A Few Thoughts on Black & White Conversion… Past and Present

by George on April 8, 2011

Photograph © George A. Jardine

As I was working through scripting for the Black & White segment of my new Adobe Camera Raw series, it just kept getting longer, and longer and longer. Which…. just might be a problem. But as I dug into it, it also just kept getting more and more interesting! So I decided to spin it out, and turn it into a separate, and completely free tutorial.

In this video, I start by taking you on a brief exploration of some of the various conversion techniques that we all used back before there were better controls for creating good black & white’s from raw data. And I did this because I think reviewing those tried-and-true Photoshop techniques, helps set the stage for a better understanding of black & white conversion in general.

So here’s a new tutorial on Black & White conversion. It’s free, just for the asking. Simply drop your e-mail address here, and I’ll shoot you the link to the online tutorial.

Total running time for this video is a little over 36 minutes. Please note that if you are looking for “tutorials” that are under 10 minutes in length, then you are at the wrong website. Somehow….. you have confused mulita.com with a fast-food establishment.

To view the tutorial on an iPad, the link provided by this form will serve Quicktime that is custom formatted for the iPad, too. And if you think it looks good on your iPad, wait until you see it on your HDTV!

Also, if you would rather read a somewhat condensed version online, check out the Digital Photo Pro article, here.

If you liked this free video, tweet it now!

tweet this!

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Christoph April 8, 2011 at 4:19 PM

Hi George, thank you for the tutorial. I am sure it is as awesome as your LR tutorials. Best regards, Christoph

John April 9, 2011 at 1:25 AM

George you did a superb job with this tutorial, thanks! It’s a great addition to the Lightroom series. As usual, your careful presentation of the underlying theory and the logic behind the controls makes your tutorials the best available. I still go back to your Develop Module series to refresh my memory because there is so much in each of them. Thanks again!

Bud Gibson April 9, 2011 at 2:17 PM

I really enjoyed this free tutorial. As with your other tutorials, I’ve most appreciated the conceptual framework combined with the array of practical tips. It really helps develop the intuitions.

Ario Arioldi April 9, 2011 at 5:23 PM

Great tutorial, George.
Thank you,

Reacher April 9, 2011 at 10:42 PM

i found this new tutorial extremely useful. i actually had no idea that color contrast would be so important to b&w images, but it’s something i’ll now tweak in every b&w conversion i do from now on. one thing i’m finding is that pulling certain colors up and down sometimes introduces allot of noise into the photo, but adding a bit of color noise reduction (in LR) seems to fix that.

George April 9, 2011 at 11:33 PM

Glad you enjoyed the tutorial.

Note that what sometimes appears as noise when tweaking the Grayscale sliders in the Fill or Fit views in Develop, goes away when you zoom to 1:1, or when you export. A display bug? Maybe. But it frequently is not really there…. so checking at 1:1 is always worthwhile.


Vivien Stevens April 11, 2011 at 8:23 AM

Thank you very much, George Jardine, for such an educational, enlightening, absorbing and clearly presented, in-depth, tutorial.

Much appreciated.

Jim Ascher April 15, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Thanks once again, George. It’s proving invaluable for me already as it really opens up clearly and comprehensively the science, potential and, more importantly, the methodology for working in digital black and white. I have no doubt that my output will benefit significantly from what this new tutorial teaches me, as have all of your excellent previous ones.

Grant Frost April 15, 2011 at 11:18 PM

George thanks again for sharing your knowledge and making life easier for everyone. Rather than having to learn everything by trial and error, your clear, practical and real world tutorials make using tools like lightroom and photoshop fun.

Ian Lyons April 16, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Excellent tutorial, George.

Bob Williams April 23, 2011 at 3:38 PM

Another great, useful tutorial. This one was a real eye-opener; I may never use another B&W preset. Of course, now I have to revisit all my old B&W conversions…

Effeegee April 23, 2011 at 10:42 PM


Well done. A crisp intro to a subject that even most film B&W could have done with on lens filters.

