Photography Tips » Black and White » How to Capture & Convert Color Photos to Black and White

How to Capture & Convert Color Photos to Black and White

Converting an image to black and white is the easiest thing in the world, using software like Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or Nik Collections plugins. You can even convert an image to black and white in Paint if you like. However, making them look amazing, requires you to think about it when you capture the image. After giving you tips on how to capture images that will look great in black and white, we will dig into which awesome tools you can use to turn images black and white.

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Working with Contrast in Black and White Photography

When you capture a scene that you know you will want to convert to black and white, colors don’t matter, right?

Wrong! We still have to compose with colors in mind. This is because of color contrast and how they convert into grayscale tones.

Look for Dark and Bright Tones Instead of Colors

When capturing your subject, you can benefit from paying attention to the tonality of each color. If your scene only consists of bright colors tones, (like bright yellow, bright green bright red, or bright blue), they will all convert into brighter tones of gray, and you will get a photo without tonal contrast.

Likewise, darker colors will all translate into very similar gray darker tones. Aim at including both bright and dark colors to get a significant amount of tonal contrast in the finished black and white image.

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Color Contrast

Besides considering dark and bright tones at the scene, you can also look at how the colors contrast each other. Take a glance at the color wheel converted to grayscale, using a standard conversion in Lightroom.

standard converting colors to black and white

Analogous colors, which are next to each other on the color wheel, convert quite similarly without a significant amount of tonal contrast. If your scene were like this, your image would end up very uninspiring. Looking for complementary colors in your subject will help you achieve a better black and white photo as a result.

By mounting a color filter on your lens, you can control which colors convert into bright tones and which convert into dark tones, instead of being limited by the standard conversion. You can also apply a color filter effect in post-processing.

Color filters work by making one particular color convert into brighter tones and the complementary color convert into darker tones. For instance, with a photo of a yellow-orange boat on blue water (like below), you could apply a yellow filter to give the boat a brighter gray tone.

This also means that the blue water and sky will become dark. If you want the boat to have a dark tone, you should use the filter of the opposite color, a blue filter.

The bar below shows how differently black and white filters affect the same image. Because yellow and blue colors are so dominant in this photo, I find that the most beautiful conversion comes from using a yellow filter, giving a bright-toned boat.

standard convertion of an image to black and white in Lightroom using different color filters.
Original | Neutral BW | Green Filter | Red Filter | Blue Filter | Yellow Filter | Orange filter

Knowing the color wheel and the complementary colors will, therefore, benefit you a great deal when capturing your shots that you want to convert to black and white images.

How to Convert Color Images to Black and White

Photoshop

Most photographers use Photoshop, and it is great for converting photos to black and white.

Add a simple black and white adjustment layer for a basic black and white conversion. The dialog box allows you to play with colors sliders for adjusting how. These sliders are similar to the black and white filters described above.

Pull the slider (i.e. yellow slider) to the right to make yellow colors convert to bright tones. Similarly, if you pull the blue slider to the left, the blue colors will turn darker. Photoshop is known to have many approaches for accomplishing the same tasks.

Another Photoshop approach for how to convert color images to and white is to use a gradient map. Yet, another method in Photoshop is to desaturate the image.

cool silver black and white look using a gradient map in Photoshop
Cool silver black and white look using a gradient map in Photoshop

Lightroom

Lightroom uses the approach of color sliders as described above when changing images to black and white. We have an in-depth article on how to use the black and white color mixes panel in Lightroom for fine-tuning the black and white effect. The post also covers toning black and white images in Lightroom.

The short explanation is to just activate the black and white conversion in the right-side panel, and play with the sliders. However, there is more to it, as you will learn in the article.

Nik Collection’s Silver Efex Pro

If you want even more control over how to create amazing black and white fine art photos, you should look into Silver Efex Pro. It offers one of the most advanced workflows for editing black and white photos.

Silver Efex Pro is part of the Nik Collection Plugin Bundle, which works on top of Photoshop or Affinity Photo, Lightroom, or Capture One. No matter which of these editors is your favorite, you can always take your image to Silver Efex Pro, for superior control over dynamic contrast, structure, and even black and white paper simulation.

Concluding words

No matter which photo editing software you use, you will likely have an option to convert your photos to black and white. Getting the best results, however, requires you to think about colors and tonality before pressing the shutter.

What is your favorite editor for converting images to black and white?

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