Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Black and White - A Digital Guide

First, this is no way a complete guide about anything. Just throwin’ that out there. I happen to have a background in black and white film photography, and it’s helped me pick up some things here and there that can easily be applied to digital.

Second, Pioneer Woman is freaking awesome and inspires me constantly. As I sat here with major photo related writer’s block and no idea what could even remotely be useful to my readers, she wrote a post giving and asking for some black and white editing advice. Wah-la! Inspiration.

Ok, some basics. Ever seen color filters out there and thought “why would I want a red tinted photo?” You probably wouldn’t. (I would, but that’s a whole other story). Those filters are mostly made for black and white photography. Filters have the ability to lighten and darken certain colors as they translate to shades of grayscale. Red filters make blue skies darker, for example. Here’s a basic run down:

color wheel

Whatever color filter you have, the filter will lighten things that are the color of the filter, and darken it’s opposing color. This is why color wheels can be so handy. See above.

Your most common filters are:

(before edits are on left, after applying filters are on the right)

Yellow and Orange - slightly darkens blue tones (increases contrast of cloudy sky)

IMG_2161yellow filter

Red - really darkens blue tones, dramatic skies and dark foliage

Green - lightens foliage. This is a great go-to for nicer skin in portraits as well.

no filter 4green filter portrait

If you’re lucky enough to own a Canon DSLR, these not only shoot in black and white, but have the filters built in digitally. Read the manual on how to play with your monochrome settings.

TIP: If you shoot in RAW, the RAW file will still be in color. Only the jpg has the monochrome information, so shoot RAW+JPG.

How to translate this in black and white with photoshop? After adding a black and white adjustment layer, just fuss around with the levels.

screen grab

Another fun black and white trick I picked up from a commenter named Sarah K at Pioneer Woman… Gradient layers! You can use these on top of black and white adjustment layers, or by themselves.

IMG_2402IMG_2402 brownsIMG_2402blue

This allows you to pick which color will be used as “black” and which will be used as “white”. You can make warm or cool toned “black and white” photos, or go weird and do a pink version.


How to: There are a couple ways to select what colors will be used in your gradient map. First off, set your foreground and background colors to what you’d like your new “black” and “white” to be before applying the gradient map. They’ll pop up automatically when you add the adjustment layer.

screen grab 2

Way #2. Once you’ve added the layer, double click on the gradient on the right and it will bring up an option box. Here you can choose to use some of the preset gradients, or click on the color stop for the dark and light ends, then change the color.


Okay, that’s all I have in me this morning. I’m in my black and white phase, so I will probably come up with more ideas or inspiration to share with you. For now, I hope that was helpful.

Side note: I love teaching, especially photography. If you are ever stumped you can email me at klsphoto@hotmail.com with your questions and unless I suddenly become famous and have 1000 emails (yeah, right), I will answer you.

Shasta Betty


  1. Thanks for posting this. I'm going to give it a try. I love black and whites of my kids. Something about B&W shows their emotions without all the color getting in the way. PW inspires me 2!

  2. Thanks for the info on the color wheel. I'm guessing the gradient filter is an option on Photoshop? Don't have it (yet) but I'll try to remember it. Now I'm ready to go play with B&W!

  3. I am definitely bookmarking this tutorial.. found you on PW and love the idea of deep deep browns....
    peace n abundance,

  4. This was great, thank you for taking the time to create this!

  5. Thank you all for taking the time to read this! I have been going to grad school to be a teacher, and teaching photography is a huge passion. I get stumped on what tutorials to do, so please please please let me know what you want to see here! Thanks everyone.

  6. Thanks for posting that tutorial! A big help.

  7. I photograph with reflex digital camera NIKON D70 in color (it has no black-and-white mode) and edit the picture in black and white already on the computer with https://macphun.com/tonality mac plugin.