Paint It Black image

Paint It Black

Creating realistic B&W images from colour files with Photoshop

Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).

Maybe we’re all closet Ansel Adams, but nothing beats the power of a well-shot black and white image. Shooting on 35mm B&W film is great, with its very broad exposure range meaning it’s easy to get the shot every time, giving results of tone and grain that just can’t be replicated digitally. The problem is that B&W film can seem like dark art for many, plus climbers want the flexibility of capturing a bit of colour when necessary. Another factor is the almost complete jump to digital cameras, which offer new types of images that can often be a little too sterile and unemotional when compared to Velvia or B&W.

Don’t despair though, there is a great way to add real spice to your digital images or scans with photoshop.


There are many reasons, lot least the fact that you can often take poor and badly exposed images and turn them into stunning B&W shots. Making the change can also add an ‘art’ effect that can transform a dull portrait or landscape into something with far more power. For slideshows, print or web galleries adding B&W images always raises the overall standard.


Let’s start with a bog-standard image. Here I’ll use a small scan of Paul Ramsden taken on the Grand Jorasses. The picture was taken on a Ricoh GR1V with Velvia 100 and scanned on a Minolta Elite 5400. I’m using Photoshop CS but older versions also work fine.

Start by turning the image to B&W by clicking IMAGE / ADJUSTMENTS / GRADIENT MAP. The gradient map shows a colour gradient box that should be black and white (it matches the colour boxes in the toolbar). If the gradient isn’t coloured then click the small arrow on the right-hand side for a drop-down menu of colours. Click the preview box, and if you find the image looks like a negative, then click reverse. If you want more control over the gradient then double click the gradient swatch to bring up the gradient editor, but generally, the standard gradient is fine and far better than going for a plain greyscale switch.

The result is a nice B&W image that has a good tonal range, and a close match (well as close as possible) to a good 100 asa B&W film. It’s in the next few actions that your image really comes to life.


  • First of make a new layer by coping the main image by clicking Ctrl+J.
  • Set the film grain box GRAIN 20, HIGHLIGHT.
  • AREA 0, INTENSITY 10 and click OK.
  • Don’t worry if the image looks like a bit of a mess.


Next, go to the layers panel and making sure the top layer’s selected, click on the small dialogue box below the Layers title (it says normal). Scroll down and click OVERLAY. This will drastically change the image.


Now play with layer opacity (found next to the layer type box in layers), changing it to 25% to begin with. You can play around with this if you want to increase or decrease the grain effect. Once you’ve got the image you want go LAYER / FLATTEN IMAGE. And lastly, sharpen the image if you feel it needs it. To create a smaller web file, go IMAGE / MODE / GREYSCALE.

The overall effect should be to give you a completely different kind of image, one that often has far more power than the original, and some times more akin to how you felt when you took it!