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Getting a Better Conversion from Color to Black and White

I’ve run into a lot of digital photographers that use the Remove Color function in Elements to convert from color to black and white. Nearly every single one of them is disappointed with the results. That’s because Elements simply removes the color from the photo and leaves a very bland looking black-and-white image. Plus, there are no settings, so you can’t customize your black-and-white photo in any way. Here’s a great technique that creates a better black and white and gives you plenty of control to really customize the way it looks.

  • Step One: Open the color photo you want to convert to black and white. Press D to set your Foreground and Background to the default black and white.
  • Step Two: To really appreciate this technique, it wouldn’t hurt if you went ahead and did a regular conversion to black and white, just so you can see how lame it is. Go under the Image menu, under Mode, and choose Grayscale. When the “Discard color information?” dialog appears, click OK, and behold the somewhat lame conversion. Now that we agree it looks pretty bland, press Ctrl-Z (Mac: Command-Z) to undo the conversion, so you can try something better.
  • Step Three: Go to the bottom of the Layers palette and choose Levels from the Create New Adjustment Layer pop-up menu (it’s the half-black/half-white circle icon). The Levels controls will appear in the Adjustments palette and a new layer will be added to your Layers palette named “Levels 1.”
  • Step Four: Press X until your Foreground color is set to black, then go to the bottom of the Layers palette and choose Gradient Map from the Create New Adjustment Layer pop-up menu. This brings up the Gradient Map options in the Adjustments palette.
  • Step Five: Just choosing Gradient Map gives you a black-and-white image (and doing just this, this one little step alone, usually gives you a better black-and-white conversion than just choosing Grayscale from the Mode submenu. Freaky, I know). If you don’t get a black-to-white gradient, it is because your Foreground and Background colors were not set at their defaults. Click-and-drag the Gradient Map adjustment layer onto the Trash icon at the bottom of the palette, press D, then add your Gradient Map adjustment layer again. This adds another layer to the Layers palette (above your Levels 1 layer) named “Gradient Map 1.”
  • Step Six: In the Layers palette, click directly on the Levels thumbnail in the Levels 1 layer to bring up the Levels controls in the Adjustments palette again. In the pop-up menu at the top of the palette, you can choose to edit individual color channels (kind of like you would with Photoshop’s Channel Mixer). Choose the Red color channel.
  • Step Seven: You can now adjust the Red channel, and you’ll see the adjustments live on screen as you tweak your black-and-white photo. (It appears as a black-and-white photo because of the Gradient Map adjustment layer above the Levels 1 layer. Pretty sneaky, eh?) You can drag the middle midtone Input Levels slider to the left to open the shadowy areas in their faces (we use the Red channel, since most of their skin tone is red), as shown here.
  • Step Eight: Now, switch to the Green channel in the pop-up menu at the top of the Adjustments palette. You can make adjustments here, as well. Try increasing the highlights in the Green channel by dragging the highlight Input Levels slider to the left, as shown here.
  • Step Nine: Now, choose the Blue channel from the pop-up menu, and try increasing the highlights quite a bit and the shadows just a little by dragging the Input Levels sliders (the ones below the histogram that we’ve been using). These adjustments are not standards or suggested settings for every photo; I just experimented by dragging the sliders, and when the photo looked better, I stopped dragging. When the black-and-white photo looks good to you (good contrast and good shadow and highlight details), just stop dragging.
  • Step 10: To complete your conversion, go to the Layers palette, click on the flyout menu at the top right, then choose Flatten Image to flatten the adjustment layers into the Background layer. Although your photo looks like a black-and-white photo, technically, it’s still in RGB mode, so if you want a grayscale file, go under the Image menu, under Mode, and choose Grayscale.
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