Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs


The Art of Digital B/W #005


Layer based B/W Conversion

note by Uwe Steinmueller


November 2004 "Digital Fine Art Photographer's Summit" in Phoenix, AZ

Conversion color images to B/W can be done in many ways. Here is what we want:

  • Systematic workflow
  • Intuitive steps
  • Easy steps
  • Non destructive (keeps the color image)
  • Easy to fine tune

If you look at most of the ways to convert to B/W they hardly fulfill all these requirements. We show a technique that gets close.

Ryolite near Death Valley

We start with a color photo that is ready processed (including sharpening). Then we run this action (download here as a ZIP file) and create 4 adjustment layers:

4 adjustment layers

The following instructions explain the purpose of the different adjustment layers. Because everything is in an adjustment layer you can tweak the values later.

1. Photo Filter layer

Photo Filter

Think of the Photo Filter as the classic filters you used in front of your camera shooting B/W (yellow, red, orange, green, blue).

2. Hue/Saturation layer

Hue/Sat layer to desaturate the image

This uses a classic technique to create a grayscale image. Combined with the Photo Filter layer this presents a lot of flexibility for B/W conversion.

The next to layers are thought to prefect the B/W image.

3. Levels layer in "Soft Light" blending mode

Tuning layer via opacity

We actually do not change any values in the Levels dialog but use the "Soft Light" blending mode. The effect is controlled via opacity. Opacity starts at 25% and is used to tune the image black depth. This technique was inspired by some work of David Riecks.

4. Levels layer for setting highlights, shadows and midtones

Levels adjustment

With B/W you can be more aggressive to set the shadows and highlights than with color images. Using the midtones slider you can then control the brightness of your B/W photo. We also use the Output Levels to compress the image as hardly any printer can produce real black and no paper is perfectly white.

Note: Yes, we realize the spikes and gaps in the histogram. They will not show up in most prints. But it may be a good strategy to work in 16bit.

Here is our final B/W image:

B/W version

Let us revisit our requirements:

  • Systematic workflow
    • Run action
    • Select Photo Filter
    • Set the highlights, shadows and midtones in the top layer
    • Tune black depth in the "Soft Light" layer
  • Intuitive steps
    • Each layer is related to a logical part of the B/W conversion process
  • Easy steps
    • Well, these are 4 layers but not complicated at all
  • Non destructive (keeps the color image)
    • No change to the underlying color image
  • Easy to fine tune
    • All can be tuned in adjustment layers

We ourselves use a variation of this workflow and also discuss alternatives and refinements in our "Digital Photography Workflow Handbook"



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