How To Convert a Photo to Black and White

by Dec 15, 2022Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How To Convert a Photo to Black and White

Allow me to share a better way to convert a photo to black and white using Affinity Photo. To do this, we will use only the black and white adjustment layer.

Converting a photo to black and white is quite a simple job but there is a basic mistake that most photographers walk into. But before I explain the mistake and how to avoid it, we need to look at the black and white conversion layer.

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Black and White Conversion Layer

The black and white conversion is made using an adjustment layer that converts the image to black and white when added. You can see an example of this layer below, from Affinity Photo.

Black and white conversion layer in Affinity Photo

You can add this layer to an image using the Layer menu in Affinity Photo. There you will see the “New Adjustment Layer” sub-menu and in that the “Black and White” conversion layer.

When you add this layer to an image, the image is converted from colour to black and white. But by just applying this layer, you probably don’t produce a nice result. You can see an example below where the default layer causes the mountains and sky to look washed out.

Example black and white conversion using the default layer settings

To make this image look better, we need to adjust the colour sliders. This is also where many photographers begin to make the mistake.

Controlling the Black and White Conversion

One common mistake (there is another) when using a black and white conversion layer is to dive in and begin changing the colour sliders. Instead, you should take a moment to understand what effect each slider has on the black and white image.

The colour sliders work by lightening or darkening a particular colour in the image. For example, if you move the Cyan slider left, it darkens anything in the image that’s Cyan. But if you move the slider to the right, it lightens those areas.

By moving the colour sliders left and right, we can introduce separation between the different elements of the image. For example, we can separate the river in this image from the land by moving the Cyan slider right and the Yellow slider left.

Separating elements of the scene using the black and white colour controls

Notice how this improves the appearance of this area of the photo.

Start by moving each slider left and then right to understand which areas of the image it affects and to what degree. You should then return the slider to the default position and move to the next. When you have tested all the sliders, you will probably find 2 or 3 that have a big impact on the black and white conversions. These are the ones that you will need to adjust to produce a powerful black and white image.

The Big Black & White Conversion Mistake

Now that you understand the effect of the different sliders on the black and white conversion, it’s time to change the defaults. But this is also where most photographers make a big mistake. They try to make the entire image look good by using the sliders they just identified.

The reason that this is a mistake is that most images don’t convert to black and white well using only a single adjustment layer. Here’s an example to demonstrate the problem.

Black and white conversion problem

In this black and white conversion, you can see the river looks great and is well separated from the land. But look at the mountains and sky. They appear completely washed out because the settings that work well for the river are the opposite of what works for the mountains.

Instead, here’s how the mountains and sky should appear.

Black and white conversion showing dramatic mountains and sky

But the problem where we do this is that we can’t see the river. It literally vanishes into the landscape.

This is a common problem when converting an image to black and white. What works well for one area causes problems elsewhere. To overcome it, many photographers try to balance the adjustments across the entire image. The result is often a black and white image that lacks impact, and which requires a lot of additional dodging and burning.

The solution is to break the image into regions, converting each separately. It’s much easier than it sounds.

Correctly Converting the Image to Black and White

In the initial step, I said that you should check how each slider affected the image and in which areas. Using this knowledge, you can break the image into sections or regions. With our example image, we would divide it horizontally in two, so we have an upper and lower half. We can then use two black and white conversion layers, one to convert each region.

Here’s how to do it.

Add a first black and white conversion layer and set the controls to produce the best conversion for one area, in this example the mountains and sky. We can then add a layer mask to the black and white conversion layer, to prevent it from affecting the ground.

Using a layer mask and gradient tool to convert part of an image to black and white

If you’re not sure what masks do, or how they work, this tutorial will help you understand the basics. Don’t worry that it refers to Photoshop, the principles are the same in Affinity Photo.

To produce the mask in the above example, I used the Affinity Photo Gradient tool to draw a black to white mask.

With the first conversion layer complete, I can now add a second conversion layer. This will convert the lower half of the image to black and white.

Full black and white conversion

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What you will find when you add the second layer, is that the colour controls only affect the lower half of the image. The areas of the photo that were already converted to black and white aren’t affected. This allows us to use completely different settings which are optimal for the lower region.

Notice how we now have a strong mountain and sky, and separation between the river and land.

A Further Black and White Refinement

Now that you understand how to avoid the black and white conversion mistake using multiple adjustment layers, there is an extra step you can take. This involves adding a Levels adjustment layer to the colour image, which you can use to produce a more powerful conversion. If you want to know how this works and see the entire conversion demonstrated, watch my YouTube video below.

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You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.

To understand more about controlling image colours using the Levels Adjustment, see my Colour Grading tutorial.

Now as powerful as these tools are, they aren’t as powerful as using a black and white converter like Nik Silver Efex Pro. To see what’s possible, watch the video in this next tutorial, where I convert a flat, dull photo into a dynamic black and white.

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You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Affinity Photo Tutorials page.

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