Friday, January 8, 2010

Tutorial: The "Seeing in Black and White" Black and White Conversion

The “Seeing in Black and White” Black and White Conversion!

As I am sure you noticed by now, I like black and white photographs! When I first began taking photographs, I chose to convert to black and white for a few reasons (both the wrong reasons). First, I thought it made me an artist (its pretty funny to admit that). Second, I had ZERO understanding of white balance and fell in love with the phrase, “when in doubt, convert it out!”. Since those days, I have taken great pride in my black and white conversions (I use several techniques). I will cover many different conversion methods as this blog grows.

Today, I am going to focus on the “Seeing in Black and White” conversion method where much of the “conversion” is done when you take the shot vs. trying to do it all in Photoshop! Yep, it’s that easy! This technique is accomplished literally 10 seconds in Photoshop! However, in order to get the best results, there are a few variables that you should be looking when photographing your subjects since this method requires you to analyze the scene before hand.

--The photograph must be taken in “good” light (I prefer window light).

--Where is the light coming from? Where are the shadows? Where is your subject in relation to light and shadows?

What is “good” light? Tough question because virtually any light can be “good” if the photographer uses it correctly. So for the purpose of this exercise, lets oversimplify “good” as “soft, directional light”. For an example of this type of light, turn off the artificial lights in a room where there are windows on one wall around 1pm. Look how the light comes into the room. Look where the shadows fall. Note that the direction of the light is provided by the location of the window.

I am going to use a photograph of my nephew and my son playing the Nintendo DS to demonstrate this technique. This was a completely candid moment.

The first image below is the straight out of the camera (SOOC) shot that was taken. It was shot at 1/160th of a second, f/4, ISO 1600 @ 35mm shot in full manual mode. I obtained the exposure by spot metering the boy in the chair’s face.

Just some detail about why I employed the “Seeing in Black and White” technique with this photograph. I knew that conditions were ideal for a black and white photograph before I even pressed the shutter. First, the light was “good” (soft and directional). Second, it was coming from the large bay window my living room. It is the only window in the room. All artificial light was turned off. I think many people make the mistake of leaving lights on when working with window light. Additional lighting will kill the shadows. Third, my subjects were facing the perfect direction for this method of conversion (the light source evenly lit both of their faces). Shadows were cast behind my subjects forcing attention on their faces.

By using the “Seeing in Black and White” method, you drastically limit the amount of time you need to spend in Photoshop. Here is what I did in Photoshop to get to the image below:

1. Open image.
Click “Image” > “Image Adjustments” > Channel Mixer.
With the Channel Mixer dialogue box open, check “monochrome”.
Enter values 25, 35, 40 and click “OK”.

I spent literally 10 seconds to achieve the “Photoshop conversion” below because I gave some thought BEFORE I took the photograph by “Seeing in Black and White”.

Taking your Black and Whites to the next level.

We could stop at the conversion above and have a really solid black and white image. But if we make a few more clicks we can even out some of the tones of the image by “Dodging and Burning”.

How to Dodge and Burn in Photoshop

1. Duplicate your layer (CMD + J).
Click “Edit” > “Fill”
Choose “50% Gray” from the Contents pull down and click “OK”.
Go to your “Layers Palette” and set the gray layer to the “Overlay” blend mode.
Select your paint brush. Make sure the “hardness” of the brush is about 50%. Make sure the opacity of your brush is around 12% and the flow around 30%.
Set the color of your brush by using the shortcut “D” (that’s right, just press “D” on your keyboard and the colors will turn black and white).
To brighten an area, make sure white is selected. To darken an area, make sure black is selected (“X” switches between the two colors).
With the color desired, simply paint areas that you feel need lightening/darkening.
Flatten your layer when you are finished (Layer > Flatten Layer).

I did not dodge any of the area below, but I did burn the edges of the photograph as well as the chair and carpet.

“So your black and white conversion is the channel mixer?! WTF!?” The short answer is “YES, sometimes!”. The reality of it is that my favorite way to do a black and white is to shoot the scene in “good” light and spend minimal time working in Photoshop. "So you always shoot in good light?". I try to. In cases where I ideal light is not available, I use different stay tuned!

I firmly believe that analyzing how you look the light in any given scene will enhance your black and white photographs, which will ultimately give greater depth to your family photojournalism.

Thanks for checking in!

Best Regards,



  1. A crystal clear, elegantly written tutorial. Your superb results speak for themselves.

  2. Great primer, Chuck! This makes me wish I were a student in your photo class =P

  3. An even easier way to make that 50% gray layer is to go to Layer > New > Layer. In the box which comes up, set Mode (dropdown menu) to Overlay, and then check the "Fill with 50% grey" box that becomes active just below it. All done in one menu, very easy to use.

  4. I love your blog. I have been reading though it the past few days and it is SO inspiring. I wish i could afford a 1.4 prime :(