I ‘stumbled across’ the benefits of controlling B&W conversion in LR as a means of re-presenting faded Victorian prints. Scan in colour and manipulate the sliders to achieve a better intermediate and then split toning can be used to bring sepia or similar effects back. Particularly useful to eliminate water marks which often have a high yellow and orange content. There’s also plenty of scope for rescuing detail by adjusting the blue end of the spectrum.
Above all else the non-destructive editing means the best original is still there for comparison and ‘faithful’ archive purposes.

bkimball May 2, 2011 at 11:37 AM


Thank you for another great tutorial. I’m much more inclined to try B&W conversions now that I’m beginning to understand the theory and math behind it.

I can’t think of any other experts that would gone to the lengths that you did in comparing conversions via grayscale, desaturate, lab, and isolating individual color channels. My experience has been that most experts would just say “season to taste” or “buy my sponsor’s B&W conversion plugin if you want better results.”

Thank you for taking the time to actually explain the concepts, and not just the GUI controls. It definitely sets your videos apart from the rest.

Ilya Birman May 12, 2011 at 1:49 PM

Dear George, thank you for your tutorial!

I’ve found it surprising how much variation is possible, and how every b/w photo made from a color one is just one of many possible interpretations. It’s not just a question of making a better-than-default b/w picture. You can make several very different pictures, all of which look interesting. That’s cool.

Andrew D Rodney May 14, 2011 at 10:03 AM

Without question, one of the best video’s on the subject of digital imaging I’ve ever seen. Learned a ton, I plan to steal from you man (Imitation Is The Best Form Of Flattery)! The use of the spectral gradient for both examining the effect on conversions and your move into ColorThink was an eye opener. You also illustrated how incredibly powerful but easy to use LR is for these conversions compared to Photoshop and some of the old time techniques so many still hold near and dear.

George May 14, 2011 at 7:34 PM

Andrew…. I am honored! Glad you enjoyed the tutorial.
Thank you,

Jose Maria May 15, 2011 at 4:40 AM

Gracias por ofertar el video, desde Zaragoza,en Espana

Charly May 16, 2011 at 12:55 PM

Great tutorial!

Mark May 28, 2011 at 11:19 AM

You’re a natural teacher, George. Really superb videos.

Federico Pose June 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

Thank you very much George!!!
Great tutorial

Martin Chamberlain June 12, 2011 at 1:05 PM

George. Excellent tutorial. I agree completely with your conclusions on the best way to produce black & white images from colour image, but could I add one more tool into the mix. The effect of the B&W mix controls in Lightroom can be dramatically amplified by the two White Balance sliders in the Basic module. It makes sense to start a Black and White conversion with a reasonably well White Balanced image, but whilst moving the Black and White Mix sliders to optimise an image it is worth bearing in mind that you can boost the effect any slider by changing the the White Balance. An example of this might be a red flower against a greenish background. You might be looking to darken the greens as much as possible in your black and white conversion to achieve a strong colour contrast. But if you find that moving the green or yellow Black and White slider down to -100 is not enough, you can reduce the Tint value (more green) in White Balance to amplify the effect of the Black and White slider . Blue sky to black? -100 on the B&W sliders not enough? Reduce the colour temperature to darken the blues even further. And yes, my guitar amp volume does go to 11.

George June 12, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Thanks for your comments, Martin.

Absolutely! Very true regarding the WB controls, relative to B&W conversion.

Of course, my problem is trying to include everything…. in these tutorials. More often the criticism (mostly from the fast-food sector) is that they are too long. So your astute comments are much appreciated.

Also, nice website, BTW. Very nice stuff. Rare to see so many nicely taken photographs, so perfectly processed. Quite a nice eye for composition… and color. Hope to see you back here soon.

Peter June 16, 2011 at 3:49 PM

Thanks for the video!

