I’m a black-and-white kind of guy – always have been. I started taking b&w pictures when I was 16 or so, and I’m not about to stop now.
Scott dropped me a line asking me for advice about converting digital camera RGB files into b&w. He’d been researching online and found a bewildering torrent of commentary involving complex moves in complicated software, and suggested I offer a straightforward tutorial on the new (coming soon) Gulker Photo Archive. That’s a good idea: in the meantime, I’ll offer some quick advice here.
1. Start simply. There are as many ways to make b&w conversions as there are photographers. I recommend using whatever tool you have at hand that is capable of making a b&w conversion. I use Apple’s iPhoto application to view and file the images from my cameras. It has, in edit mode, an Effects palette that offers 1-click conversion – you can also use the Saturation slider in the Adjust palette (slide it all the way to the left). Unless the result is just awful for some reason, congratulations, you have a back and white image.
2. Begin editing, gently. In programs like iPhoto (or Aperture or Lightroom) you can make so-called global adjustments, i.e. twiddling the software knobs affect the whole picture, not just parts of it. If your software offers the option of a control with 3 sliders (e.g. Exposure in iPhoto, Levels in Photoshop) use the middle slider to lighten or darken your image. For global adjustments, avoid brightness and contrast controls if you can (more on why later).
Pixel editors (like Photoshop) allow the photographer to selectively adjust areas of the print (e.g., to darken a sky or foreground). Usually, beyond a few obvious adjustments, less is more, in my experience with powerful editing programs. Small moves (and frequent ‘Save As’ versions – so you can backtrack) are best.
You can see the process in the 3 images seen here. Bottommost is the original RGB from a Nikon D5000, above it is the iPhoto b&w conversion, and at top is the current state of the image showing some global corrections (mainly moving some midtones to make the wall more luminous) and one obvious selective adjustment (burning down the sky). I’ll wrap it up here with one (probably obvious) caveat… always work with a copy of your original file, just in case…