Converting HDR to Black & White

In his Photoshop Workbench series, Mark Johnson described a powerful method of converting color images to black and white. The best color images to use are those with a high dynamic range (HDR) - in other words, a wide range of shadows and highlights with detail. Here is an HDR image of a temple from Chiang Mai, Thailand:

The HDR image to be converted.

The HDR image to be converted.

If one simply desaturates the image in Photoshop, this is the result:

The HDR image has been desaturated.

The HDR image has been desaturated.

Instead of desaturating the image, add a Black & White adjustment layer and choose one of the 12 presets as a starting point. Choose the preset that looks the most pleasing to you. Now, add another Black and White adjustment layer. The trouble is, this second adjustment layer cannot "see" the HDR color layer at the bottom of the layer stack. Here is the key move: in the Layer Style dialog box, choose Deep from the pull-down menu for Knockout:. A second key move is to select Auto-Select Targeted Adjustment Tool from the pull-out menu at the top of the Properties panel that will apply to both the Curves and Black & White adjustment layers. This allows you to slide left-right on the part of the image itself you wish to change and move the curve/sliders for just that part the image.

The image below used a base Black & White Adjustment layer and two others: one for darkening the sky a little, and the other for lightening the bottom of the image. The sky was selected with the Quick Selection Tool and a layer mask added. Also, a Curves adjustment layer set to Strong Contrast (RGB) was used to add contrast to the front part of the temple, by painting white on a black layer mask. Here is the result:

Final image.

Final image.

There are distinct advantages to this technique:

  1. The amount of control is superb.
  2. There are no plugins to buy.
  3. It is fast and easy.
  4. The file size is relatively small, since adjustment layers add very little to the file size.

This is a great technique, and definitely worth a try. I should mention that Mark prefers the control given by Nik's Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin with converting color to black and white.