Digital Darkroom; Basic Black and White Editing in Photoshop

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography and Editing. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves, editing colour with the HSL/Color panels, black and white toning, split toning, local adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and Lens Correction and Camera Calibration in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Moving into Photoshop we have looked at the program’s layout,basic adjustments to light, basic adjustments to colour and this week basic black and white adjustments with the Black and white adjustment layer and channels mixer adjustment layer.
If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

An effect that a lot people want to apply to an image is Black and White. This is partly because it dramatically gives an image a different feeling and look. There are easy ways of doing this in Photoshop, like converting the image mode to grayscale or desaturation the image. There are also a few more in depth ways like converting via lab mode and luminosity. These techniques although create a black and white image does so with a rigid formula combining all three colour channels; 60% green, 30%red, 10% blue.
There are two great adjustments that you can use to create Black and White images. Although both adjustments also mean applying a formula this is a formula that you can creatively control.

Black and White Adjustment Filter


The first adjustment is quite straight forward, if you have tried converting a picture to black and white with Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. The black and white adjustment works in exactly the same way. The adjustment has 6 sliders (Red, Yellow, Green, Cyan, Blue and Magenta) that controls how bright or dark the greyscale that colour will be converted.  There are useful group of presents in a drop down menu at the top of the adjustment. Also a targeted adjustment (looks like a finger) that lets you click on a tone and darken or brighten it; this is quite useful if you want to create black skies in landscapes by clicking on the blue of the sky and darkening it right down.

Channel Mixer

Channel Mixer is an adjustment layer that allows you to combine the three channels together. By clicking monochrome it switches to combining the channels into a grey scale output, a black and white image. The trick with using channel mixer is to make sure the combination of each channels percentage adds up to 100%. If you minus from one channel, you need to increase in either both or one of the other channels.




If you want to add a sepia tone to an image to give it an aged or vintage look,  you can do this with the hue and saturation layer, which we looked at last week. By clicking colorize the adjustment switches to creating one colour that you can change with hue and adjust the strength of the colour with saturation. This gives you a lot of creative freedom to add just the right amount of colour to an image. Although we mostly think of sepia when adding colour to black and white pictures, using the hue saturation layer you can add a cyanish/blue to create a cool feel also adding green or red can work as well.
You can also use photo filter, which we also talked about last week to add colour to a black and white image. Using photo filter the colour picker can be used to select the colour you want and density to adjust the strength of the colour.

My Workflow

Personally I like to apply my black and white adjustment before levels and curves, that way I can see the tones that exist before I manipulate the light. With both Black and white and Channel mixer adjustments I tend to choose a present that I like and then play with the sliders until get something close to what I want. I don’t add sepia or extra colour toning to every image, I have found in adding a subtle colour can sometimes add a bit more depth to the overall image.


With the image below I started with a black and white adjustment layer to convert the image first. I then applied a series of curve adjustments to lighten and darken specific areas as well as control the overall contrast. Finally I added a soft sepia tone to bring the image together. I used a lot of masking with this image which we will cover in future posts.

feather caught on budding flower

Next week we will look at the different ways you can add a split tone to image in Photoshop.

If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

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15 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Basic Black and White Editing in Photoshop

  1. Thanks again, Ben. Very interesting. I have to admit that after I applied this and that, I got a little confused 😉
    If I use black and white adjustment, I don’t need to use channel mixer adjustment, right? Thanks.

      • Thanks, Ben. If you don’t mind me asking… what makes you choose one from the other? It seems to me that black and white adjustment is easier to understand. So if I don’t use channel mixer at all, do I miss anything?
        Thanks again.

      • I don’t mind at all Helen, before version cs3 I used to use channel mixer and have quite a few presets from those days that I created. If I am looking for a certain feel from those press I will use channel mixer if not I will use the black and white filter.
        The black and white filter is easier to understand and it is always my first recommendation. You don’t really miss anything from not using the channel mixer.

  2. Am just about to subscribe to adobe’s ‘creative cloud’ (ps and lightroom)- this post and others in the series are brilliant for the likes of me – so well explained – thank you

  3. I just wish I could spend more time doing all this kind of thing … you really do explain it all well Ben !
    Is that an artichoke … it ‘s rather lovely .

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