How to Create Dramatic Black and White Images in Photoshop

by Jeremy Gray

posted Monday, June 6, 2022 at 11:30 a.m. EDT

Earlier this year, photographer Sean Tucker launched a series of portrait retouching video tutorials on his YouTube channel. We wrote about a few portrait tutorials, including one on natural skin and eye retouching, and a second video on how to use subtle dodging and burning techniques in Photoshop to shape light. Since beginning his series of retouchings, Tucker has received many questions from viewers about how he creates a black and white conversion of a color portrait. As Tucker says in the video below, you might think this is too obvious a tutorial. Surely you can desaturate the image, can’t you? There’s a lot more to a good black and white conversion. You want to use the color information stored in the image to create a black and white portrait with “pop” and “shape”.

In the video below, Tucker shares his technique for creating a compelling, well-toned black and white portrait with contrast and form. Unlike other portrait editing videos, a good black and white conversion technique applies to all genres of photography, not just portraits. Tucker first discusses a few ways people create black and white photos in Photoshop. The first is to simply select “Desaturate”. It’s technically a black and white image, but it’s flat. A second, better technique is to use a black and white “adjustment layer”. It gives you more creative control, thanks to its color sliders. Although you are working with a monochromatic image, you are still using the color information from the original photo to change the look of the black and white photo.

No matter what race a subject is, our skin is a gradation of orange, which means that in shadows in portraits there will be red tones, and in highlights there will be yellow tones. You can use it to use a technique – which Tucker recommends using lightly – to dial in the red slider and push the yellow slider. You can create a lot of contrast in the skin using just these two color sliders. “Less is more with this technique,” says Tucker. If you overdo it, you can get red spots and start causing problems with your subject’s skin.

Then go to Adjustment Layers and select “Gradient Map”. You can use the gradient map to brighten the highlights. This will seem excessive at first, as you can see in the video above, but don’t worry, because you’ll be adjusting the opacity of the adjustment layer later. It’s a quick and easy way to add a little more contrast.

Tucker then likes to add a “Curves” adjustment layer, but this is an optional step depending on how your image looks. You can add a bit more tonality using curves to adjust shadows, midtones, and highlights separately. As always, subtlety is important. There are a few more steps, which Tucker shows in the video above.

In this screenshot from Tucker’s video, you can see how he adjusted his color sliders in the “Black and White” adjustment layer. By decreasing the red slider and increasing the yellow slider, you can darken the shadows and lighten the highlights on the skin respectively. It works with all skin tones because everyone’s skin includes orange tones. Be careful not to overdo it with these sliders though, as you might end up with an unnatural result. You can also use masking, if you want more control over certain parts of your portrait subject, such as their lips or any blotchy areas of red skin.

As you can see, although there are more steps than the bare minimum required to create a black and white image, it is still a relatively quick and simple process. As you gain experience, you can easily complete all of these steps in a minute or two. By putting in the effort, you’re rewarded with a vibrant black and white image with a full range of tones.

To learn more about Sean Tucker, visit his website and YouTube channel. You can also follow him on Instagram.

(Via Sean Tucker)

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