Even if you’re not familiar with photography, you’re probably familiar with black and white images. They’re so easy to create that your smartphone can just do it for you. You just hit a few buttons and all the colour is gone.

Ta-da! Black and white!

Maybe not, though. When it comes to digital processing, making a black and white image pop is more than just a button click. Bringing out the true tones and qualities of a black and white image can be a complicated process with a lot of variation for style.

Today, I want to cover some of those styles and show you a few examples of how black and what processing can take a simple grayscale image and turn it into a breathtaking portrait that shines in a way that a colour portrait never would. To do that, we’ll use this image:

This image is straight out of the camera with very minor adjustments. In Photoshop, all I’ve done so far is open it and remove the colour. A simple button click, nothing more. Now, let’s see what we can do with this image to take it to the next level.

Ready? Let’s get started.

1. Black and White: Beyond Grayscale

It’s worth noting right up front that not every image looks great in black and white. When I’m considering which images to convert to black and white, my first step is to consider the contrast between light and dark.

When you remove the colour from an image, the difference between light and dark is the only point of reference that the human eye can use to figure out what it sees. Making that contrast pop can draw the eye to the central part of the image.

And here’s where the nerd talk comes in:

When I process an image in black and white, I try to make sure there’s at least one true black point and one true white point.  Because colour affects those basic light values, that requires some modification.  On a grayscale point system, which runs 0 – 255, that means having at least one point of the image be at or near 0 (true black) and another at or near 255 (true white).

Here’s what that looks like after cleaning up the image just a touch and making sure there’s a true black and a true white spread throughout the image:

This portrait is styled as a high contrast black and white.

The darkest part of the image (black-0) is in the hair framing the model’s face, which provides a strong contrast to separate the face from the background. The lightest part of the image (white-255) is hiding in the model’s shoulder at frame left and on the bracelet at lower frame right.

This is a classic style of portraiture that utilizes the full grayscale spectrum. It’s one of the most common black and white stylings and one of the most popular. However, it’s not the only way to process in black and white.

2. Matte Black: Many Shades of Gray

Among many different black and white processing styles, one of the more recent — and very trendy — ways to process a colourless image is to force or “crush” the shadows into what’s often called a matte black style, a reference to the matte finish you’d see on certain types of film.  Using this style, the image looks faded, as though the finish is built in.

This is done by using a post-processing software like Photoshop to force all the dark colours below a certain threshold to look the same, which smooths out the images.  The result is a finish that looks slightly faded and softer in the shaded areas.

Using the image above, here’s how the two compare:

Completely different look and feel, right? The matte effect is popular as a softer alternative to high contrast and has a ton of great uses. If you’re not thrilled with very dark shadows in your images, it a nice way to soften up hard shadows and smooth out the contrast.

Personally, I find this style attractive for wedding and event photography, as it’s a little easier on the eyes and blends well with other wedding techniques, like a soft focus.

Let’s go one step further based on these two distinct styles by adding a little colour back into our image.

3. Accenting with Colour

So far, we’ve looked at two distinct styles of black and white images. That’s not the say there aren’t more — because there’s everything from low-contrast and low key photography or muted highlight processing — but we’re going to go in a different direction.

We’re going to add a little colour back into our black and white image and talk about the results.

When I process black and whites, adding a touch of colour is one of my favourite things to do because it’s an opportunity to style an image in a very unique and personal way. I can use this styling to warm or cool a photo, to create a unique sepia tone, or even a selective colour.

Here are a few examples of color toning and what it might look like:

Wrapping Up

And that’s it. While there are definitely styles I haven’t covered, the main thing I want to point out is that styling a black and white image doesn’t come down to just a button. It’s a process and one that I wholeheartedly embrace when I create a black and white image for a client.

This also means that creating a colour image from a black and white (or vice versa) isn’t as simple as clicking a few buttons either.

Often, great candidates for black and white look much different in colour. Artistically, I try to make the best choice when processing an image and I always try to accommodate requests for coloured versions of black and white images — but because the process is different, the outcome will be different as well.

When done right, black and white images can be beautifully simple — but sometimes, getting those tones to contrast well is a complex and artistic process.

I think, in many ways, that’s why people (many of my clients, at least) love them so much.