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How and When to Convert to Black and White

Ernesto Santos (esantos)

Keywords: bw, converter, nik, silver, efex, tone, toning, how, to, tips, esantos

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Black and White photography in the traditional sense has really faded into the background these days. The digital revolution is all about color after all – bold, saturated, intense color. Unless you still shoot film, I would venture to guess shooting, or processing, for B&W hardly enters your mind. Well, maybe it does, but I’ll bet the recurring issue is that you are probably unsure which of your color images will convert well to B&W. I think it goes beyond gaining this insight. You have to approach this question when your camera is still in your hands and not when you are back at home reviewing and processing your photos. I’ve come up with a few pointers to help you evaluate the lighting and your subjects specifically for black and white imagery.


Mesquite Dunes – Death Valley National Park, California

Click for an enlargement



To begin with, I strongly suggest investing in a top-quality black and white converter software program. While you can do very good conversions using Adobe Photoshop, it is time consuming and I’ve always had to make a lot of complicated layer masks to get the depth and drama that I like in my B&W images. Currently I use NIK Silver Efex Pro and I do not care to try anything else. It is an excellent program. If I had to choose a close second it would be The Plug-In Site’s BW Styler. Let’s get on with some pointers.



I know this sounds counter to everything you read and hear about outdoor color photography, but consider this. B&W photographs taken under natural light mostly look best when there is high contrast present. Now, I don’t mean ALWAYS, I mean usually, because absolutes have no place in photography in my opinion. Look at the old black and white masters, particularly one individual with the initials A. A.  Adams’ photographs almost always have a contrasty character that is universally appealing. I’m sure some of this had to do with film processing decisions on his part, but in reading his books he talks about the light not in terms of seeing beautiful sunsets but seeing the light fall on the subject in strong and commanding ways. So my first tip is to use the usual down-time of mid-day to shoot images that you intend to convert to B&W.


Bofecillos Mining Camp – Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Click for an enlargement


The images above illustrate what I mean. This was taken at 3:10 PM on a recent trip to West Texas. The color image on the left is an unaltered raw conversion. The B&W image on the right was converted using the unaltered raw image in Silver Efex Pro. Because of the time of day, and the sun being overhead, there is not a lot for the color photographer to work with. Washed out sky color and deep shadows in an otherwise flat (light-wise) foreground. When I saw this scene I new immediately that this could have the potential for a nice B&W conversion. The single cloud was racing across the sky so it had a interesting shape and character that could be enhanced against the clear sky. There was some shadow on the mountains that I was sure could be enhanced in the conversion as well. There was contrast although the daytime haze was getting in the way. In Silver Efex Pro I played around with the presets until I found one that darkened the sky, brightened the cloud, and increased the contrast and tones in the foreground. Notice how the terrain in the B&W version now has distinct layers of texture (desert brush), and then recurring layers of light and dark all the way to the mountain ridges.


While naturally recurring patterns are a great find in any type of photography, I think they are especially suited for fine B&W conversions. In a color image there can be the distraction of the various color hues exploding off the printed page, while in a black and white print those same patterns are given a chance to grasp viewers and force them to concentrate on the beauty of repetition and detail.


Bamboo Forest in Color – Avery Island Jungle Garden, Louisiana

Click for an enlargement



Bamboo Forest in B&W – Avery Island Jungle Garden, Louisiana

Click for an enlargement


I also look for the juxtaposition of tonal values or textures. Whether it’s dark to light, smooth to coarse, or any other ranging values, the idea is to have a syncopated visual beat of ups and downs. In the example above you see both examples. The thin trunks of the bamboo, while so fine and stick-like, give that repeating change in tone and at the same time provide a recurring pattern. Now look at the leaves. They fade in and out of a dark background and when in full light reveal delicate details – expressing the smooth to coarse objective.

(36 Votes )
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Originally written on February 29, 2016

Last updated on March 19, 2017


Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on April 20, 2016

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Ernesto, Thanks for sharing!

seymour rosen (sey) on March 23, 2016

A super article, Ernesto! Being a relic from the 'old days', I learned to SEE and THINK in B/W through the viewfinder because the film used gave no other option, thus today when shooting digital, my mind set is B/W. I agree that there exists a great plethora of superb software such as NIK, Topaz, On1, Dxo Film-Pack5 and others. I have all of them. But for those just starting their monochrome adventure, I would suggest that learning the basics of the B/W art form by simply going into Lightroom and not using ANY presets or specialized software, do basic conversions and just play around using the Lr tools to see how things work. Lr is great because there is no need to play complicated layer games and thus one can concentrate on the conversion and not be bogged down by the technology. Once the Art of Black and White is learned and understood, then one knows what he saw in b/w and knows where he wants to go. This is the time to start using presets etc. to shorten/quicken the journey. The truth of the matter is that I find by starting my workflow in Lightroom, I very often get what I want without resorting to auxiliary software. Lightroom is a great tool and in conjunction with studying the Masters of B/W - read books, visit exhibitions to see real prints to wonder at the qualities of great Monochrome. Unfortunately much is lost 'online'.

User on March 12, 2016

Ernesto, thank you for a great article. This really made me think about some of the shooting situations that I've let go of in the past because of the stigma of shooting mid-day. BTW, this is the article that recently brought me back to Nikonians :)

Robert Demers (shipsdrummer) on March 6, 2016

Very informative article that introduced me to new concepts. Thanks very much for this. I'll look into getting the software you recommended.

Marie Gill (rosalinda) on March 6, 2016

What a great article, Ernesto!! I have Silver Efex Pro and like to play around with it. You've shown me that there is so much that can be done with this software. Can't wait to try it! Thank you!

Paul Blais (PBlais) on March 4, 2016

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Great pitch for B&W conversion! Tonality often beats color. I recently took a nice color image and decided it might be nice B&W. After the conversion the B&W version was WAY more popular by a factor of 2 to 1. I've used NIK a long time and recently added Topaz. Both are really nice and I use both. Topaz adds a nice features like the ZONE System from some guy named Ansel? Digital B&W has never been easier. It is a media for Exceptional Creativity! Throw in curves adjustments and you have it nailed - easily! "God created light - then divided it into 10 zones." Ansel Adams.

User on March 2, 2016

As a photographer that spends most of my time imagining every shot as a black and white conversion and still taking B&W film, I really appreciated your very comprehensive article. I know there are more B&W photographers than many think there are and I appreciate all the style and effort put in. Of course Street photography, which I do a lot of, lends itself more to B&W than many other genres, but landscape images can be all the better for the monochrome touch! Richard

Geoff Baylis (GBaylis) on March 2, 2016

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Thanks for an inspiring article Ernesto. I've not done much B&W conversion partly, I think, because I've never been especially pleased with the results. Maybe it's time I explored what Silver Efex Pro offers and then go back and re-visit some of my previous B&W attempts. Geoff

User on March 2, 2016

Great article. The "shoot during mid-day" tip - I've never heard (nor thought) of that. Great tip!

Ernesto Santos (esantos) on March 1, 2016

Nikonians Resources Writer. Recognized for his outstanding reviews on printers and printing articles. Awarded for his high level of expertise in various areas, including Landscape Photography Awarded for his extraordinary accomplishments in Landscape Photography. His work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian. Winner of the Best of Nikonians Images 2018 Annual Photo Contest

Wow, I'm delighted that there is still so much enthusiasm in B&W photography as demonstrated in the replies here. Thanks to all who have made an effort to provide your thoughts and feedback. It is great to see that this article has spurred the interest of both the beginner and the experienced in shooting for B&W. One of my goals is to one day travel to a particular area that I have in mind during a particular part of the year and shoot only for B&W. That location would be Big Bend NP during the late summer when the monsoon clouds appear. It will be scorching hot, but the location combined with the enormous clouds will be well worth it.

John D. Roach (jdroach) on March 1, 2016

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It is good (indeed great) to see an article on B&W. Well done, Ernesto!. It is a good introduction to the subject of B&W which can be an extensive study. Your introduction could be the lead to a wonderful series on the subject that might foster even more interest. It is a genre I photograph in quite a bit or do process conversions in frequently. I delight in getting a B & W out of the camera often. Indeed, I am always trying to see in B & W as an alternative if not the purpose. I would like to suggest that people who want to really learn from some masters in tonal variation with B & W should read the three volume Photography Series by Ansel Adams especially the second in the series called the "The Negative" and the final book called the "the Print". Additionally, I am of the opinion that everyone interested in B & W photography should, also, read Andreas Feininger's Book "The Creative Photographer." It is out of print, but can be found with some internet searching for old books. He was a Life Magazine photographer from the 40s who understood masterfully the notion of tonal range, use of light and show, and other contrasting elements including composition to great fine photographs. I would like to offer from my own experience and insights into this art form that it is a extremely important, let me repeat, a very, very good practice to photograph in B&W straight out of the camera (set the camera to jpeg mode for one or more of the B&W options plus set to RAW) and learn to see the contrasts, textures and tonal ranges. That practice will greatly enhance exponentially, the ability to SEE in B&W and THINK about light and tonal variation at the time of image capture. One can always process the RAW to achieve the desired results, but also be surprised at how well one can learn to capture those tonal variations with the jpeg straight out of the camera. Then if for no other reason use the B & W jpeg as a benchmark for post processing options. Additionally, there are myriad presets for Lightroom as well as Actions for Photoshop or plug ins or alternative software such as Nik Silver Efex, Topaz, onOne, MacPhun that can provide ways of seeing during the post processing. Often I will create the B & W jpeg, process the RAW and create several variations of the same image with different B & W possibilities. Finally, the whole notion of being able to photograph at times of day when the light is not the optimal for color is quite a good one and it may even promote an interest in Monochrome IR where tonal variations can be sublime. But, I can not emphasis, enough...go photography in Black and White straight out of the camera! Learn to "See" in B & W. In fact shoot for days that way and see how it changes how you see and what you look for as you capture the light. That is what I tell my students. John D. Roach (jdroach)

Craig Menzies (foamfollower) on March 1, 2016

Thanks for the article, it's great to see support for B&W in the photography community still. I love Black & White for it's ability to transform an image into it's structural and graphic components rather than being "distracted" by colour when the really interesting aspects of the image are shapes, relationships of light, texture and all those other aspect that are thrown into the background by the "overpowering" effect of colour in an image. What was once the "limitation" of the technology of photography until colour photography came along is now an opportunity to renew the focus on the Graphic and Relational aspects of the shot without the "confusion" and "dilution" often caused by assuming colour as the only "legitimate" choice in modern times. Good work and thanks for the tips about the use of the time that's often considered "down time" out in the field. It makes perfect sense when you actually SAY it. :) Craig.

User on March 1, 2016

Thanks for the tips and tricks, really interesting reading, I don't have silver efex pro but it's not the first time I see people talking about it on Nikonians, seem to do a really good work.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on March 1, 2016

Very nice article Ernesto! I shoot a lot of film these days, of all kinds, and all of this information is still quite relevant to any monochrome shooting. I haven't used Efex Pro, but after reading this, I will try it out and see what it can do for my digital conversions. I just scanned a roll of Tri-X and I am SO in love with the way it renders, I am hoping that I can one day find a similar look from digital.

Russell Whittemore (rosewood_ltd) on February 29, 2016

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Well done, Ernesto. This is an excellent, concise review that will hopefully get more folks interested in doing B/W. There are a lot of people who think that B/W is "old/low tech." If you aren't willing to consider B/W conversions, you're missing a great creative and expressive opportunity. I have naturally gravitated to B/W because it's what I first learned to use back in the early 70's. I think for that reason, I "see" more often in B/W than I do in color. The currently available conversion software (BIG Nik fan here too) allows me to do things with a fantastic level of control and possibilities. Thanks again - Russ

Marsha Edmunds (meadowlark2) on February 29, 2016

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Ernesto -I sure appreciate this instruction. Your examples really illustrate your points well! It is surprising about mid-day shots. Thanks

Dale Armstrong (Dgastrong) on February 29, 2016

Ernesto, what a great article! I totally agree with the approach and the use of Silver Efex Pro. With practice, visualizing in B&W becomes second nature. Over the last couple of years I have been shooting and processing most everything I shoot with the thought of B&W as the final product. Some photos which document things such as the photos in the Vegetation Book I just finished needed to be in color since the book was designed to help with identification of native plants in SE Arizona. However I have converted several of these beautiful flowers and grasses to B&W for an artistic approach and my own use, and find the results pleasing but certainly suitable not for the book. One thing I have noticed is that I process the color version in LR differently if I plan on converting to B&W. For example if a flower is the subject and it is variegated then I might over saturate a bit (with a single color bias) in order to take full advantage of the color filters in SEP that you mentioned. There are times when highly detailed features are pronounced in B&W but not in color due to the use of these spectral filters. I am presently finishing a series of River Ice photos and several images become more transparent and have increased depth in B&W. Something that was not possible in color. Thanks Ernesto for letting me comment and for posting this terrific article. Dale.

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