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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 way 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.
    04-68_b-w-1.jpg

    MATT KLOSKOWSKI

    Click to view larger image

  • 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 to undo the conversion, so you can try something better.
  • Step Three: Go to the top of the Layers palette and choose Levels from the Create Adjustment Layer pop-up menu (it’s the half-black/half-white circle icon). When the Levels dialog appears, don’t make any changes, just click OK. This will add a layer to your Layers palette named “Levels 1.”
  • Step Four: Press X until your Foreground color is set to black, then go to the top of the Layers palette and choose Gradient Map from the Create Adjustment Layer pop-up menu. This brings up the Gradient Map dialog.
  • Step Five: All you have to do here is click OK, and it 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 Cancel, then click on the Background layer, press D, then add your Gradient Map adjustment layer again. Clicking OK will add another layer to the Layers palette (above your Levels 1 layer) named “Gradient Map 1.”
  • Step Six: In the Layers palette, double-click directly on the Levels thumbnail in the Levels 1 layer to bring up the Levels dialog again. In the Channel pop-up menu at the top of the dialog, 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 shadow Input Levels slider to the right a bit to increase the shadows in the Red channel, but don’t click OK, yet.
  • Step Eight: Now, switch to the Green channel in the Channel pop-up menu in the Levels dialog. 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. Don’t click OK yet.
  • Step Nine: Now, choose the Blue channel from the Channel pop-up menu in the Levels dialog. Try increasing the highlights quite a bit and the shadows just a little by dragging the Input Levels sliders. 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), click OK in the Levels dialog.
  • Step 10: To complete your conversion, go to the Layers palette, click on the More flyout menu, 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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