Photoshop Adjustment Layers for great black and white photos

The Adjustment Layers sliders in black and white allow you to tweak 6 different underlying colors, much as if you were using old-school b/w filters with bw film. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

The Adjustment Layers sliders in black and white allow you to tweak 6 different underlying colors, much as if you were using old-school b/w filters with bw film. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

What are Photoshop Adjustment Layers?

Photoshop Adjustment Layers can transform your workflow if you like to make black and white images from your RGB digital files. Digital cameras all shoot RGB color images, unless you’ve gone into your presets and done something to change this. But if you know that your final toned image will be in black and white, you should use Photoshop Adjustment Layers in your black and white workflow. This will give you an amazing amount of power and creativity in your conversion.

Some Photoshop History

Until Adjustment Layers were added to the Photoshop feature set, making black and white images was usually accomplished using Image>Mode>Grayscale,  which would throw all of the color away, leaving you with an untoned black and white. (You can still use this old workflow, even in the newest version of Photoshop.)

Later, another option was developed: you could use the option of Image>Adjustments>Black & White. This opened up a window with color sliders, allowing you to make permanent adjustments to the photo by tweaking the various colors in the underlying RGB photo.

The current, much better alternative is a step up from the Image>Adjustments approach. By using Photoshop Adjustment Layers>Black and White, a dialogue box with color sliders opens up within which you can make non-destructive adjustments to your black and white image. Non-destructive editing means that you can see the intended changes in a layer without actually permanently changing (until you want to) the underlying original file.

Let’s take an image and convert it into a toned black and white using Photoshop Adjustment Layers. We’ll start by opening up this image from Pawleys island, South Carolina. This is completely untoned, straight out of the camera:

Here's the original Pawleys Island image directly out of the camera. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Here’s the original Pawleys Island image directly out of the camera. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

The first thing I will always do is run a basic Levels adjustment. You can do this inside the Adjustment Layers protocol, but I like to run it first, before going into the Adjustment Layers, mainly because the sliders are much bigger and easier to finely tweak. Command>L opens up the Levels dialogue box:

Here's the classic old Level dialogue box. I've adjusted the black and white points to hit the edges of the histogram. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Here’s the classic old Level dialogue box. I’ve adjusted the black and white points to hit the edges of the histogram. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

I have my Photoshop Adjustment Layers set up as one of my permanent navigation tabs, but if you don’t, you’ll find it under Window>Adjustments. Mouse over the different icons until you find the that says ‘Create a New Black and White Adjustment Layer’ and click it. The following box will open up:

The Adjustment Layers sliders in black and white allow you to tweak 6 different underlying colors, much as if you were using old-school b/w filters with bw film. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

The Adjustment Layers sliders in black and white allow you to tweak 6 different underlying colors, much as if you were using old-school b/w filters with bw film. ( Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

You’ll see your photograph converted to black and white and six color sliders appear, for Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues and Magentas. Try sliding each of these to the left and right and watch the effect on your black and white image.

I find that for most of my photographs, the majority of the color slider tweaking takes place in the Yellow and Green sliders. But be careful about taking any of these sliders to the allowed extreme: I’ve found that if I try and slide the Yellow, say, all the way to the right or left, some ugly artifacting shows up in my result.

Jumping over to your Layers tab will show you the B/W Adjustment Layer in place on top of your RGB image. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Jumping over to your Layers tab will show you the B/W Adjustment Layer in place on top of your RGB image. (Copyright 2013 / Andrew Boyd)

Once I have the image the way I like it, I hit Image>Duplicate. I flatten the duplicated image and save this version out as a full-resolution jpeg for printing and archiving. The  original file, with the Photoshop Adjustment Layers, gets saved as a Photoshop layered file (.psd) and serves as the equivalent of an old-school ‘master negative.’

So if you’re not using Photoshop Adjustment Layers, you really need to try adding them to your regular toning workflow. It’s truly a superior way to tone since you’re not making changes that can’t be undone. Once you’ve tried it for a week or two, I promise you’ll never go back!

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page ,Google+ pageor our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Software

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

4 Comments on "Photoshop Adjustment Layers for great black and white photos"

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  1. Linda Yasnyi says:

    good info, nice site you have built here, thank you, Andrew Boyd!

  2. Thanks Linda. I’ve recently done a big ‘renovation’ of the site. Glad you like the new layout.

  3. David Hawkins says:

    In older versions of Photoshop there were a number of ways to move from color space to B&W. Calculations was one, saving just the luminance channel from LAB, another. The information from the camera and the imaging system in Photoshop is B&W to begin with, so having numerous conversion methods makes sense.

    The big advantage of the new Photoshop is predominantly in the adjustment layers that remove a bit of the trial/error effort from discovering the optimal B&W conversion. The B&W dialog box is much like calculations on steroids, adding CMY to the RGB that previously existed — and providing real-time results on the full-size image to aid eyeballing the results. But the adjustment layers offer the opportunity to try several different blends — possibly from different methods or different mixes of color components– to determine which one will render the best image with the least short-comings.

    Back in the early days of digital, one of my favorite conversion methods involved dropping the blue channel and making a blended composite of red/green. The reason was that most of the noise lived in the blue channel. The problem was that method made anything blue in the image appear to be white — a no-no if the image contains something like the American flag, for instance.

    But in those early days (before un-dos) I had to start over from scratch if a conversion didn’t work. Even after history was added to files, I might find myself having to step back several paces because the flaw in the conversion wasn’t immediately apparent. Adjustment layers helps immensely with streamlining the conversion workflow, as it does with a great many other aspects of Photoshop.

    PS: Keep up the good work. I frequently recommend your site to beginners and those who are more advanced. I appreciate your mix of easy-to-digest technical insight and links to real examples of top-notch photography (especially that which comes from the world of journalism).

  4. Wow David, what a great, carefully crafted comment! Thank you! And it’s great to hear from you, hope you’re well.

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