Instant High Contrast Black and White Photos with Photoshop

Instant High Contrast Black and White Photos with Photoshop
Instant High Contrast Black and White Photos with Photoshop_6137a16ebf173.jpeg

Instant High Contrast Black and White Photos with Photoshop

Instant High Contrast Black and White Photos with Photoshop

Learn how to turn your images to high contrast black and white with Photoshop using Gradient Maps, the fastest and easiest way to create great looking B&W photos!

Written by Steve Patterson.

In this tutorial, I show you how to instantly convert photos to high contrast black and white in Photoshop using a Gradient Map. There are lots of ways to convert images to black and white, but Gradient Maps are one of the best because they are so fast and easy to use, and they give us great results. I’ll show you how to use a Gradient Map, and I’ll show you the secret to why Gradient Maps give black and white photos such a high contrast look.

I’m using Photoshop 2021 but any recent version will work.

Here’s an example of what the final high contrast black and white effect will look like when we’re done:

A high contrast black and white photo created in Photoshop

The final result.

Let’s get started!

Download this tutorial as a print-ready PDF!

The document setup

You can follow along with any image. I’ll use this image from Adobe Stock:

The original photo that will be converted to high contrast black and white in Photoshop.

The original photo.

Gradient Maps vs Photoshop’s Desaturate command

To really see how great of a job a Gradient Map can do with black and white photos, we’ll compare it to Photoshop’s Desaturate command, which is a quick way to remove the color from an image. Both Gradient Maps and the Desaturate command are essentially one-click solutions, so let’s see which one is better at converting an image to black and white.

We’ll start with the Desaturate command. In the Layers panel, the image appears on the Background layer:

Photoshop's Layers panel showing the image on the Background layer.

Photoshop’s Layers panel.

Make a copy of the Background layer by dragging it down onto the New Layer icon:

Making a copy of the Background layer in Photoshop's Layers panel.

Dragging the Background layer onto the New Layer icon.

Then double-click on the copy’s name (Background copy):

Double-clicking on the layer's name.

Double-clicking on the name Background copy.

And rename it Desaturated. Press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) to accept it:

Renaming the layer Desaturated.

Renaming the layer Desaturated.

To remove the color, go up to the Image menu in the Menu Bar, then to Adjustments:

Opening Photoshop's Image menu and choosing Adjustments.

Going to Image > Adjustments.

And choose the Desaturate command:

Choosing the Desaturate command in Photoshop

Choosing Desaturate.

Photoshop instantly removes the color from the image, leaving it in black and white.

But the result is not very impressive. There are no dark shadows or bright highlights to give it that high contrast look we’d expect from a great black and white image. Instead, it just looks like what it is; an image with no color:

The black and white image using Photoshop's Desaturate command

The black and white result using the Desaturate command.

How to convert an image to B&W with a Gradient Map

So let’s compare the result from the Desaturate command to what we get using a Gradient Map.

I’ll turn the Desaturated layer off by clicking its visibility icon:

Turning off the Desaturated layer by clicking its visibility icon

Turning off the Desaturated layer.

Step 1: Reset Photoshop’s Foreground and Background colors

Before adding the Gradient Map, make sure in the toolbar that your Foreground and Background colors are set to their defaults, with black for the Foreground and white for the Background:

Photoshop's Foreground and Background colors in the toolbar

The Foreground and Background colors.

The reason is that by default, Gradient Maps use a gradient based on our current Foreground and Background colors. So if yours are set to different colors, click the small Reset icon above them. Or press the letter D (for Defaults) on your keyboard:

Resetting Photoshop's Foreground and Background colors in the toolbar

Clicking the Reset icon.

Step 2: Add a Gradient Map adjustment layer

Then to add a Gradient Map, go back to the Layers panel, click the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom:

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon in Photoshop's Layers panel

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.

And choose a Gradient Map adjustment layer from the list:

Adding a Gradient Map adjustment layer above the image

Adding a Gradient Map adjustment layer.

And instantly, we get a much higher contrast black and white image, with darker shadows, brighter highlights and more overall detail:

A black and white image created in Photoshop using a Gradient Map

The black and white result using the Gradient Map.

Comparing the results

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the results from the Desaturate command (left) and the Gradient Map (right).

It’s easy to see how much better the Gradient Map’s black and white version looks, even though it took the same amount of time. The higher contrast makes the image pop, with more detail in his face and hair, and more obvious textures in his sweater and in the background:

Comparing the black and white conversions from Photoshop's Desaturate command (left) and the Gradient Map (right)

The Desaturate command (left) and the Gradient Map (right).

How Gradient Maps convert images to black and white

So why are Gradient Maps so good at creating high contrast black and white images? There’s really two reasons. And the first is because of how a Gradient Map works.

