Black and white with a hint of color
A black and white conversion is often nice, but I think they often can be enhanced by color if it is delicate done. That is why I sometimes do a mixed conversion bringing back the color in parts of the black and white conversion. This technique is simple and you really don’t need anything else than a little basic Photoshop knowledge.
My normal workflow
I’d like to start to tell you a little of my normal workflow when I post-process an image.
My aim is always to spend as little time as possible in front of the computer to develop my images. That is why I always try to develop the picture as much as possible when I am out in the field. This is of course not the easiest thing to achieve when you are working with animals of all kinds, but I try.
I use Adobe Photoshop CC and have been using Photoshop for many years. I start to look at the pictures in Adobe Bridge where I can zoom in and check for details, etc. When I decide to work with the picture I import it into Adobe Camera Raw where I do most of the post-processing, equivalent to the old dark room process. I add a small amount of sharpness and do a little noise reduction before I import the picture to Photoshop.
In Photoshop I add more sharpness depending upon what I want to use the picture for, add my watermark and then save it.
I have created actions in Photoshop to speed up this process as it otherwise would have been time-consuming.
I am pleased if the total process doesn’t take me more than 30-60 seconds per picture.
Black and white
You can do the black and white conversion in Camera Raw, but I always chose to do it in Photoshop. The reason is that I like to use layers. It gives me better control.
I normally only work with layers when I do landscape photography, but I also find it handy to use layers when I do a black and white conversion. One of the reasons is that I then can bring back color in parts of a picture if I like to.
In this example I will use a layer mask to bring back the eye color of a Spotted Hyena.
We start in Photoshop
I will only show the workflow in Photoshop for this as Camera Raw is something else.
This technique only require two layers, one in color and one in black and white. The use of a layer mask and the ability to paint with a brush. Not a complicated technique and I actually think most can use it even with basic skills.
I have chosen this picture of a Spotted Hyena that I took in Mana Pools National Park in 2017.
The dark room work have been done in Camera RAW and this is how the picture looked imported into Photoshop. The reddish section in the picture below is called the Layer Panel and in it you see the different layers. You actually see three layers, but the only important one of these three is the one called Background. That layer holds the actual picture in this case. The two other layers are my added watermark.
Creating a copy of the existing layer
Next step is to create a copy of the Background layer. This can be done in a couple of different ways. I know three different, but I suppose there are more ways.
The first is to use Ctrl + J , Command + J for Mac, to do a copy of the selected layer. The second is to navigate through the menu Layer -> New -> Layer via Copy. Both of these ways normally give you a new layer that is called Layer 1.
The third way is what I normally do and that gives you a new layer that normally is called Background copy.
What I do is just drag and drop in the Layer Panel, remember the reddish part of the picture. I just drag the layer I want to copy and drop it on the New Layer button. Normally this button only creates an empty layer, but when you drag and drop it gives you a copy of an existing layer. I have made a green arrow to point out the button in the picture below.
The black and white conversion
Next step is to do the actual black and white conversion. There are many ways to do this, but I usually use the Black & White adjustment in Photoshop. I know some use Desaturate and other use plugins. For me the Black & White adjustment is the easiest. I like the possibility to look at the different preset filters. Try to see the different effects before choosing which one I want this time.
You find the adjustment in the menu Image -> Adjustments -> Black & White. You also have the shortcut Alt + Shift + Ctrl + B, I suppose you just switch Ctrl for Command on Mac.
When you use this adjustment you get a pop-up window. In this window you can either use the preset filters or do it completely manual. I think it is good to try a couple of different filter to get a feeling for what you can do with your black and white conversion. I often use a preset filter as a base and then do small adjustments myself.
For this picture I choose the Blue Filter as I found that to be most to my liking.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong in how you convert your picture. It is up to you and how you want your picture to look.
Adding a layer mask
You know see a fully black and white version of the picture. Soon we can start to become creative, but first we need to create a layer mask for the black and white layer.
I only know of one way to do this and that is to use a button in the Layer Panel section, see the green arrow. You just click there and an empty layer mask is created. It is important to understand that this layer mask is created for the layer that is active.
If you look at the black and white layer in the Layer Panel you’ll see that a white square has appeared behind the thumbnail. It is in this layer mask that we are going to work with the finishing touches of the picture.
Working with the layer mask
The layer mask is completely white as you see. This means that nothing is shown from the layer below and the layer below in this case is the color version of the picture. What the layer mask do is give us the opportunity to blend the different layers. That is one reason why layers are so powerful imho.
In this picture I only want to work with the Spotted Hyenas eyes. So, I use a black brush to paint the eyes completely black in the layer mask. That brings them back to how they looked before the black and white conversion.
To do this, I normally use the magnifier and zoom in closely, in this case 300%. I then make sure I have chosen a black brush and that the layer mask is chosen in the Layer Panel. Please make sure that you have a square around the white layer mask in the Layer Panel. If you don’t have it just click on it.
The amount of black that you paint with each stroke can be reduced by using the opacity for the brush. If you just want a subtle effect, then you might go as low as 2-5%, but that also means you will have to work more with the actual effect. Each brush stroke will bring back color into the picture when you have reduced the opacity of the brush.
I have made five different arrows in the picture so you can see the different things I have spoken about. The one in the bottom shows the magnification degree and the one at the top the opacity of the brush when that is in use. The other three are the brush tool, magnification tool and the color palette.
My layer mask
When I had done my layer mask it looked like this. The easy way to explain is that all parts that are completely white will show the black and white layer and all completely black will show the color layer. Then, you have all the grayscales in between that will give you a mix of the layers. In this example everything is either white or mostly black in the layer mask.
I only worked with the eyes and you see that they layer mask looks a little rough. Still I feel that you don’t need to be too picky about this if you don’t want to do a really big print. In that case you might have to work with selections to create a better layer mask.
The end result
I was actually a little naughty at the end when I did the finishes of this conversion as I changed the opacity of the black and white layer to 95%, see the Layer Panel. I felt that the color of the eyes where a little too much for the rest of the picture and I could reduce that feeling and get a better balance if I did this small mix of layers. It also didn’t bring back too much color, but enough to balance the picture for me.
This is all just my taste and what I felt I should do with my conversion this time.
I like to stress that this is my workflow. There might be millions of ways to do a similar conversion like the one I just have shown, but this is my way and one I feel is easy enough for me.
Feel free to try it and see what it can do with your pictures.