Black & White in Color

I started my “art career” as a painter. And by “art career”, I of course am referring to those nostalgic days of childhood when I thought I would become the next Rembrandt. Anyway, I digress. Point being, I’ve always liked paintings, particularly those of Romantic movement of the 19th century with their (sur)realistic landscapes and what seems to be an ever present magical layer of film thatlends these paintings an ethereal quality and result in a very compressed dynamic range.

It’s easy(ish) to create a compressed tonal range with a paintbrush—not always so easy with a camera, unless lighting conditions are optimal or you employ some kind of HDR technique. Even adequately exposed images that do capture the full dynamic range of the scene can appear to be more contrasty than what the eye sees. There are a number of ways to address this in Photoshop or Lightroom to create that painterly feel—today I want to introduce you to a neat trick I sometimes employ, using the Black & White adjustment layer. I know what you’re thinking—Kate, the black and what adjustment layer converts images to black and white. And you would be right—but it can also be a powerful tool for color images as well.

The first thing you will want to do is to add a Black and White adjustment layer—you can do this by going to Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Black & White, or by clicking the half-filled circle at the bottom of the layer panel and selecting Black & White from the pop up menu.  You’ll notice a couple things happen when you do this: first, the image turns to black and white; and second, a layer properties box will appear with sliders for each color. At the top of the properties panel, you’ll see a Preset designation—this will be set to Default initially. More on this in a minute.

After adding the B&W adjustment layer, you’ll need to convert the image back to color. You do this by adjusting your blend mode, located at the top of the Layers panel. By default it will be set to normal, but we want to switch this to a Luminosity blend mode (you’ll find it all the way at the bottom of the drop down menu). Once you select this, you’ll notice your image will be back to color. However, it may not look quite the same, depending on the colors in your image. Try toggling the layer on and off, you might notice a slight shift in the image. Why is this happening? Because the Black & White layer is affecting the luminosity of the various colors in your image.

This is where the fun starts.  Remember we talked about those sliders?  Try adjusting those for the various colors. You might start to see that some colors appear darker and more saturated (less luminous) as you move the slider to the left, or lighter and less saturated (more luminous) if you slide right. By adjusting these sliders we can bring tones closer together and get that painterly look. Let’s take a look at this example—below is the raw file:

This image is pretty good out of camera; it was shot just as the sun was rising above the horizon so there is some great warm light where the light hits, and the shadows are still very cool. But I think there are some things we can do to make it a bit more painterly. The first thing I do after adding the Black & White layer is to play around with the Presets (remember you can find this at the top of the Properties panel). The presents essentially act as luminosity filters—for a really great explanation of how these various filters work and how filters were utilized in black & white photography back in the film days, you can check out this link—but I’m more of a trial and error kind of person so I toggle through them until I find something that appeals to me. I then adjust the sliders accordingly if I feel the image needs any further tweaking.

For this image, I know that I want to bring the luminosity of the highlights and shadows closer together—this means decreasing luminosity of the oranges and increasing luminosity in the greens and blues. I could do this manually since I know what I’m generally looking for, but for this particular image, I actually think the “Default” Preset is a good starting point. 

With Default B&W Layer set to Luminosity

With Default B&W Layer set to Luminosity

You can see already how the yellows and reds become richer and deeper, the greens become a bit brighter, and the sky stays pretty much the same. Looks pretty good, but I want to add a bit more depth to our sky. I can do this by bringing the blues down and bumping up the greens and cyans—this predominately affects the sky while not changing the grasses or the church siding too much. Remember you can always mask out areas that you don’t want to apply the adjustment to—if the grasses and the sky were comprised of the same predominant colors, you could mask out the grasses so they didn’t also become less luminous. 

So there for have it—our image before:


And our image after:


This reads a bit less contrasty and the tonal range appears a bit more compressed, like a painting. What do you think, do you like it better before or after?

You can also use Black & White layers to add drama and contrast to your image. It’s a great technique for adding depth to your skies, much like a polarizer would. Take a look at this before and after:

Before, no B&W adjustment.

Before, no B&W adjustment.

After with B&W adjustment (reduced luminosity of blue color values).

After with B&W adjustment (reduced luminosity of blue color values).

You have to be a bit careful adjusting individual color luminosities because this may result in a halo effect at some color transition areas. I find this to be particularly problematic if you have something detailed against a uniform background, such as a tree against a sky, as seen in the example below.

Notice the white halo around the tree and the roof line when you drastically reduce the luminosity of the blues and cyans.

Notice the white halo around the tree and the roof line when you drastically reduce the luminosity of the blues and cyans.

As mentioned previously, this is just a quick trick to adjust luminosity in your images but it has its limitations because it’s based on color only. If you have an image that has a lot of color variation, this can be a pretty effective tool—our church image, for instance, works great because our highlights (orange) and shadows (blue) are completely different colors. However, if your image is fairly monochromatic but has high contrast, this method will likely affect global luminosity.

There are a number of other methods that help you get around this, most effective of which is probably luminosity masks. Luminosity masks affect the luminosity of different tonal ranges rather than color ranges. For a really great read on how to create luminosity masks, I highly recommend Tony Kuyper’s write up; he also sells a convenient action panel for generating luminosity masks for a pretty reasonable cost.

I’d love to see examples of how you use this technique! Feel free to send me your before and after images!