Colours into tones in black-and-white


This task is designed to develop familiarity with the process of converting a digital image into black-and-white using processing software which allows the photographer to decide the exact shade of grey that each colour in the image should become.  The exercise aims to replicate in the digital process that which would be undertaken if using black and white film ie the use of red, yellow, green and blue filters and demonstrate the powerful tonal control of black and white imagery allowing the emphasis of certain objects in a scene whilst suppressing others. A still-life arrangement is required which includes red, yellow, green, blue and a piece of grey card.  The colours should be as pure as possible and the image shot under even lighting with shadow fill.  One exposure is to be made for which the grey card should appear as mid-grey (check the exposure gives this effect).  Using the processing software, in this case Lightroom 5, proceed as follows:

  • for the neutral, filterless version, accept the default settings for the sliders
  • for the ‘red filter’ either raise the brightness of the red slider or use the red filter preset; experiment with lowering the brightness of other sliders
  • repeat this for ‘yellow’, ‘green’ and blue


Fortunately I had submitted my images for Assignment Two in black-and-white and my tutor provided a good deal of detailed feedback on processing techniques which I have been following up.  However, it is clear to me that conversion does require a certain eye regarding deciding the choice of tones in order to deliver the punch in the image and I believe that it is something that can only be developed over time by studying notable works and receiving feedback on your own work.  Building on my tutor’s feedback I delved into a number of books ranging from Lightroom instructional manuals to those containing specifics on black and white photography in the digital age.  I also found numerous internet sites covering the subject.  However, since this exercise is about demonstrating tonal control rather than producing a pleasing final image I decided to restrict myself in the time spent on research as I became aware that this subject could become bigger than Ben Hur.


I set up the still-life and mounted the camera on a tripod with an horizontal arm so as to shoot from directly above.  In the first instance I set a custom white balance using a grey card (the same one used in the still-life) and took a shot of the ColorChecker Passport in order to generate a custom profile.  For the actual shoot I attached a remote release cable, dialled in Mirror Up and selected Live View.  The first results were not good as I did not get the exposure right for the grey card.  Whilst I could have taken one exposure and used virtual copies in the end I decided to take a shot for each conversion at the risk of some change in the light in the short period of time.


Whilst I did experiment with the sliders after applying the preset filters and saw what considerable tonal differences could be generated, the images above are all set at the Lightroom 5 filter preset default values.  I have to say I am surprised by some of the results above but guess that is down to the software designers and the individual selection of the associated options; I also noted that there is quite a difference between my two monitors which are both calibrated, something to be aware of.  This result does highlight the need to understand and master the use of tonal adjustments when converting to black-and-white, it is not sufficient to rely upon software presets as there are a number of options built-in; having said that this does not preclude using the presets as a starting point.  This has been an interesting exercise and has served to further increase my interest in the world of black-and-white photography, notwithstanding the need to become better acquainted with the software if I am to do the images justice.


Adobe TV. (2014) Working with b&w adjustments.  Available from: [Accessed 19 January 2014]

Freeman, M. (2012) Michael Freeman’s photo school digital editing. Lewes: The Ilex Press Limited

Freeman, M. (2009) The complete guide to black & white digital photography. Lewes: The Ilex Press Limited

Kelby, S. (2012) the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 book for digital photographers. San Francisco: New Riders