Here are few things I have learned over the years of doing B&W conversions and writing my own image processing tools in my spare time. I thought I’d share them here, as they might be interesting for others:

1) Local Contrast

I found that it’s not just about color contrast and global contrast, but also about local contrast. Applying Unsharp Mask in Photoshop with a set of different radii (all of them much higher than the 0,2–5 pixel typically used for sharpening, in fact, that’s an easy way to replicate the effect of the Clarity slider without going through Camera Raw) gives you access to the contrast for each detail range individually. I’ve always wanted to make a plugin that works sort of like an equalizer (only for images instead of audio) to make this technique more user friendly, but unfortunately never found the time to do so.

Here is an example photo I took and B&W-converted years ago. I just couldn’t get all the detail in the clouds to translate in the B&W version until I used the Unsharp Mask technique, everything else would always look flat since the colors were too similar for conventional B&W conversion techniques to work. (The overall B&W conversion is everything but perfect in that example, please bear with me, that really was ages ago).

I think John Nack recently posted a link to a video of some research done at Adobe where an algorithm transfers the the tone distribution from one image to another, and when I read through paper with all the math behind it, I found that a lot of it is based on very similar approach, matching the local contrast for different detail frequencies (the other part was matching the histogram distribution if I remember correctly).

2) The Zone System in Photoshop

When an image has been converted to B&W, a great way to adjust contrast is to use Gradient Map with a black to white gradient. Adding additional stops at a given number of intervals allows you to stretch and compress different luminosity zones in an image. You can even make a set of simple black to white gradient presets that have 2, 4, 6, 8 and 12 subdivisions as a starting point to manipulate. 
There is a RAW converter called Light Zone that uses a similar approach, but the same thing can be done directly inside of Photoshop without additional tools.

3) Simulating the new B&W conversion in older versions of Photoshop

Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, set the saturation to -100. Then go into the individual colors from the dropdown, like Reds, Yellows etc. and adjust the luminance slider for each. That’s it. That technique even allows you to adjust the ranges of influence for each individual color to a very fine degree. This can be useful even in the era of the Black and White adjustment layer, as that can lead to some areas breaking apart when performing extreme corrections.

4) B&W adjustments for color images

Creating a B&W adjustment layer and setting its blend mode to Luminosity allows you to have the same amount of control over a color image. You can manipulate its luminosity channel the same way you would a black and white image.

Philip Prioleau July 4, 2011 at 10:24 AM

Your tutorials have changed my life and my photos, all for the better. I can’t thank you enough. I can easily use Lightroom 3.4.1 for my Canon EOS 30D, but can’t for my Canon EOS 60D in camera raw. It says “Preview unavailable for this file” and “could not read preview.” Marc Daniels has been a good friend for 30 years and he suggested I ask you.
Did you come out with a complete black and white tutorial series, and, if so, could you send me the link to purchase it?
Again, many, many thanks. Philip

George July 4, 2011 at 10:32 AM

Thanks, Philip! I do appreciate your comments. I’ve answered your 60D question directly via e-mail.

Sorry, no B&W series. Just the one free tutorial.


Ken Cameron August 1, 2011 at 12:17 AM

A great video which I will be watching a few more times. I would be interested in your thoughts on the pros and cons of B&W conversion using the Black and White Mix panel versus the alternative approach of desaturating all channels then using the luminance sliders. I use this when I want to leave some colour in an image, achieved either by partially resaturating specific colours or by using a brush with saturation set to maximum on specific locations. But I wonder if it also has advantages when the end result is pure B&W.

George August 1, 2011 at 9:58 AM

Hi Ken,

Glad you liked the tutorial.

From my point of view, there are two considerations for comparing the two different methods. First is the thing that the video is all about: color contrast. Load up an RGB gradient and desaturate everything in color mode, and you’ll find that you do get a very different representation of the various brightness values… than you do if you simply use the Auto or Default mix in Grayscale mode. But again, it’s all adjustable… so if you’re using your eyes and adjusting the sliders as you go, you may very well end up with nearly the same interpretation.

