Black and White Portraits: 5 unbeatable ways to convert to monochrome

Quick: think of your favourite portrait photography. Tip the scales in your brain for a moment, and you’ll probably find that most of your favourites are black and white portraits, no?

Black and white portraits have an inherent classic quality about them that stands the test of time, and if you want to give your portraits this sort of impact, you’ll want to give them a really punchy black and white conversion.

Portraits are ideal for a mono makeover, because faces are more defined by shape than by shade. So why not strip out all the colour and draw attention to the form of the face instead?

There are plenty of ways to convert an image to black and white in Photoshop, but two methods stand head and shoulders above the rest: the Black and White Adjustment Layer and the HSL/Grayscale panel in Adobe Camera Raw.

Both of these features offer a great degree of control by allowing you to tweak the brightness of different colours in your image during the conversion. This is ideal for portraits, because a slight increase in the luminance of reds and yellows will lift skin tones for a cleaner look.

Of course, once you’ve converted your image to black and white you can try out a host of other effects such as split toning, adding grain or replicating traditional styles such as platinum printing. Here are a number of photo ideas to consider when exploring your own mono conversion…

Convert to black and white in Adobe Camera Raw

Adobe Camera Raw offers a mono conversion method that’s very similar to the Black and White Adjustment Layer option in Photoshop. Open an image in ACR (if you have a jpeg, you can open it in ACR by right-clicking it and choosing Open in Adobe Camera Raw) then go to the HSL/Grayscale tab.

Check Convert to Grayscale, then use the sliders to adjust the luminance of different colours in your portrait. You can also use the Targeted Adjustment tool – the tool with the target icon at the top of the display – to selectively lighten or darken specific colour ranges.

Black and white adjustment layer

For ultimate control over your black and white conversion, forget about one-click commands such as Desaturate and instead use a Black and White Adjustment Layer – click the Create Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers Panel and choose Black and White from the list.

This gives you the option to control the luminosity of individual colour ranges during the conversion. For black and white portraits, a quick increase in red and yellow will lift skin tones for a cleaner finish that softens spots and blemishes.

What’s more, if you want interactive control, click the hand icon at the top left of the Adjustment Panel, then click and drag within the image to the left or right to target and adjust the brightness of specific colour tones. Mono conversions work best with a boost in contrast, so add a Curves Adjustment Layer and make an S-shaped curve, as above.

Colour tints and split toning

As well as being an excellent mono converter, Adobe Camera Raw also has a very good split toning feature that enables you to add a different colour tint to the shadow and highlight tones.

First, convert your file to monochrome in the HSL/Grayscale panel, then go to the Split Toning Panel. Set a Saturation level to control the intensity of the colour, then use the Hue Slider to change the colour tint.

Here, we’ve given the Shadows a blue tone and the Highlights a yellow tone. Use the Balance slider to set a transition point between the colours.

Classic film grain

You can use the Grain filter (in Filter>Texture>
Grain) to add grain to your black and white portraits for an old-school high-ISO film effect. Here, our effect uses two applications of the Grain filter.

First, set Grain Type to Regular, Intensity to 40 and Contrast to 50. Next, click the New Effect Layer icon at the bottom right of the Filter Gallery box, then apply the Grain filter again, but this time set Grain Type to Vertical, Intensity to 6 and Contrast to 0.

To complement the effect, add a messy film border like the one above. Copy it into your image and position it over the face with the Move tool, then use the Magic Wand tool to select the inside of the frame. Hold down Alt and click the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers Panel to reveal the face underneath.

Mimic a platinum print

Platinum prints have long represented the pinnacle of traditional darkroom printing techniques. Typically, they display warmish brown tones and shimmering highlights. You can get the look of a traditional platinum prints by combining a couple of simple effects.

First, create a Duplicate Layer, right-click it and choose Convert to Smart Object, then go to Filter>Distort>Diffuse Glow. Use the settings shown to get a glowing grainy effect in the highlights, but be careful not to blow out the details.

Next, click the Create Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers Panel and choose Photo Filter. Select Sepia from the Filter drop-down menu and set Density to 50%.