Common photo problems and how to fix them in Photoshop: #14 My black-and-whites look flat and dull

Photoshop black and white
(Image credit: James Paterson)

Black and white photography can have a power and a compositional strength that's difficult to achieve in color, and yet simply converting a color image to black and white is rarely enough, as the results typically look rather flat. This is where you need Photoshop.

Welcome to the 14th instalment in our 15-part series on how to fix common photo problems in Photoshop, Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.

If you're stuck at home waiting for the coronavirus crisis to pass, like we are, then we thought you might be glad of some photo-fixing tips and ideas that you can try out on your back catalog of images. Very often it doesn't take much to turn a so-so picture into something special, and our series is designed to help you do just that, by tackling a whole series of relatively minor flaws that can prevent a good image from being great.

In this instalment we'll tackle a regular disappointment for photographers taking their first steps in black and white. If black and white is meant to be such a powerful medium, why is it that converted color photos so often look flat and boring? It's because black and white relies on powerful contrast, and this is how you can add it back in.

Here's our 'start' shot, converted from a color original with no other adjustments. It looked fine in color, but now it's in black and white it just looks flat. (Image credit: James Paterson)

But here's our edited version, and it's really come alive. It's been achieved with a big boost in contrast, but also with some subtle work in the shadows to retain all the rich detail in our subject's hair. (Image credit: James Paterson)

Curves and Color Range selections

We've used an S-shaped adjustment in a Curves adjustment layer, but then we've used the Color Range command to select only the shadows so that modify the mask to leave the deepest shadows less dense. (Image credit: James Paterson)

Removing the color from a photo can sometimes leave it looking flat and lifeless. But one of the great things about black-and- white is the amount of contrast and punch you can get away with adding, which is far more than would look natural with a color photo.

The simplest way to boost a dull black and white is with Curves. Make a Curves Adjustment Layer and plot an S-shaped curve by dragging one point upwards near the top of the diagonal line, a second point downwards near the bottom, and a third in the middle to control the brightness of the midtones. 

This adds contrast, but on occasion parts of the shadows can go too deep. If this happens, try highlighting the layer below, then go to Select > Color Range. Choose Shadows from the presets, then adjust the range. Click OK, then highlight the mask thumbnail on the Curves layer. Your Color Range selection will still be active, so you'll only be editing the shadow ares in the layer mask.

Now grab the Brush Tool, press 2 for 20% Opacity and paint with the foreground color set to black to gradually reduce the effect of the Curves layer in the darkest parts of the picture. Because you've selected only the shadows, your brush strokes won't affect other parts of the picture even if they stray outside the selection boundaries.

Jargon buster

Color Range: This is a Photoshop selection option that creates a selection based on tonal or color values in the picture – rather than you manually creating a selection yourself. This can be extremely useful for many selective image adjustments.

Selection: An area of a picture marked out for adjustment – only the parts of the picture within the selection will be modified. Selection outlines are marked by a dotted outline often called 'marching ants'. Photoshop has many different selection tools.

Brush Tool: A freehand brush used for many different tasks in Photoshop, such as modifying a selection or mask, painting colors over an image or painting image effects over specific areas. You can change the size of the brush, its softness and is opacity.

Next instalment: #15 My sunset photos look insipid

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James Paterson

The lead technique writer on Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine, James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 

Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 

As the editor of Practical Photoshop magazine, he's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.