Go mono with Layers
Kirk Schwarz walks you through the Black & White Adjustment Layer to create stunning monochrome results.
Achieve stunning detail with the Black & White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop.
SOME OF THE MOST iconic images of the 20th century have seen people forego the luxury of colour, instead opting to concentrate their focus on perfecting the contrast and tonal range. Whether you want to create gritty portraits, convey a feeling of total loneliness or even evoke an ethereal other-worldly quality in your shots, monochrome is usually the best way to go.
Of course, you could just set your camera to use its built-in black & white photo mode, but this will mean you’re limited to shooting in the JPEG format, and it will also discard all colour information, meaning it’s not possible to retrieve a colour version of the image at a later stage, or work up your mono conversion in a different way if you don’t like the in-camera results. Instead, we recommend you shoot in colour and then process the image with a black & white treatment to get it exactly how you want it in Photoshop. Counter-intuitively, colour is actually very useful for black & white conversions, and we’ll show you how to use the Black & White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop to control the contrast of every colour channel in your picture individually for a balanced, characterful mono result.
You can achieve similar effects from a RAW file, and you can find more about this in our Lightroom guide to mono on page 68. But for this technique we’ll be working on a JPEG image in Photoshop and adding an Adjustment Layer that we’ll fine-tune to get the best mono conversion from our original colour image. Just remember to save your edit under a new filename so you don’t overwrite the original colour version. Let’s see how it works...
1 Open your image in Photoshop
To open your image, click File>Open. Now choose the image you want to convert to black & white. Click it and then hit Open. If you shot in RAW, make a colour conversion in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). Once you’ve got the shot open in Photoshop, head to the Layers panel (Window>Layers).
2 Create a Black & White Adjustment Layer
Click the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon, at the bottom of the Layers panel and click Black & White. This will desaturate your image and bring up a dialogue box with individual colour sliders, such as Red, Yellow and Blue. Using these sliders, you can entirely change the mono contrast.
3 Adjust your sliders for best results
Each slider controls the brightness of its colour channel. Red is most often found in skin tones, Yellow and Green are usually associated with grass and trees, though Yellow can also be found in skin tones, and Blue and Cyan are most often found in the sky. Watch out, however, as Blue can also alter underexposed whites and water. Start with the Red slider and move it until the skin tone is bright, but hasn’t lost detail in the highlights – for us that’s 10. Next move the Yellow slider to see if it affects skin. We’ve set ours to 100, which gives an even tone. Now check the Green slider. We don’t have any greens in our shot, so we’re leaving this alone. Blue and Cyan affect the sky and model’s sleeve, so we’re setting these to -125 and -120 respectively. To change exact colours, use the eye dropper by clicking the finger between two arrows icon. With this you can click on any part of the image and drag left or right to alter the specific colour. But be careful as this will apply the effect wherever that colour is found.
4 Enhance contrast with Curves
Create a Curves Adjustment Layer. Now click and drag on the curve to make an ‘S’ shape, as seen above. This will add more contrast to your scene. Make sure that you don’t pull up too far on the right of the curve, which may blow out highlights, or too far down on the left, which is responsible for shadows.
5 Add a hint of silver with Colour Fill
Click on the Colour Fill Adjustment Layer. Choose a mid blue, as above, and click OK. Now set the Blending mode to Color and change Opacity to 2%. This gives your shot a classic silver sheen. Once happy, right click in the Layers panel, click Flatten Image and save by going to
Left With three simple Adjustment Layers, we’ve turned our interesting colour portrait into a stylish high contrast black & white image. Above Although great in colour, converting to black & white really gives it some much needed impact and brings out the texture.