In my presentation (sponsored by Canon) at B&H’s OPTIC 2016 Conference I share unique insights into black and white photography including – why black and white are colors, why you need color management, ways of seeing in black and white, how to prepare files for conversion to black and white, how to tone black and white images, 5 classic styles of black and white photography and more.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Read more with my black and white resources.

View more in my DVD Black and White Mastery.




Learning to see in black and white has changed. Prior to the 21st century, black and white photographers developed a heightened sensitivity to intensity and direction of light as well as tonal relationships between highlights and shadows. For the most part, they discounted the appearance of hue and saturation, with a few exceptions.

These perceptual skills are still very important for 21st century digital black and white photographers. But, today, previsualizating possibilities becomes much more challenging. Because you can make any hue light or dark, globally or locally, dramatically extending the variability of an image’s tonal structure, the two additional variables, hue and saturation, need to be factored in rather than factored out.

You’ll find that images containing a variety of saturated colors, offer the widest range of possibilities, while those that don’t offer fewer possibilities; neutral areas won’t shift and relative relationships between highlights and shadows will hold. The transformations during color to black and white conversions can be so dramatic and varied that you’ll find it extremely challenging to compare all of the possibilities in your head. Instead, compare several conversions side-by-side. Today’s tools are so efficient that you’ll be able to make and compare many variations in a very short time. Move from pre-visualization to vizualization.

Along with these new possibilities comes flexibility. With analog processes these relationships are fixed at the moment of exposure; with digital processes they are not. Keep your options open. Preserve your original color data. Avoid in camera conversions. Don’t replace your original color data with converted data. Archive layered files. You can modify the conversion of a color original indefinitely. So, from time to time, consider revisiting finished files . You may be able to improve them.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.



 There are at many ways to convert an image from color to black and white. Here’s a roundup and evaluation of the top seven plus a set of considerations to help you choose the best one for your needs.

1          Desaturate

Desaturate or use the Saturation slider to make all the channels the same without control over the mix. Desaturaton is useful for near neutral images, otherwise it produces compressed tonal structure.

2          Convert Mode To Grayscale

Grayscale conversions eliminate all channels but one. The default mix is 59% Green, 29% Red, 11% Blue. This can be customized by targeting a single channel before conversion, to get 100% of any channel in any color space, including Lab. Quick and direct, this method eliminates future flexibility; its limited use is to create Grayscale images for reproduction but it’s not the best way to make a conversion from color to black and white.

3          Channel Mixer

The Channel Mixer set to Monochrome allows you to customize the mix of channels and can be used as an adjustment layer, which allows you to change the mix at any time in the future.

4          Black & White Adjustment Layer

The Black & White adjustment layer’s intuitive interface offers exceptional independent control over the conversion of individual hues.

5          Raw Converter

Using RAW converter (Lightroom or ACR) The settings in Lightroom can be changed indefinitely and this flexibility can be preserved if files are imported into Photoshop as a smart object. In Photoshop, the Camera Raw filter offers all of this and the ability to use dual adjustment layers. When compared to Photoshop’s Black & White adjustment layer, Raw converter sliders add two more points of control – Purple and Orange.

6          Dual Adjustment Layers

Place a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer below another adjustment layer that converts color to black and white (Camera Raw filter , Black & White or Channel Mixer adjustment layers) and you’ve got the ultimate conversion preview. Move the Hue slider and cycle through all possible global conversion permutations in seconds. For more control add masks to multiple Hue/Saturation adjustment layers to make localized conversions.

This is my preferred method for all but the most challenging black and white to color conversions.


7          Turn Channels Into Layers

Channels as layers give you all of the above and the ability to use Blend If sliders and masks to make conversion selective. Consider adding channels from multiple color spaces like the L channel from LAB or the K channel from CMYK. This more complex method produces is less intuitive and produces a larger file size, but it still offers the ultimate in control.

Which option should you choose?

Here are a few criteria to weigh.

1          Power and precision

Get the control you need to get where you want to go.

2          Flexibility

Favor methods that offer the flexibility of being able to change any aspect of a conversion at any time in the future, including returning to the full color version. In Adobe Photoshop use adjustment layers or layers. When using Adobe Camera RAW open images as a Smart Object.

3          A good preview

View before and after states simultaneously to help you make more informed decisions.

4          Easy to use

When faced with multiple options with equal functionality favor the simpler one.

5          Simpler file setup

Apply the KISS principle whenever possible.

6          Leaner file size

Smaller files are faster and easier to store.

This is my preferred ranking of these criteria, you’ll want to modify these according to the needs of a given situation.

I favor using dual adjustment layers (Camera Raw filter and Black& White) 90% of the time and occasionally use channels as layers for files with special needs.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.

How Gray is Gray?

November 16, 2015 | Leave a Comment |



In the vernacular the phrase “black and white” can be used to describe definitive answers, while the use of the phrase “gray areas” often means an area defies easy definition making it difficult to draw hard and fast lines.

