The Art of Black & White

B&W photography, done properly, can be a true art form. I’ve written many posts on the subject. It’s time to take another look at some of them. We’ll cover all of the bases from basics to studying how the masters of the form did it.
Today – How to convert a color image to B&W (not all techniques are equal).

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B&W Conversion Alternatives

What’s the difference?

There are numerous ways to convert a color image to B&W (not counting special programs and Photoshop plug-ins such my favorite, Silver Efex Pro 2).  The first two that beginners encounter are –

  1. Desaturate the colors
  2. Convert the image to grayscale

A third technique, less well known, produces what I’ll call a “luminosity” B&W. It’s unfortunate that it isn’t well known because it produces the best B&W overall.

Of course there are other B&W conversion approaches but these three represent the basics.

Is one better than another? Can anyone tell the difference? Like most things – it depends. This post, and the next few, will illustrate the differences among them.


Let’s first consider the visual difference among the three. In each 2×2 illustration that follows, the arrangement of images is –

  • Original………………..Luminance
  • Grayscale…………..Desaturation

Can you see any difference among the three B&W conversions in this next illustration (Alexei Jawlensky – Self Portrait)? Not easy is it? The shading to the right of the face is probably the most noticeable. Otherwise, the differences aren’t that great. Ultimately it depends on the image’s colors & tones.

How about this next example? In this one the differences are obvious. The colors are Red/Green/Blue with values of 255/0/0, 0/255/0, and 0/0/255 respectively. (Please imagine that the right-most color is blue; it really was but there’s a color management issue using my screen capture program).

  • Note the bottom right conversion, desaturation –
    • It’s uniformly gray.
  • What’s with that? I sure wouldn’t want that result.
  • Check back tomorrow for more.

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Black & White

  1. Hi Ed,
    This is something that I am really interested in. From image capture (knowing I will convert it to B&W) to post. I’m really looking forward your next few posts!!


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