Converting landscape photos to monochrome

Published on: 27th Dec 2014

I have been visiting Witsand in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa for many years. I remember that at one occasion I took my negative developer kit and my home made class contact sheet "press" with me in order to develop my negatives and make contact prints at night to better prepare for the next day's shoot in the dunes.

Members from our local photography club have visited Witsand on several occasions in the past as it is a very Close-up patterns in the dunes of Witsand (Visit in 2002) [42] photogenic place and it is also a great place to unwind from the hectic city live! In June this year (2014), over the long weekend around the 16 June public holiday, our club visited Witsand again (it is about 650 km from where we live so we normally choose a long weekend for such a visit).

While doing some post processing on the photos, I was wondering how these photos compare to the photos of my previous visits, so I retrieved it from my archives and was surprised to find them very Close-up patterns in the dunes of Witsand (Visit in 2004) [45]similar - and this over a period of 12 years! I've included one photo of 2002 which was taken on Kodak Portra 400 colour film and later scanned. For my conversion of this photo I had to deviate from my normal post processing workflow and it shows... It is more grainy and it does suffer from some artefacts I normally do not see in my digital monochrome photos.

As this article is about converting colour photographs to monochrome, all these photos were taken in colour and then converted to monochrome in Photoshop. When converting photographs to monochrome, colour play a very important role. Most conversion processes allows you to target each colour channel separately, thus allowing you to decide which grey tone will represent that specific colour.

Nowadays very (unnatural looking) high contrast monochrome photographs are "popular", and Auto White balance resulted in a very grey photo. By changing it to 6500K I will end up using the Red channel during conversion [64] although we did often use a very hard paper when printing monochrome photos, especially for monochrome landscapes, it is a misconception that all monochrome photos need to be of high contrast. And even if you would like the photo to be of high contrast, it is important to use techniques that will not introduce artefacts such as halos around high contrast areas, or banding and visible tone compression in smooth gradient areas of your photo.

My monochrome conversion process already starts in the raw converter. By changing the colour of the photo in Add 2 Mono Adjustment layers - the one above the photo is called Contrast Layer, and the one above that is called Best Detail [67]the raw converter, it is possible to prepare the photo in such a way that it will be easier to do the actual monochrome conversion, and your raw converter is also the tool that will introduce the least processing artefacts. I call this step my "Negative Development" step. The colour photograph above shows how the original auto white balance resulted in a very dull looking grey photo (left side of the photo) which will be very difficult to convert to a vibrant looking monochrome photo, while the right side shows how I changed the white balance in the raw converter to allow me to target the red channel in this case during my monochrome conversion process.

Once the photo is open in Photoshop I first add a "Black & White" adjustment layer to the photo. (I often use "Channel Mixer" adjustment layers in the place of the "Black & White" adjustment layers as it is very similar but limits you to the 3 primary RGB channels for adjustments.)

Name this first layer "Best Detail" and adjust it to get the best monochrome tonal range from the photo. Do not try to create the final monochrome image by adjusting this layer - your goal is to get as much detail (the widest tonal range) as possible from this monochrome conversion. You will most likely not be very happy with this very grey looking photo, but keep in mind that this is not the end result.

Once you are happy that you have a good tonal range, it is time to add another "Back & White" (or "Channel Mixer") layer between the photo and the "Best Detail" adjustment layer. Name this layer "Contrast Layer" and change is blending mode to either "Soft Light" or "Overlay" (Overlay will result in more contrast but I often find that this is too much). Adjust this layer until you are happy with your end result.

Final note: You can do further selective enhancements by using "dodge and burn" techniques as well as local contrast enhancements using selective levels or curves adjustments, but be very careful not to introduce post processing artefacts that will spoil your natural looking monochrome photo!

(The photos of Witsand are also available as a gallery in the landscapes gallery group)

(If you have read up to here and did not click on a photo yet, do so to see them in larger format and also to browse through the rest of this gallery)