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Take control of your tones with the simple, elegant Convert to Black and White tool
You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on full-blown Photoshop CS if you want to make stunning black-and-white prints. Elements 8 makes black-and-white conversions a cinch.
Nearly ten years ago, I wrote an article for a well-known photo magazine about how I'd created a new film by scanning shots made with Fujicolor Press 800 film and converting it into black-and-white in Photoshop. It was a simple technique and I didn't get too sophisticated about controlling individual color tones in the conversion. It worked well enough.
Then I switched, gradually, to digital and continued to shoot in color but convert images into black-and-white, simply because I usually prefer the simplicity and graphic beauty of a black-and-white photo. Photoshop got more sophisticated and complex—and expensive. But humble Photoshop Elements has evolved too, and I recently switched most of my image editing to Elements 8 for my MacBook (it's also available for Windows). And that's when I discovered that its tool for converting color images into black-and-white has become much more powerful and sophisticated.
Meet Convert to Black and White
To access the powerful Convert to Black and White tool, go to Enhance > Convert to Black And White (It's at the bottom of the drop-down menu). A window will pop up with the color Before shot next to the black-and-white After shot. But the lower part of the window, where it says “Select a style,” is where the magic happens.
“Convert to Black-And-White” offers six different Styles to choose from: Infrared Effect, Newspaper, Portraits, Scenic Landscapes, Urban/Snapshots, and Vivid Landscapes. Each style uses a different mix of red, blue, and green color channels and contrast. Sliders show the exact amount of each color and the amount of contrast in each style, and you can fine-tune the look by adjusting each slider individually.
In previous versions of Photoshop Elements, these controls were also available but were more esoteric.
Here's where it gets exciting: Simply toggle among the six Styles and a preview image above will instantly change to show how the style would be applied. You can see how the relative tonalities of different colors change. Let's look at each style:
Infrared: Emulates the look of infrared film, pumping up greens and reds, but subduing blues. This darkens the skies, brightens green and red colors and boosts contrast. It's a dramatic look.
Urban Scene gives the most straightforward translation from color to black-and-white, with no real interpretation. It is the equivalent of shooting black-and-white film with no filter.
Newspaper style: Boosts brightness and contrast for dramatic shots, kinda like printing on high-contrast paper in a darkroom. I found I needed to use this setting sparingly because it tended to blow out highlights, but in this case, I think it helps the shot.
Portraits: Softens and lightens skintones and skies, darkens reds. The effect is similar to using a blue filter with black-and-white film.
Scenic Landscapes: Intensifies skies and foliage slightly, similar to the effect of using a yellow filter.
Vivid Landscapes: This style lets you get in touch with your inner Ansel by emulating the look of using a red filter when shooting in black and white. Skies are nearly black, and green foliage is darkened as well, while reds look almost white.
You can create some interesting surprises by applying different Styles to scenes that they're not meant for. For instance, applying Vivid Landscapes to a portrait produced some fascinating results.
You can quickly select a style that best presents your image, hit OK...and you're done!
Convert to Black and White in action.
Here's a color original. Let's apply some styles and see how it affects the blue skies and green palm tree...
Vivid Landscape dramatically darkens the tonality of the sky and tree, and emphasizes the patterns in the wall, which are primarily blue and green while lightening everything else.
Infrared, which in this case lightened the green palm tree but turned the blue sky almost black. It isn't quite infrared, but it's a dramatic look.
Here's another color original. Due to the harsh mid-day lighting, I adjusted shadows and highlights before converting this to black-and-white.
Urban Snapshot style provided a straightforward conversion. The sky is light, and the relative tonalities remain neutral.
Newspaper Style adds contrast and brightness, and on many pictures tended to blow out highlights. It's kind of like printing on #4 paper; finding the right subject to go with this particular style was a challenge. In this case, I think it's a bit blown out.
You can of course fine-tune contrast, shadows and brightness using other controls within each Style, and I suggest making the best color image you can first before converting it to black-and-white.
Convert to Black and White is not just a convenient, elegant tool, it is also an opportunity to learn about how color tonality can be controlled in black-and-white. It's an adventure in seeing. Try it yourself, and enjoy the ride!