Although Photoshop has its own Black & White conversion adjustment layer, I never, ever use it, but that’s only because it totally stinks (I don’t know any pros who use it). I think you can create a much better black-and-white conversion using Camera Raw, and it’s much faster and looks infinitely better. Well, that is as long as you don’t get suckered into using the HSL/Grayscale panel in Camera Raw, which is nothing more than the Black & White adjustment layer hiding in Camera Raw, trying to sucker in some poor unsuspecting soul.
We’ll start by opening a color image in Camera Raw (as seen here). Converting from color to black and white is simple—just click on the HSL/Grayscale icon (it’s the fourth icon from the left) and then turn on the Convert to Grayscale check-box at the top of the panel (as seen here). That’s all you want to do here (trust me).
Once you click on that Convert to Grayscale checkbox, it gives you an incredibly flat conversion (like the one you see here), and you might be tempted to drag those color sliders around, until you realize that since the photo is already converted to black and white, you’re kind of just dragging around in the dark. So, the best advice I can give you is to get out of this panel just as fast as you can. It’s the only hope for making this flat-looking grayscale image blossom into a beautiful butterfly of a B&W image (come on, I at least get five points for the butterfly metaphor thingy).
When you talk to photographers about great B&Ws, you’ll always hear them talk about high-contrast B&Ws, so you already know what you need to do—you need to create a high-contrast B&W. That basically means making the whites whiter and the blacks blacker. Start by going to the Basic panel and dragging the Exposure slider as far over to the right as you can without clipping the highlights (I dragged to +2.35 here; see page 32 for more on clipping highlights). If you clip them just a little, drag the Recovery slider over until the white clipping triangle (up in the histogram) turns black again. If you have to drag it pretty far, you’re better off just lowering the Exposure amount instead, or your conversion may look a little flat in the highlights.
Now, drag the Blacks slider to the right until it really starts to look contrasty (as shown here, where I dragged to 6). If part of it gets too dark, drag the Fill Light slider a little to the right to open up those areas. So far, I’ve increased the Exposure and the Blacks.
The last two things I do are to increase the contrast (you can go to the Tone Curve panel and choose Strong Contrast from the pop-up menu at the top of the Point tab, or in this one instance, it’s okay to just drag the Contrast slider to the right until the image looks real contrasty). Then, I increase the Clarity amount (which adds midtone contrast), and I usually push this one to around 75 for black-and-white images (unless it’s a portrait, then I’ll usually set it to around 25, unless it’s a baby, then I leave it set at 0). A before/after of the conversion is shown below (the Auto conversion from the HSL/Grayscale panel is shown at left, with the simple Camera Raw tweaks you just learned at right). Pretty striking difference, eh?