Lessons from the Shop: How to take Great B&W Photographs - Part 2

By Steve Terlizzi
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Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 3


Color Version B&W Version
How do I take B&W photographs with my digital SLR? Film isn't an issue because there is none. On some digital cameras, there’s a simple menu setting that allows the camera record the photograph in B&W. So I'm done, right? Wrong.

In the Camera

One should not capture only the B&W information in the camera. Having the full information from all the RGB channels is valuable when post-processing the photograph in Photoshop. So always shoot in color and convert to B&W later. You'll see why in this article.
Expose to the Right 
Second, one should always "expose to the right". In other words, one should try to skew the picture's histogram to the right without clipping the highlights. The right part of the histogram will capture more information that the left side of the histogram. So always overexpose the photographs slightly. We are going to post-process later.
Lastly, always shoot in RAW format. Make the decisions on how to digitally process your B&W photograph outside the camera. One could use the extra information available in the camera's RAW format.

In Photoshop

There are many ways to convert a color photograph into a B&W in Photoshop. Some are good and some are bad. Let's start with the bad ones and then move to the good ones.
Grayscale - By using image->mode->grayscale in the top menu, one could change the mode of the photo from RGB to Grayscale, effectively throwing away the color information. We didn't want to do it in the camera; then, why should we do it here? 
We don't. Grayscale simply picks 59% of the green channel, 30% of the red channel and 11% of the blue channel and calls it a day. No creative input required. Why these numbers? It is the average color responsiveness of the human eye. The result? An average photo, of course.
Desaturate - We could go to the image->adjustments->desaturate in the top menu and discard all the saturation values in the image. However, this is another un-creative, all-or-nothing approach to B&W photos that leads to mediocre photos. One could also achieve the same effect by going to Hue/Saturation under the Image Adjustment pull-down and set the Saturation value to -100. Swell!Photoshop
The Channel Mixer - The channel mixer is the first good way to create a B&W photograph. By creating an adjustment layer with the Channel Mixer, one could adjust the Red/Green/Blue sliders and create different kinds of B&W photos. Make sure you click Monochrome as the output and adjust the various sliders values while keep the total of the three RGB values around 100%. It’s good creative input here and it’s simple to use.
B&W Adjustment Layer - With a B&W adjustment layer, you have the most flexibility to create a B&W image short of an independent plug-in. Avoid using the auto button since it would be a crime to give up the creative flexibility; however, look at some good presets that have recreated various filters. Adjust the sliders as you wish, but the hand tool is the way to go. By using the hand tool, one could pick an area on the actual photo, then move the mouse to the left to make it darker or to the right to make it lighter. Remember, it will still act on all the appropriate pixels in the photograph, not just the ones under your mouse. The B&W adjustment layer has a cool tint button to create sepia, cyanotype and other tints. Finally, it is completely non-destructive so one could make changes later as needed. It’s a great way to go without a 3rd party plug-in.
3rd Party Plug-ins - Lastly, if one want to spring for the money, 3rd party plug-ins can offer the ultimate in ease-of-use and/or flexibility. I use BWStyler by Photowiz - http://thepluginsite.com/products/photowiz/bwstyler/. It’s a powerful plug-in that allows you to recreate the look of various films, wet darkroom processing techniques, filters, etc.   I recommend trying them or other plug-ins like Nik Spftware Silver Efex Pro - http://www.niksoftware.com/.
We have cover in this article the different approaches to converting the photo from color into B&W. In the final part 3, we will look at how to fine-tune the photo to make it perfect.