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perfect black and white in photoshop

If you are passionate about photography and you are in love with black and white, but your photos are flat and lack of soul, if you are looking for the holy grail for a whitish white and a deep black, then you will need to continue reading, to discover a really simple method, to get a perfect black and white with just few clicks on Photoshop.

Thousands of different ways

There are many procedures, both in Lightroom and Photohop, to get a black and white image, starting from its equivalent color version. Over the years I’ve experienced many methods and many great third-party plugins (Silver Efex, Alien Skin Exposure, Macphun Tonality), but the black and white I ended up getting was always lacking the magic I saw in the shots by other amazing photographers.

What I will describe below is a method I discovered thanks to the great Yervant, to get in few clicks and without the use of any plugins, a great black and white directly in Photoshop. WARNING: this is not the holy gospel, it is the result of my personal approach and taste towards black and white. In this latter period, it is trendy to achieve a “mat” looking black and white, simulating vintage films, with a very soft black point, obtaining low contrast images. On the contrary, what I will describe is a method for getting contrasted images and really “crunchy” blacks.

The Color Lab Mode

Once we launch Photoshop, let’s open our color image, which will need to be properly balanced and exposed  (if the image sucks… there is no method or trick to turn it a Pulitzer prize!). The image will start in RGB mode, we will need to switch it to the Lab color mode.

The Lab color mode is not the abbreviation for laboratory, it is not the reign of a crazy scientist, but it rather needs to be read as L-A-B. In this mode, the image is represented by three channels, the L channel for lightness, and the a and b channels for colors. The Lab color mode includes all perceptible colors, so it fully includes the RGB and CMYK color spaces, and is independent from the device that represents them. We will discard the colors from the a and b channels, using the L-lightness channel to get our black and white.

So let’s go on top of the screen and click Image->Mode->Color Lab
rgb mode in photoshop

Let’s move on the channel panel (on the right side of the screen, close to the Layers pane) and let’s turn off the a and b channels, keeping only the Lightness channel active and selected.
lightness channel in lab color mode

At this point, we will need to switch to the Grayscale mode to permanently lose colors, creating our perfect black and white from the Lab color mode lightness channel. We will need to confirm, when prompted to discard other channels.
drop a and b channel in lab color mode in photoshop

Finally, let’s swtich back to the RGB color mode, to be able to use back all the available Photoshop tools.
photoshop and lightroom rgb color mode

Perfect black and white

So we got our perfect black and white, a new excellent starting point for furthers edits. Our image will have a great white and a deep black, thanks only to the few clicks we made in the process we’ve just seen. We may still need to move forward with further corrections, for instance adding a Levels adjustment layer, adding contrast, and perhaps a final gentle touch of sharpening.

I would like to conclude by inserting a gallery to compare the results you get using only Lightroom or Photoshop automatic conversions: from my personal point of view, there’s no match, the Lab color mode Black and White conversion method, wins hands down!

Maurizio Mannini

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