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Dramatic Black & White Effect in Photoshop

Written by Steve Patterson.
In this Photoshop tutorial, we’re going to learn how to create more interesting black & white versions of images by using focused, dramatic lighting to bring attention to the main subject.

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Here’s the original photo I’ll be using:

The original image. Image licensed by Photoshop Essentials.com from iStockphoto.
The original full color image.

Here’s how the black & white version would look if I simply desaturate it. Not really all that interesting:

Image © 2008 Photoshop Essentials.com.
Desaturating an image removes the colors but usually creates lifeless black and whites.

And here’s the more “dramatic” black & white version we’ll be creating in this tutorial, bringing much more emphasis to her face and hair:

Photoshop dramatic black and white effect. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
The final result.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Find The Channel That Has The Best Tonal Range

The first thing we’re going to do is inspect our three Color Channels to see which one contains the highest quality image with the greatest amount of contrast. We’re going to use it as our black and white version. To do that, switch to the Channels palette (it’s grouped in beside the Layers palette). You’ll see three channels named “Red”, “Green” and “Blue” (you’ll also see a fourth one, “RGB” at the top, but it’s just the composite of the Red, Green and Blue channels):

Photoshop's Channels panel. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Photoshop’s “Channels” palette showing the Red, Green and Blue channels, plus the composite RGB at the top.

Click on each of the Red, Green and Blue channels to select them individually. When you click on one, you’ll turn the others off, and all you’ll see in your document window is a black and white version of the image. Each of the three channels will have a different black and white version, so look at all three of them and pick the one that looks best. In my case, the Green channel looks best, so I’m going to use that one.

Once you’ve chosen the channel to use, press Ctrl+A (Win) / Command+A (Mac) to select it, then press Ctrl+C (Win) / Command+C (Mac) to copy it.

Click on the RGB composite channel to turn all the channels back on. Your image will now appear in full color once again in the Document Window.

Step 2: Paste The Channel As A New Layer

Switch back to your Layers palette and click on the New Layer icon at the bottom:

Photoshop New Layer icon. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click the “New Layer” icon at the bottom of the Layers palette.

This will add a new blank layer above your Background layer. With the new layer selected, press Ctrl+V (Win) / Command+V (Mac) to paste the channel onto the new layer:

Pasting the channel into the new layer. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Press “Ctrl+V” (Win) / “Command+V” (Mac) to paste the channel into the new layer.

Step 3: Sharpen The Black & White Layer

With the new layer selected in the Layers palette, go up to the Filter menu at the top of the screen, select Sharpen and then select Smart Sharpen. This will bring up the Smart Sharpen dialog box:

Photoshop's Smart Sharpen filter. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Photoshop’s "Smart Sharpen" filter.

Enter an Amount value of 75% and select the More Accurate option at the bottom, then click OK.

If you’re using Photoshop CS or older, you can use the Unsharp Mask filter instead, in which case you would enter 75% for the Amount, set the Radius value to 1 pixel, and set Threshold to 0 levels, then click OK.

Step 4: Add A New Layer Above The Black & White Layer

Click the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette once again to add another new layer, this time above the black and white layer. You should now have three layers in your Layers palette, with the new one at the top:

Photoshop's Layers palette now showing three layers. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click the "New Layer" icon to add another new blank layer to the top of the Layers palette.

Step 5: Choose A Black-To-White Gradient

Select your Gradient tool from the Tools palette, or press G on your keyboard to access it quickly:

The Gradient Tool in Photoshop. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com.
Select the Gradient tool.

Press the letter D on your keyboard to reset your Foreground color to black and your Background color to white if they’re not already. Then go up to the Options Bar at the top of the screen and click on the gradient preview area:

Clicking the gradient preview area in the Options Bar. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
With the Gradient tool selected, click on the gradient preview area in the Options Bar.

This will bring up Photoshop’s Gradient Editor. In the "Presets" at the top, click on the Foreground-to-Background gradient in the top left corner. This will set your gradient colors to black and white:

Photoshop's Gradient Editor. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Photoshop’s "Gradient Editor". Click on the Foreground-to-Background preset gradient in the top left to select it.

Then click OK to exit out of the Gradient Editor.

Step 6: Drag The Gradient Towards The Top Corner Of The Image

We’re going to use the black-to-white gradient to create the illusion of a subtle light source coming from the top left corner, which will highlight her face and darken everything else. To do that, I’m going to start my gradient at the top of her shoulder and then I’ll drag it towards the top left corner:

Dragging across the image with the Gradient tool. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Dragging the Gradient tool from the top of her shoulder to the top left corner.

When I release my mouse button, the image is filled entirely with the gradient:

The image is now filled with the gradient. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
The image is now hidden from view by the gradient.