Or not. The nature of the controls does affect your perception of the result.

Second is that the two different methods can produce two very different amounts of noise, when pushing the sliders to extremes. The “desaturate everything in color mode” technique was made popular by Martin Evening back in LR 1.0, when it helped avoid a bad noise problem that has since been fixed. But the two techniques still give different looks, (and different noise characteristics….) and so again, it pays to use your eyes, look at all your options, and pick the technique that gives you the best result.


Rick Freschner August 7, 2011 at 5:21 PM

George –

Thanks for the great tutorial on B&W conversions; it really opened my eyes on the subject. I’ve been a big fan of your work and teaching since finding your blog years ago, probably when starting out with LR 1.0.

I’ve purchased the tutorials from Michael Reichmann and Jeff Schewe for LR 1.0 & 2.0 and seen many others so I didn’t think there was much more I could learn from these, but this tutorial reminded me of the depth of detail you go into to explain different concepts, techniques, etc. so I think the rest of the series will be well worth my time.

As others have mentioned, I prefer to have the tutorials loaded on my Macbook so I can view them whenever time permits whether I have a connection or not. Do I go ahead and purchase the online version first and then email for the download link?

Looking forward to seeing the others.


George August 7, 2011 at 7:22 PM

Hi Rick,

Glad you enjoyed the tutorial!

Yes, just send me an e-mail after purchase, and I’ll gladly send you the download links to the H.264 QT’s. These files will play in virtually any video player, on both Mac and Windows.

Oh… and about the “many other” tutorials out there. The difference between my tutorials and most of the rest of the stuff out there is that mine are scripted. (This might surprise you… and that is the intent. Remember rule # 1 on typography: Good typography should be invisible… meaning, when it’s done well, it carries and supports the message without you knowing it.) I script them to make the videos as clear, concise, and in-depth as I possibly can, but to still sound natural. Some people get it, others don’t. Some prefer a much more casual and folksy stream-of-consciousness type of delivery, which can be found everywhere. Many others are looking for pre-digested 5-minute segments. Fast food, after all, has to appeal to the broadest possible audience. (And please don’t infer that I’m counting Michael and Jeff in on that dis. I don’t categorize their fine videos as “fast food”. Far from it.) Some—certainly not all—will gravitate to logically structured, tightly crafted tutorials, that are packed with a lot more useful information.

You be the judge.

Trouble is… scripting—and all the graphs, charts, and post-production associated with it—is a lot of hard work. Especially when your intent is to, well…. make the tutorials look and sound natural! And that’s just one of the many reasons hardly anyone else takes the time to do it.


Rick Freschner August 7, 2011 at 8:21 PM

Thanks for the quick reply George! As for scripting your tutorials and the extra effort it takes, well it certainly shows in the finished product. Keep up the good work!


Yair Melamed August 13, 2011 at 1:37 PM

Over the last 4 years I was exposed to wide reange of instructors and teachers in Lightroom. Kathrin Eismann, Julianne Kost, Seth Resnick, Tim Grey, Bob DiNatale, Jeff Schewe and Michael Reichmann Jack Davis and many others on specific subjects. From deductic point of view, in depth teaching and knowledge “tranferred by diffucion” abilty to individual brain, ease of understanding and immediately able to apply subject learned; for me, George Jardin is definitely a uniqhe teacher “the father” of all other teachers and instructor.

All other are excellent as well, specially Julianne Kost and Jeff Schewe, don’t get me wrong, but George Jardine is really above and beyond any scoreable level. This man was born as a teacher and really understand that this is his mission and not only a career.

Craig Beyers August 19, 2011 at 8:37 AM

I just finished watching your tutorial on B&W conversions in LR and PS and now have a much better appreciation for the amount of effort needed to make a good B&W and, now, how to make that effort to improve my own B&W photos/conversions. With the info in your tutorial I can re-visit some of my conversions and improve them. Thank you… greatly appreciated.

