Photoshop RGB to Black & White: Which Images Should You Convert?

Alexander Calder sculpture detail, East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Alexander Calder sculpture detail, East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Shooting in the Washington, D.C. area, visiting museums, I found myself drawn to images that were generated out of the great architecture that has been created to house our Capitol’s wonderful collection of museums. Lots of these images turned out to be still life in nature, details that emphasized the form, shape and light that I was finding interesting. Then it came to me: I should make this a series of black and white images.

Calder shadows. East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Calder shadows. East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Black and White: we have a choice now, in this digital age, don’t we? Not long ago, we shot either black and white or color film, making a decision on the front end of the creative process that we never questioned down the line. In fact, deciding to shoot black and white impacted the way we ‘saw’ images from the beginning: form and shades of gray and composition took complete precedence over color when you knew you had black and white film loaded in the camera.

East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

East Wing, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Nowadays this isn’t so obvious or so easy. Usually we walk around with the RGB default version of reality dialed in with our digital cameras, and at least for me, in my brain. The decision to make it a ‘black and white day’ is rarely made in advance. Today I stumbled upon this realization—that today’s images should be processed as black and white—late in the day, after I had done most of the shooting.

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

I was in the Hirshhorn Museum, shooting up at an interesting composition of lights, railings and short half-walls, when  I realized I was really looking at a color, black and white photograph. Immediately I realized that most of my photographs from today would work better as black and white. I made the leap, and here are the results.

Katzen Arts Cener, American University, Wasington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Katzen Arts Cener, American University, Wasington, D.C. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Incidentally, if you’re going to do color/grayscale conversions in Photoshop, you owe it to yourself to learn to do them using the Adjustment Layers flavor of black and white. I’ve written about how to utilize adjustment layers elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t go into detail about it here. But it’s clearly a superior way to work on black and white versions of your images. I find the Yellow and Red channels provide most of the control over tone, along with Blue and Cyan to a lesser degree.

So what about you? Do you ever shoot straight-up black and white anymore? When/how do you decide to convert an image to black and white? If so, which conversion method in Photoshop is your favorite?

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. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

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

3 Comments on "Photoshop RGB to Black & White: Which Images Should You Convert?"

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  1. Shotslot says:

    Actually, I find it easier to do an adjustment layers adjustment (lot of adjustments there!) using lightroom, because you can convert to greyscale, then use the cool mix adjuster. This is better (for me anyway) because I can click on the area of the image I want to change and drag the tone up and down. I then use the sliders to tweak areas that I can’t manage with the slider. Love these shots btw – my fave is the shadows.

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