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 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.














View more 12 Great Photographs By Great Photographers.

Read more in The Essential Collection Of Quotes By Photographers.

View more in The Essential Collection Of Documentaries On Photographers.


Enjoy this collection of quotes by photographer Harold Edgerton.

“If you don’t wake up at three in the morning and want to do something, you’re wasting your time. ” – Harold Egerton

“When I was a boy, I read with great interest but skepticism about as magic lamp which was used with success by a certain Aladdin. Today I have no skepticism whatsoever about the magic of the xenon flash lamp which we use so effectively for many purposes.” – Harold Egerton

“The trick to education is to teach people in such a way that they don’t realize they’re learning until it’s too late.” – Harold Eugene Edgerton

“We worked and worked, didn’t get anywhere. That’s how you know you’re doing research.” – Harold Egerton

“In many ways, unexpected results are what have most inspired my photography.” – Harold Egerton

“Don’t make me out to be an artist. I am an engineer. I am after the facts, only the facts.” – Harold Egerton

“Work like hell, tell everyone everything you know, close a deal with a handshake, and have fun.” – Harold Egerton

Read more in The Essential Collection Of Quotes By Photographers.

View more in 12 Great Photographs By Great Photographers.

View more in The Essential Collection Of Documentaries On Photographers.


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.





Color to black and white conversions are radical transformations of an image. They establish the tonal foundations of a neutral image, creating tonal relationships by determining which areas of an image become light and which are dark. While this process can generate some localized effects (all blues become darker or lighter), this is quite different than selectively lightening and darkening an image to accentuate existing tonal relationships (only select blue areas become darker or lighter). Selectively enhance a tonal structure after conversion, rather than before. Selective enhancement may yield dramatic results.

Here are two ways.


Method 1

Create a new layer set to a blend mode of Overlay. Use an appropriately-sized soft-edged brush. Paint with black to darken and white to lighten. Vary the opacity of the brush to control the intensity of the effect – lower is less, higher is more. If you’re not sure what percentage to use, it’s very rare that you will be when you first begin enhancing an image, take this approach.

Paint areas with a single broad stroke and use the Fade command (Edit: Fade or Shift: Command/Control: F) to modify Opacity. (Ignore the option to change Blend Mode; this is rarely helpful and far too complex.) This allows you to determine opacity visually with a dynamic preview and generates a smoother effect. Additionally, opacity can be reduced to 0% to eliminate the effect. Note that you can only Fade the last stroke made, so until you determine a precise opacity, fade each stroke after making it. Once you know the opacity desired for a given area you can set the brush to that opacity and continue painting without fading.

If you find you’d like to reduce the effect use a soft-edged eraser, at any percentage. This way you can selectively reduce or eliminate the effect.

Use the opacity of the Brush and Eraser tools to control the opacity of the effect. If you use the Opacity of the layer to limit one part of the effect you’ll limit the effect of all areas and won’t be able to generate a stronger effect.


Method 2

Selectively lightening and darkening with an Overlay layer generates stronger or weaker variations of a simple contrast response. If you’d like to generate a more specific contrast response, use another method. Roughly select an area; create a Curves adjustment layer that generates a specific contrast response; blur the layer mask; refine the mask with a soft-edged brush. This will allow you to precisely modify brightness and contrast. Just as the effect can become more complex, so can your layer stack when you use this method. It will generate multiple adjustment layers. (File them in a Group.) For instance, you cannot lighten and darken with a single layer and you’ll need two adjustment layers for different types of contrast. That said, no other method delivers the same precision.

Use the first method for basic moves (and industrial strength problems in dark shadows and bright highlights). Use the second method for very precise moves.

Periodically turn off these effect layers to monitor your progress. You’ll be amazed at how quickly and dramatically you can enhance an 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.

Alignment XXIII

Alignment XXIII

There are many ways to convert color images to black and white.

Here’s my preferred method.

1       Optimize Color

Start with an optimized color original; set black point, white point, and lightness; clear color casts; boost saturation to reasonably high levels; avoid clipping. Use Lightroom or Camera Raw.

2       Establish a Tonal Structure

Establish a tonal structure – the relative lightness and darkness of diverse image areas. For basic global conversions use Lightroom or Camera Raw. For advanced local conversions use dual adjustment layers – Hue/Saturation below Black & White.

(The primary goal of a black and white conversion is to set the overall structure of the tonal relationship in an image. During color to black and white conversions, you’ll be tempted to perfect the lightness and contrast of an image. Resist this temptation, if it leads you to creating too much contrast, loss of shadow and highlight detail.)

3       Enhance Global Lightness and Contrast

Enhance global lightness and contrast, the relative relationships of tone, after you establish the tonal structure, the fundamental tonal relationships. Use Curves.

4       Enhance Local Lightness and Contrast

Enhance local lightness and contrast after fine-tuning global lightness and contrast. globally enhancing lightness and contrast. Use a black and/or white soft-edged brush on an empty layer set to a blend mode of Overlay. Or, for more precision, make a selection, create a Curves adjustment layer and refine the mask.

5       Add Color

Optionally, add new color or restore some of the original color, subtly or dramatically. Use a Curves adjustment layer set to a blend mode of Color. Alternately, fill globally and/or paint on locally a layer set to a blend mode of Color.

Artistic License

How light or dark should an image be? How light or dark should a specific area of an image be? How complex should a toning solution be? While there are things to watch for, shadows that are too dark, highlights that are too light, posterization and solarization ­–­ there’s no right answer. It’s a matter of interpretation. Each image will require a different treatment and each individual will generate different results depending on their objectives and personal taste. And, those may change over time. And, that may be good. Here’s where the art of imaging enters. Once you master your craft, you can more easily express the things you want to express.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about Black & White here.

Find out more about Chris Orwig here.

Find Chris’s new book The Creative Fight here.

“Chris Orwig brings unique perspective, creativity and passion to all that he does. As a photographer, he subscribes to Marc Riboud’s observation that “Photography is about savoring life at 1/100th of a second.” For Chris the adventure is now, and the journey has already begun – discover, look, listen, learn and live.”

Chris shares that what’s imperfect or broken can be a source of depth, strength, and inspiration.

Find out more about Chris Orwig here.

Find Chris’s new book The Creative Fight here.

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