Bob DiNatale August 30, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Great tutorial. The color theory examples and photos converted to black-and-white are excellent. No need to memorize all the different types of conversions but to know there are many variants and that each black-and-white conversion needs to be treated differently. I love your statement “it’s not about the numbers but the final result”. Thanks George.

Bob DiNatale
Adobe Certified Expert Lightroom

Lisa Mikulski October 1, 2011 at 8:31 AM

Thank you for this video on B&W conversion. Great tutorial and many things are much clearer to me now. I’m off to explore the rest of your site.

Lee Otsubo October 17, 2011 at 3:52 PM

You have a way of shining a bright light on dark, muddy subjects.

Most frustrating is the disbelief and skepticism I encounter when I wax poetic about the value of your videos. Everyone automatically assumes I’m a paid shill for your lessons. ;-)

I hope your San Diego LR Workshop is filling up quickly.

Stuart Mitchell November 6, 2011 at 9:22 PM

Thank you George. The tutorial on B&W conversion was very helpful. I had not seen any of your programs prior to this.
I was impressed by your teaching manner in approaching the subject and the thoroughness of your discussion.
Stuart M. Mitchell

Andrew Webb January 2, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Thanks for a great examination of the subject. I’m a retoucher, and I use Photoshop and Lightroom every day. I have pretty much exhausted the “how” of color correction and retouching with those tools. What remains to be learned is the interesting part, the part that I get from watching good thinkers attack problems— their “why”, their approach and perspective. It’s different from mine, and it gets me thinking in ways I haven’t before. Your videos are perfect for that. Thank you!

lukasz kruk February 6, 2012 at 6:27 PM

I’m writing to let you know how useful I found your BW processing tip
from the free Lightroom video available on your website. I mean the
one of adjusting two adjacent colours into opposite directions – I
think you used a flower example for that. This makes for a HUGE
improvement in conversion quality and helps get that smooth, rich
tonality usually associated with medium or large format silver film.
Thanks for that!! You’ve always been the absolute best source of
knowledge on Lightroom and raw processing and I am quite sure you have
tons of points like that to make – perhaps it would be worth sharing
some more of them in some sort of slightly more-than-basics form? I
bet there are more guys (and gals!) who know their way around the basics of
Lightroom who would appreciate such advanced instructions without
having to go through all the introduction with each book or video they
buy. It seems there’s a clash between keeping the tutorials brief, as Youtube
seems to be wreaking havoc with our attention span, and getting the point
across. I am completely sure that the latter is far more important, but if you
cover the basics every time there is little space left for the really good
stuff. I’m sure you’re well aware of that though.

I’m missing more of such high-quality instructions from you. I
understand that some might dwell on file naming and timestamps, but
ultimately, this does not really contribute to image quality and
satisfaction I get from making photos. Mind you, I’m not writing this
to deprecate your effort on some aspects of workflow management that
we all have to take care of – I just thought I might let you know what
is it that I find most valuable among your teachings. I hope that you
see it as a positive feedback!

Thanks again for your great teachings!

George February 6, 2012 at 7:57 PM

“but ultimately, this does not really contribute to image quality”…..

Ah…. how insightful! I couldn’t have said this better myself, and Lukasz, your photographs are a striking example of heart, and vision, over technique. This is not to say that your technique is lacking. On the contrary, especially in your excellent black and white work. But it is more to say, that your vision is clearly more important to you than following what is accepted as conventional technique.

Which is admirable.

Someday I’ll try to dig myself out of the weeds, and do an advanced tutorial on image correction. But vision, my friend, is impossible to teach.


Orly Jácome March 19, 2012 at 3:19 PM

Muchas Gracias! El tutorial es excelente.
(Thank you very much! The tutorial is excellent.)

Flavio April 16, 2012 at 2:55 AM

Hi George, many thanks for your fantastic b/w tutorial, I understand at last how to do. Really many thanks again.

Leave a Comment

{ 6 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: