Rescue Your Drab Photos with a Black and White Conversion

I've been asked a couple of times recently about black and white photos and thought I would put together a post on the how I use black and white as an alternative for flat looking shots. 

In photography lighting and exposure is everything, but let's face it, there are times when your photos just don't look good for any number of reasons. When I find myself facing this issue and an image requires extensive retouching, I'll go to a rescue technique that has served me well over the years, converting the image to black and white.

There are many ways to accomplish this, including the use of third-party software plugins like Topaz Labs' B&W Effects or Silver Efex Pro from the Nik Collection. These work great and really do a fine job but I often like to use Photoshop's Camera Raw panel as my go-to tool. It's a natural part of the workflow since I am already using Camera Raw. We'll cover this in a little more detail later in the post but let's first have a look at a few harbor shots.

The images below were taken recently under dreary, overcast skies and poor lighting conditions. I shot them in color but suspected that they would look flat and may have to be converted to become useful. Sure enough, when I processed them they just didn't have that vibrancy that I like for my color work so it was time to go to plan B.

- Click Any Image to Enlarge -

It was bitter cold when I stopped by the inner harbor and nothing was moving on the water. The northern branch of the Patapsco River, which makes up this harbor, had a thin layer of ice across it. Lately we've had single-digit temperatures at night and have only made it into the teens during daylight hours so its been cold for a good stretch now. The only people in the area were a few hardy and dedicated joggers for the most part, leaving me to wide open spaces.

In the photograph above ice has formed around the boats moored for the winter near a popular seafood restaurant, named, "Rusty Scupper". Very nice place for dining by the way. 

As I looked across the harbor northward the water appeared to have developed an even thicker layer of ice and showed no movement. It would have been nice to have caught one of those large visiting vessels in the area but nothing doing on this trip.

So these were my black and white conversion shots since the color looked so poorly. Before going to black and white I always boost the colors a little, which seems to help the process.

Let's look at how we got here using Camera Raw's adjustment panel and see just how easy it is to convert an image to black and white. I use Photoshop CC so accessing Camera Raw is as simple as clicking on the Filter menu and selecting it or entering control or command + shift + A via the keyboard.

Camera Raw 8.5 Adjustment Panel

Once the Camera Raw adjustment panel is open and you make the selections (above) you will notice that the sliders for each color is staggered in a zig-zag sort of pattern, as seen below.

HSL Grayscale Panel

Colors can be independently adjusted to make the tones of your photo look like you want. But even more effective is the use of the Targeted Adjustment Tool (T).

Press T on the keyboard then click a region of the photo. While keeping the left mouse button pressed, you can adjust the tones by moving left and right, decreasing and increasing the values as you do so.

Notice that several of the sliders are moving simultaneously when you use this method, which I prefer because of its effectiveness.

I should point out that you may also use the black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop itself, but I find that the Camera Raw version packs a bit more punch.

Let's have a quick look at that method and you can determine for yourself which suits your needs best.


In Photoshop clicking the black and white adjustment layer icon immediately converts the photograph for you, leaving you to make whatever final adjustments you desire. Moving each slider adjusts that particular tonal range.

Black and White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop

Next click on the hand to the left of the Tint check box then click any region of your photo and drag left and right like we did in Camera Raw. The difference here is that you are moving only one slider and thus one color tone at a time. Nonetheless, this is still a very handy tool and a quick way to make adjustments with great results. 

To add in a little tint just click the Tint check box, which will show you the color of the current selection in the box to the right.  Not happy with that color? Click on the color and a color picker dialog window will open so you can change it. 

Like most things in Photoshop there are numerous ways to do them, some more efficient and more powerful than others. It usually comes down to your personal preference and what feels most comfortable within your workflow. The main thing to remember is that you should experiment and develop your own style and methods but above all, be sure to have fun in doing so.

Thanks for visiting!