Step 7: Change The Blend Mode And Lower The Opacity Of The Gradient Layer

With the gradient layer selected, go up to the blend mode options in the top left of the Layers palette, click the down-pointing arrow to the right of the word “Normal” and select Overlay from the list. Then, in the Opacity option to the right of the blend mode options, lower the opacity to 60%:

Changing the blend mode of the gradient layer to 'Overlay' and lowering the opacity to 60%. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Change the gradient layer’s blend mode to “Overlay” and reduce the opacity value to 60%.

Here’s what my image looks like now. Notice how there appears to be a subtle light source shining from the top left which is highlighting her face and darkening the less important areas of the image:

The image after changing the blend mode and lowering the opacity of the gradient layer. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
The image after changing the blend mode and lowering the opacity of the gradient layer.

Step 8: Add Another New Layer To The Top Of The Layers Palette

With the gradient layer still selected, click on the New Layer icon to add another new layer at the top of the Layers palette. You should now have four layers:

Add a new layer in the Layers palette above the gradient layer. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
The new layer added above the gradient layer in the Layers palette.

Step 9: Drag Our A Selection With The Lasso Tool

Grab the Lasso tool from the Tools palette, or press L on your keyboard to select it:

Selecting the Lasso Tool in Photoshop. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Select the Lasso tool in the Tools palette.

With my Lasso tool selected, I’m going to drag out a selection around the woman’s hair and upper shoulders. There’s no need to be surgically precise with the selection, so the Lasso tool will work fine:

Dragging a selection around the hair and shoulders with the Lasso tool. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Drag out a selection with the Lasso tool.

Step 10: Fill The Selection With A White-to-Transparent Gradient

Grab your Gradient tool once again, then press X on your keyboard to swap your Foreground and Background colors so that white is your Foreground color. Click on the gradient preview area in the Options Bar to again bring up the Gradient Editor.

This time, click on the Foreground-to-Transparent gradient in the list of preset gradients to select it. It’s the second one from the left, top row:

Selecting the 'Foreground-to-Transparent' preset gradient in the Gradient Editor. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Choose the ‘Foreground-to-Transparent’ preset gradient, second from the left, top row.

Click OK to exit out of the Gradient Editor, then with the new layer selected in the Layers palette, I’m going to drag out a gradient starting in the top left of my selected area and dragging down towards the bottom right:

Dragging a white-to-transparent gradient through the selected area. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Drag with the Gradient tool from the top left to the bottom right of the selected area.

When I release my mouse button, the selected area becomes white in the top left and gradually fades to transparent in the bottom right. I’m going to deselect my selection using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+D (Win) / Command+D (Mac), and now here’s my image with the new gradient applied:

The gradient applied to the selected area. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
The white-to-transparent gradient applied to the selected area.

Step 11: Apply The Gaussian Blur Filter

I’m going to apply the Gaussian Blur filter at this point to smooth out that gradient, so I’ll go up to the Filter menu at the top of the screen, then I’ll select Blur and then Gaussian Blur. When the Gaussian Blur dialog box comes up, I’m going to set the Radius value to about 8 pixels:

Photoshop's Gaussian Blur filter. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Smooth out the edges around the gradient by applying the Gaussian Blur filter.

Click OK to exit out of the Gaussian Blur filter.

Step 12: Lower The “Fill” To 0%

Still with the white-to-transparent layer selected, go up to the Fill option in the top right of the Layers palette, directly below the Opacity option, and lower it all the way down to 0%. This will completely hide the gradient from view, but it won’t hide any Layer Styles that we’re going to apply next:

Lowering the Fill value to 0% in the Layers palette. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Lower the “Fill” value of the white-to-transparent gradient layer to 0%.

Step 13: Add A White "Outer Glow" Layer Style

Click on the Layer Styles icon at the bottom of the Layers palette and choose Outer Glow from the list:

Selecting the 'Outer Glow' layer style. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click on the “Layer Styles” icon and select “Outer Glow” from the list.

Set the color of the Outer Glow to white by clicking on the color swatch:

Clicking the Outer Glow color swatch. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Click the “Outer Glow” color swatch to change its color.

This will bring up Photoshop’s Color Picker. To choose white, enter 255 for the R, G and B options in the bottom right half of the dialog box:

Photoshop's Color Picker. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Entering 255 for the R (Red), G (Green) and B (Blue) options creates white.

Click OK to exit out of the Color Picker dialog box. With white now selected as the Outer Glow color, lower the Opacity value to around 40% and increase the Size of the glow to about 90 pixels as circled below:

The Outer Glow options. Image © 2009 Photoshop Essentials.com
Lower the opacity to 40% and increase the size to 90 pixels.

Click OK to exit out of the Layer Style dialog box, and you’re done!

Here’s my final “dramatic black & white” effect:

Photoshop dramatic black and white effect.
The final result.

And there we have it!

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