B&W conversions: a comparison

There are many (a whole lot, actually) ways to make a black and white digital image. It’s one of the hardest things to do right, and many photographers like to make their monochrome conversions personal. This wasn’t such a big deal when we used film and wet processing, but there were still photographers like Ansel Adams who made black and white images we all admired and sought to replicate, if not in subject, but in tone and drama. Now that digital cameras record color information natively, rather than being restricted to, or choosing, black and white negative film, we are faced with the challenge of producing black and white images from color originals. Although I produced these notes some years ago, with a very primitive (by today’s standards) digital camera, it remains illustrative.


1. This is the color image for reference. Heavily backlit, the image was chosen purely for the range of colors.


2. Like many digital cameras, and even cell phone cameras, the Canon G3 used to make these images has a built-in black and white mode. This is the image from the camera recorded in black and white mode.


3. Using photo editing software, such as Photoshop, the color image can be modified many ways to produce a monochrome image. The first, and perhaps most obvious, way is to change the mode from color (RGB) to grayscale.


4. This next image shows the color image desaturated and converted to monochrome.


5. This image uses my preferred method, the channel mixer. Choose monochrome and adjust the contribution of Red, Green and Blue channels, as well as the Constant, to get the image you like. Some channels will show more pixelation and blotchiness than others.


6. The last image shows another method I have used, but it doesn’t perform so well with this image. Convert to LAB mode and deleted channels A and B to leave only the Luminosity channel. Convert back to grayscale and boost the contrast a little, or mess with curves to get the right look.