Creative Black and White: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques

Black & White Adjustment Layers in Photoshop

Adapted from Creative Black and White: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques (Wiley Publishing)

By Harold Davis

Black & White adjustment layers are probably the most effective and powerful way to create great creative monochromatic imagery in Photoshop. They’re easy, flexible, and powerful—although in many cases a single Black & White adjustment layer isn’t optimal for all areas in a photo. To resolve this problem, multiple adjustment layers can be used with different settings, each setting applied on a different layer, with the layers masked and blended to create the final results.

Even just one Black & White adjustment layer can be a powerful conversion tool. Part of what makes Black & White adjustment layers easy to use are the Presets—conversions to black and white using settings chosen from a list. These Presets mostly use the metaphor of applying filters in an old-fashioned darkroom, and are named after these filters.

I shot this photo of an ancient Bristlecone Pine, one of the oldest living things, with black and white in mind.

Don’t get too caught up in the metaphor to film that the presets provide. As with everything digital, the analogy to old-fashioned process doesn’t always hold up. The best way to see what one of the black and white adjustment presets does is try it, and find out. If you don’t like it, you can always go back and try again.

Note that I tend to merge down adjustment layers to form “just plain old regular” layers that can be masked normally.

Step 1: In the Layers palette, select the layer to which you want to add the adjustment layer.

Step 2: In the Adjustments palette, click the Create Black & White adjustment layer button to apply a default black and white adjustment.

You can also add a Black & White adjustment layer by selecting Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White.

After adding the Black & White adjustment layer, the Default preset becomes active in the Adjustments palette as shown, converting the layer to a neutral monochromatic image.

If you move the sliders, changing the color values represented by the sliders, you will immediately see the impact on the photo in the image window. The Default preset has neutral tonal values, so this is often a good starting place for conversions that require additional work.

Step 3: Use the Black & White drop-down list to choose a preset. These presets are only a starting place—there’s nothing to stop you from making further tweaks using the sliders.

Using Auto with Black & White Adjustments If you look carefully at the Black & White Adjustments palette you’ll notice an Auto button. Click this button for Photoshop’s best guess at what your monochromatic conversion should look like. Often the Auto settings aren’t bad—or at least provide a pretty good background layer you can use as a starting place for a creative conversion.

The slider settings created by the Green Filter preset are basically fairly neutral for this photo.

The High Contrast Blue Filter preset darkens the image dramatically—particularly on the upper left. It’s a striking effect, and one that I planned to partially incorporate in my finished image.

The High Contrast Red Filter preset produces an image that is generally toned to the light side across the entire image.

To create a simple sepia tone for your black and white image, you can start with the Default preset, check the Tint box, and select a sepia color. When I want a tinted monochromatic effect, I almost always take the Sepia Tint layer down to about 20% opacity.

The final conversion uses four Black & White adjustment layers in a layer stack. On top of the conversion achieved using the Default preset the following layers were used:

  • A layer using the High Contrast Blue preset with a gradient on a layer mask to make the left side of the photo darker.
  • A second layer using the High Contrast Blue preset with painting on a layer mask, making the image darker in specific areas.
  • A layer using the Infrared preset with painting on a layer mask that adds a nice, light quality.

This textural image of an ancient and weathered Bristlecone Pine high in the White Mountains on the California–Nevada border struck me as perfect for monochrome, but I wanted to make sure that monochrome didn’t mean monotonous. The photo that I pre-visualized required considerable tonal gradations from dark to light. So I made sure to process the image using multiple Black & White adjustment layers.

200mm, 1/100 of a second at f/8 and ISO 100, tripod mounted

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Adapted with permission from Creative Black and White: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques by Harold Davis. Copyright © 2010 (Wiley Publishing)