into Photoshop and applied a tone to the image called Antique Tone. I followed it up with Boutwell Magic Glasses and the vignetting action Burn-Out (masking out my subjects).
Finally, I have an edit whose look comes largely from Totally Rad again. This time it’s BW | Bodie | Medium. That gives us our slightly more compressed b&w palette with darker highlights + toning. I then used a Lightroom adjust brush to brighten up shadows under the subject’s eyes, cheeks, and neck (we were indoors and the lighting was rather directional and overhead – makes shadows. Using the ‘ol digital reflector here). And I added a gradient from the top to raise the exposure (1.5 stops) and contrast and one from below to lower exposure (.4 stops) as well as increase contrast.
And there we have it. Three different images with three different approaches to converting them to black and white.