While there is a general consensus as to what constitutes the colors black, white and gray, opinions vary significantly when it comes to identifying absolute blacks, whites, and grays.

Which of these colors is absolutely neutral? Which are warmer than neutral? Which are cooler than neutral? All of them are nearly neutral when compared to fully saturated colors. More importantly, which colors do you prefer? Which colors would most enhance the images you are producing?

It ‘s helpful to sensitize yourself to these many possibilities and to identify your personal preferences.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.


high key


mid key full scale


mid key high contrast


high contrast


low key

Most successful artists define a consistent palette for their life’s work, for periods during their careers, or for individual bodies of work. It’s one of the primary things that creates an easily recognizable signature style. This is as true for black and white photographers as it is color photographers.

You can precisely describe black and white palettes by identifying the overall lightness or key (high – light, medium, low – dark) and the amount of contrast (high, medium, low, none) held in three ranges of tones – shadows (zones 0-3), midtones (zones 4-7), and highlights (zones 8-10). Put more broadly, the dominant range of tone is identified first and then each range of tone can be described as expanded or compressed; a range of tone that does not exist in an image could be described as fully compressed.

Here are a few examples of black and white palettes drawn from the history of photographic practice both past and present.

Ansel Adams helped define the most widely used or classic black and white palette, using pure blacks, with deep shadows containing subtle detail shadows, almost pure whites slightly darker than the substrate carrying the image, with highlights containing subtle detail, and many shades of gray. This full scale palette uses a high degree of contrast in all three ranges of tone – shadows, midtones, and highlights.

The classic black and white palette is often varied slightly; most frequently less shadow detail is preserved. Greg Gorman modifies the classic black and white palette by deliberately eliminating deep shadow detail, creating a slightly more graphic appearance to enhance both the formal and dramatic aspects of his work.

It’s rare for an artist to use pure white, revealing the paper base within the image area. This is particularly problematic when a highlight intersects the image border; if it is pure white the border of the image (typically rectangular) is broken becoming a highly complex shape rather than a simple geometric one. Because it emphasizes the shape of the border, this practice emphasizes the graphic nature of images.

Alfred Stieglitz’s work epitomizes the many soft subtle moods of alternative or historic processes (such as platinum) with soft blacks and whites that compress the entire tonal scale. This medium key palette uses medium shadow contrast, high midtone contrast, and medium highlight contrast.

On occasion Harry Callahan employed a highly graphic black and white palette, using only a few blacks and whites and eliminating all grays. This high contrast palette uses a low degree of contrast in the shadows, no contrast in the midtones, and a low degree of contrast in the highlights.

Matt Mahurin constrains his use of tone to a few midtones and a great many shadows with very little detail, creating a mysterious effect. This very low key palette uses no highlight contrast, medium midtone contrast, and low shadow contrast.

Joyce Tenneson’s ethereal early work was extremely high key, comprised almost entirely of delicate highlight tones, containing almost no midtones and trace amounts of black or near black. This very high key palette uses low shadow contrast, low midtone contrast, and high highlight contrast. Her style has since changed becoming full scale and warm toned.

None of the above palettes addresses the addition of subtle tints (hue and saturation) to images, which can substantially enhance the expressive characteristics of each palette. This is one more set of variables that can further expand expressive possibilities for visual artist’s.

These strategies for structuring tonal relationships can also be applied to working with full color images. The tonal structure (luminosity) of an image often lays the foundations for subsequent hue and saturation choices.

With practice and application comes realization. Given time and thought, you’ll be more able to articulate, to yourself and others, what it is you want to express.

Artist’s visions evolve and change. So do their palettes. It’s highly likely yours will too. Your palette can be varied appropriately and consistently to reflect this.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.

Suffusion XX

neutral image

The division between color and black and white in photography has been over emphasized based on the limitations of 20th century processes. 21st century processes are significantly different and beg a reconsideration of this division. Today, when we make black and white images we typically capture, process, and print with color.

When people use the term black and white they generally mean neutral (without saturation or bias towards one or more hues). Typically the use of the phrase “black and white” also encompasses warm and cold toned monochromatic images, cross-toned duochromatic images, and in some cases subtly tinted polychromatic images. The guiding principle behind these related but varied palettes is an emphasis on luminosity values, along with a restrained use of hue and very low levels of saturation.

There are many exceptions to these rules. Some heavily toned “black and white” images contain rich colors, sepia and cyanotype, for instance. By comparison, some images captured and reproduced in full color use hue and saturation in more restrained ways than other images typically described as black and white.

There are many blacks and whites. It’s not that black and white aren’t colors. It’s that they’re very specific colors. If you can see it, it’s color; color is a physical phenomenon, a biologic reaction, and a psychological response. So how much or how little of the rainbow would you like to use? Your choices create your personal palette, an essential aspect of any visual artist’s signature style. Endless possibilities await you.


warm-toned image


cool-toned image

Triple Goddess

selectively toned image


semi-neutral image


full color white image


full color black image

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.

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