How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations

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I’ve always loved the clean, crisp look of black and white magazine photos. But finding a conversion that recreated that look was a Goldilocks-esque challenge for me — this one is too muddy, that one is too gray, etc.

So I did a little happy dance when I discovered the Image Calculations tool in Photoshop. It’s a quick, easy way to create black-and-white images with just the right amount of contrast. This has become my go-to method for documentary images, from family snapshots to weddings to lifestyle sessions.

First, you need to start with a solid image. Good exposure and correct white balance are your best friends when using Image Calculations.

MCP IC 01 original How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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Now go to Image > Calculations. Experiment with combining different channels — red, green, blue, or gray. Each combo will give you a slightly different look and highlight or darken different areas of your image.

Then choose your blending mode. Soft Light and Multiply tend to give the best results — Soft Light creates a bright, high-contrast black and white image, while Multiply will give you a moodier image with deep shadows.

For example, if I choose green/blue and set the blending mode to Soft Light…

MCP IC 02 greenblue How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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…this is what my conversion will look like.

MCP IC 03 greenbluefinal How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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That’s a good start, but for this image, I was looking for an almost high-key vibe. So I tried red/green set to Soft Light instead…

MCP IC 04 redgreen How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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…and got this brighter conversion.

MCP IC 05 final How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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I prefer this one because it makes her mischievous eyes and goofy glasses pop out as the immediate focus of the image. Of course, everyone edits differently, and the Image Calculations tool rocks because you can quickly tweak the image to fit your style.

Once you’ve found a combo you like, click “OK.”. Then go to Select > All, then Edit > Copy. Now go to your History panel and select the last step you did before you ran Image Calculations. In this case, it was just the initial “Open” command. Your image will revert back to color; go to Edit > Paste to paste the black-and-white conversion on top of your color version.

IMPORTANT: That may seem like a weird, unnecessary step — but don’t skip it! Even though you’ll see your image in black-and-white, it won’t save the changes you made using Calculations unless you copy and paste them. It also won’t save any of your edits, and actions won’t run properly, until you’ve done the copy-and-paste thing.

Now merge all the layers, and ta-da! You’re done.

MCP IC 06 copypaste How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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One quick tip — if you’re having trouble deciding which channels will work best with your image, go into the Channels window and click each color separately to see which channels have the details you want to keep (and which channels have the details you want to lose). For example, I can see that the red channel loses the detail in her cheeks but makes the glasses stand out — so I know that channel’s probably a keeper.

MCP IC 07 channels How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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There’s plenty of room for trial and error, and you only have to go back one step to start over if you don’t like the results — so have fun with it!

MCP IC 08 fun PINNABLE How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations
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Kara Wahlgren is a freelance writer and owner of Kiwi Photography in South Jersey, where she lives with her hubby and two awesome boy-toddlers. Check out her photography website or visit her Facebook page to see more of her work.

 

For quick, easy, one-click black and whites, check out MCP’s popular Fusion Photoshop actions, the Winter portion of Four Seasons actions, and Quick Clicks Lightroom presets.

 

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 How to Convert Photos to Black and White Using Image Calculations

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17 Comments and 9 Replies



  1. 1
    desiree says:

    great thank you, do you work with Lightroom at all. This is my go to probably 99% of the time. I was wondering maybe you would have some tips to that one as well.:)

  2. 2
    nayla says:

    Hello. This sounds great. I don’t think it works for Photoshop Elements 11 though, does it? I don’t see a calculations option there.

  3. 3
    kathy says:

    Do you really find that Image Calculations works better than Image>Adjustments>Black and White? With being able to control all the channels at the same time, you can get a similar effect.

    • There are so many ways to get similar results in Photoshop. Hopefully Kara, the author of this post, can tell you her thoughts. I, myself, do not love playing with the B&W adjustment layer 99% of the time. I prefer results from some other methods more, including Duotones, curves on top of gradient maps and more. But it also depends on the look I want – one method may be perfect for a softer look (found in our Newborn Necessities actions), while some may prefer the contrast look in Fusion or the detailed shadowed looks of Four Seasons B&W actions… Make sense?

      • Kara says:

        Yep, black and white conversions definitely fall under the adage of “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” For me personally, I have a pretty consistent shooting style, so Image Calculations tends to give me the desired effect on 90% of my images. So I find it easier than futzing with the sliders in B&W Adjustment. If B&W Adjustment works better for you, there’s no reason to use one versus the other! It’s all a matter of style.

  4. 4
    Debby Peterson says:

    I so appreciate your willingness to share so much good information with all of us. Thank you!
    Debby

  5. 5
  6. 6
    Mark says:

    Great post, thanks! Most of what I do is with B & W and every once in a while I just need a little more “ummph”, this will become a useful tool.

  7. 7
    Tammy says:

    Very cool…. I was trying to find a way to do just this…. Thank you for your help.

  8. 8
    Carla says:

    Hi! New to Photoshop… when you say “merge”, do you mean flatten, merge down, or merge visible? Thanks :)

  9. 9
    Tracy says:

    Thanks for this info! Can you make this into a set of actions?

  10. 10
    Adrienne says:

    Great tutorial, Kara–thanks!

  11. 11
    rebecca says:

    Thanks! I always love to learn quicker avenues to BW images. I’ll definitely give this a try!

  12. 12
    Kelley says:

    Love this tip. Thank you so much. :)

  13. 13
    MoniqueDK says:

    Super, I used it today, and the result is great! Thanks!

  14. 14
    Michelle says:

    I loved the outcome I got with this technique but I couldn’t get the image to save as black and white. I did the edit, copy, edit, paste but there was no option to merge or flatten the image. I saved it but it saved as my original color image. Any suggestions on how I need to flatten the image? Layer, Flatten Image was not available to do.

    Thanks,

    • Kara says:

      When you pasted the new layer, you can see both layers in the layer panel, correct? Try right-clicking on the layers panel and selecting “Merge Visible.” If you’re on a Mac, Shift+Command+E. Hope that helps!

  15. 15
    Kiley says:

    Thank you! I use your Fusion actions but just tried this on some shots from a NILMDTS session and it is perfect! Easy and fast and totally took care of red blotchiness.

  16. 16
    Alicia G says:

    I have purchased the Fusion set as my VERY FIRST set of actions ever, but I don’t think that I have gotten nearly all the great things I can from the set. Where is the best place to learn more about those actions? You tube? Your Page? Advice please!!! I know Fusion has so much to offer and want to get back to it and REALLY explore all of it’s capabilities! THANKS for any info….

    • Start by watching the videos on our site for the Fusion product. Links are on the product page. Also read the pdf and look through Blueprints on our blog, as many use Fusion.

      enjoy!

      • Kara says:

        Just wanted to add that when I DON’T use this method — mainly if a photo has a lot of shadow in it and Image Calculations creates a little TOO much contrast for my taste — my other favorite is the base action from Winter Wonderland (Seasons) :)

  17. 17

    Oh my goodness! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for! Haven’t yet found quite the B&W preset/action I’m looking for. Thanks so much for this! :)



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