I cover Gradient Maps in much more detail in another tutorial where we learn how to color grade images with Gradient Maps. But long story short, a Gradient Map takes the original colors in your image and replaces them with the colors from a gradient.

In the Properties panel, we see the gradient that the Gradient Map is using. And by default, it’s based on our Foreground and Background colors, which is why we reset them to black and white:

Photoshop's Properties panel showing the gradient being used by the Gradient Map.

Photoshop’s Properties panel showing the gradient.

Gradient Maps replace colors based on their brightness. So because we’re using a black to white gradient, the darkest colors in the image are being replaced with black or dark gray. The brightest colors are now white or light gray. And the colors with their brightness somewhere in the middle are now a shade of gray from the midtones in the gradient:

How Photoshop's Gradient Maps replace colors

The original colors are replaced with the gradient colors based on their brightness.

Why do Gradient Maps create high contrast images?

So that’s why the image was converted to black and white when we added the Gradient Map. But why does the black and white image have such high contrast? Why is the contrast with the Gradient Map not only higher than the desaturated version, but even higher than the original image? The reason is because of an option found in the Gradient Editor.

Opening the Gradient Editor

To open the Gradient Editor, click on the gradient in the Properties panel:

Clicking the gradient in the Properties panel to open Photoshop's Gradient Editor

Clicking the gradient to open the Gradient Editor.

The Smoothness option

And here in the Gradient Editor, just above the gradient preview bar, is an option called Smoothness. By default, Smoothness is set to 100 percent. And that means that Photoshop is trying to smooth out the transitions between the different colors, or in this case the different shades of gray, in the gradient:

The Smoothness option set to 100 percent in Photoshop's Gradient Editor

The Smoothness option in the Gradient Editor.

How Smoothness affects contrast

But this smoothing feature also increases the contrast in the gradient. It’s enhancing the difference between the dark and light tones by pushing darker tones more towards black and lighter tones closer to white. And this is what’s giving us that higher contrast look with our black and white image.

Watch what happens to the image if we lower the Smoothness down to 0 percent:

Lowering the Smoothness option for the gradient down to 0 percent.

Lowering Smoothness to 0 percent.

Suddenly we lose the higher contrast, and the black and white image now looks more like the result from the Desaturate command:

The black and white image result after lowering the Smoothness option for the gradient down to 0 percent.

Lowering the Smoothness value lowers the contrast.

But when I increase the Smoothness back to 100 percent, the higher contrast returns:

The high contrast black and white version returns after increasing the gradient Smoothness to 100 percent.

Increasing the Smoothness value increases the contrast.

Expanding and contracting the shadows and highlights

If you pay attention to the gradient preview bar as you increase and decrease the Smoothness value, you can actually see what’s happening to the gradient. Notice how far the darkest shades on the left and the brightest shades on the right are extending inward towards the midtones with Smoothness set to 100 percent:

The gradient with Smoothness at 100 percent.

The shadows and highlights expand with Smoothness at 100 percent.

But as you lower the Smoothness value, those darkest and lightest shades get pushed back toward the edges, which brightens up the midtones. And at 0 percent smoothness, we get a more natural transition from black to white:

The gradient with Smoothness at 0 percent.

The shadows and highlights contract with Smoothness at 0 percent.

I’ll leave the Smoothness at 0 percent for the moment and I’ll click OK to close the Gradient Editor.

And here’s a comparison between the desaturated version (left) and the Gradient Map with Smoothness set to 0 percent (right). Now that we’ve taken away the Gradient Map’s advantage by lowering the smoothness, the two versions look more similar, although the Gradient Map still looks a bit better:

The high contrast black and white version returns after increasing the gradient Smoothness to 100 percent.

Without smoothing, the Gradient Map (right) looks closer to the desaturated image (left).

Of course, the whole point of using a Gradient Map is to get that high contrast effect. So I’ll reopen the Gradient Editor and I’ll set the Smoothness back to 100 percent. Then I’ll click OK to close it. And now we’re back to the high contrast black and white image:

A black and white image created in Photoshop using a Gradient Map

The result with Smoothness reset to 100 percent.

Summary

So I really just wanted to show you why Gradient Maps produce such high contrast black and white photos. But to use a Gradient Map, just make sure your Foreground and Background colors are set to the defaults. Press D on your keyboard if they’re not. Then in the Layers panel, click the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon, choose Gradient Map, and you’re done!

Where to go next…

And there we have it! That’s how easy it is to turn photos to high contrast black and white using a Gradient Map in Photoshop.

But Gradient Maps can do so much more. They’re also great for adding creative color effects to your images, which you can learn all about in my Color Grading with Gradient Maps tutorial.

If you found this lesson helpful, be sure to check out my other Photo Effects and Photo Editing tutorials. And don’t forget, all of my Photoshop tutorials are now available to download as PDFs!

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