My Digital B/W Workflow

Making a good digital black and white photograph involves much more than just using “Desaturate” in Photoshop. I have spent quite some time working out a good, efficient workflow for my B/W images which I’d like to share here.

My workflow is broadly based on Petteri Sulonen’s, and I suggest you read his essay, as it’ll make my elaborations easier to understand. One particular point in Petteri’s Essay I must stress here again: Expose for the highlights! Make sure you have detail in the highlight regions – don’t let them blow out.

The complete set-up for my workflow is contained in a single Photoshop action which you can download here. The nice thing about this action, compared to Petteri’s way of working, is that it is completely non-destructive, yet is nearly as full-featured, and, at least for me, much more efficient.

The action assumes a single layer called “Background”, which it doesn’t modify. Instead, it builds the adjustment layers “Darken”, “Brighten”, “Channels”, “Levels”, “Contrast”, and “Tint”, in addition to a copy of the background layer called “Colorize”, which is disabled by default. If you are not completely comfortable working with adjustment layers I recommend watching the “Essential Adjustment Layers” Video Tutorial on The Radiant Vista (click through the pages to find it – it was posted in February 2006).

The “Darken” and “Brighten” layers provide dodge and burn functionality. Paint with a white brush (preferably with a soft edge) on the layer mask and the painted-on area will turn brighter or darker, depending on the layer. I often work with opacities less than 100 percent to achieve more differentiated dodging and burning. You can also play around with the curves of these two layers if you want to modify the extent or look of the effect. Non-linear (i.e. “curvy”) curves often look better – try it out!

Use the “Channels” layer to select a channel mix for the “raw” B/W image. Use a balanced mix (with about equal representation for each channel) to get the look of a normal panchromatic B/W film or change the balance to achieve the effect of using a color filter in B/W shooting.

The red channel gives human skin a “glowing” infrared-kind look and almost magically removes skin blemishes whereas the blue channel represents skin in rather dark tones and shows even the slightest blemish. The green channel is somewhat in between, so it’s often good to use a mix of red and green for portraits. Skies look very boring and uniform in the blue channel, but clouds really come out in the red channel, where the cloudless parts of the sky get very dark. In terms of noise the green channel is usually the best – most digital cameras have as many green pixels as they have red and blue pixels combined (the so-called Bayer pattern). The blue channel usually has the worst noise of the three.

The next two layers, “Levels” and “Contrast”, modify the brightness range and contrast of your image as a whole. Usually you’ll want your B/W photos to span the whole tonal range from deep black to pure white. The “Levels” layer helps with this goal. Use it to bring the darkest pixels in your photo to black and the brightest pixels to white. Having done that, modify the “Contrast” curve to achieve the image contrast you need. Spend lots of time playing around with this channel – it’s worth it! It is not strictly necessary to do use the “Levels” layer since you can achieve the same result by modifying the “Contrast” layer accordingly, but I find the workflow to be easier this way – when I use “Contrast” I can rely on my brightest pixels being on the right and the darkest on the left instead of having to “search” for them.

That’s it as far as brightness is concerned – the last two layers reintroduce color to the image. Just turn them off if you want a neutral B/W image.

The adjustment layer “Tint” generates a monochromatic tint, adjustable, via the the layer opacity, in strength and, via the hue setting in the adjustment layer options, in hue. By default it is set to a moderate but quite visible sepia tint. The layer mask of the “Tint” layer is set up so that bright pixels are tinted less than dark pixels, i.e., white is pure, untinted white while the darker tones are tinted more. Some people prefer this kind of toning, while I find the difference to be neglible. In addition, the layer mask does not automatically adjust to modifications in brightness you might have done, resulting, in extreme cases, in distracting color “shifts”. I recommend disabling or deleting this layer mask. Use it only if you know exactly what you’re doing!

Finally, the “Colorize” layer, which is disabled by default, allows you to bring the original colors back into the image. You can do this for the whole image or, by using a layer mask, only for parts of the image. The layer’s opacity is set to a low value by default, introducing only a hint of the original colors. Setting it to full opacity usually produces a look reminiscent of hand-colored B/W photos. Use at your own risk!

If you care for a real-life example of a B/W photo created with this workflow, download this Photoshop file which is a scaled-down version of the source file to this photo.

As with everything concerning digital photo editing I recommend that you play around a lot and try different approaches. Regard my workflow as a starting point or suggestion, not as the last word in digital B/W. If you have any suggestions or improvements to it I’d be happy to hear from you!

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29 thoughts on “My Digital B/W Workflow

  1. Thanks for sharing this Mark. Although I have been using pretty much the same technique with levels, contrast, dodge / burn and curves … I haven’t been using adjustment layers. I’ll try doing this on my next flickr upload.

    I didn’t quite understand the tint system, could you please elaborate on that a little, I would like to do this the “full manual mode” way rather than using just the action.

    Good write-up mate!

  2. Thanks Harshit!

    The tint layer is just a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer with the “Colorize” option turned on. Turn the saturation up, play around with the hue and then use the layer opacity to adjust the amount of tint.

  3. Nice – sound, thorough approach, nicely presented. I’ll give it a go.

    I use a single layer for dodging and burning: New layer > fill w/50% gray > overlay blending mode. Now you can grab your soft edged brush (10-30% opacity) and use the x key to toggle back and forth between white (dodge) and black (burn)and the [] keys to expand/shrink the brush. Fast and flexible.

    Also, you might want to check out Adobe Creative Director/Guru Russell Brown’s technique for B&W conversion:

    http://studio.adobe.com/us/tips/tip.jsp?p=1&id=519&xml=phs8colorbw

    Cheers,

    Bruce

  4. Thanks for the info Bruce!

    I’m more of a two-layer kind of guy when it comes to dodging and burning since I like to fine-tune and adjust the dodge and burn curves separately.

  5. In sharing like this, you have fullfilled the dream of Leonard Kleinrock,Tim Berners-Lee, and Nathan Myrvold. You work is wonderful, and you are as delightlully complex as Freud and Marie Teresa Von Hapsburg. “snowbasinbumps at Flickr”

  6. As a graphic designer commissioned to create website graphics I’m always looking for something to make the graphics POP! Sometimes, that means going to B/W images to capture a visitors attention for just a second.

    I appreciate not only the information you provided but also the great photoshop action script which will make image editing that much easier.

    GrafxExtreme.com

  7. many thanks for sharing your b&w action…your b&w work is stunning; deep and rich tones making it wonderfully dramatic and sensual.

  8. Thanks so much for sharing your PS action. I am a RadiantVista junkie, too. Went to one of their inspirational photography weekends back in October and have been trying to incorporate some of Mark’s wisdom in my workflow. How nice to now have an action that automatically sets up all those essential adjustment layers. Kudos!

  9. the title alone confuses me
    “Juggling, Photography, Software, and Atheism”
    how would being Atheist be something to juggle? It seems like having religion is the more stressfull route.

    I’m not Atheist, but I am very Agnostic… and they seem kind of related to me…. their at least closer to each other than religious people

    maybe I’m missing something

  10. the beauty of digital cameras is you can play and edit your own photos and have them turn out looking great and anybody can do it with a small learning curve like your blog putting out great information thanks

  11. I appreciate the information you provided. The photoshop action script is really perfect, which will make image editing that much easier.

    Thanks for sharing this piece of work!

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