super cool photoshop trick for better black and white digital images

Last week I was on my way out the door to meet a friend for dinner, and I stumbled on a website while doing a search for another website to send to a photographer in an email I was composing to her about digital editing. It was so engrossing I ended up being late for dinner (and fell on the pavement on my way out in a rush- more on that later).

The ‘accidentally stumbled upon’ site had a tutorial about editing black and white images, something all digital photographers know can be challenging.

This tutorial wasn’t about how to convert a color image to a fancy black and white in one step, or create a processing action, or use filters or anything like that. It was about how to take your b/w images from good to “awesome!” using the very strange (and counterintuitive) process of selectively applying the saturate sponge to your image.

Example below of Duke:

Original, unedited file. (I prefer to say ‘SFTC’- straight from the camera, which to me is more natural than ‘SOOC’- straight out of [the] camera)

File converted to grayscale:

File after receiving the ‘magic treatment’

Let me explain. This so easy to do you won’t believe it. 

Here is what you do:

  1. Open your original, unedited image in photoshop (any version)
  2. Duplicate your background layer
  3. Convert the layer to grayscale using image-mode-grayscale
  4. When it asks you if you want to discard the color information, click yes. (be sure to save this new file as a copy!)
  5. Go to your sponge tool (it’s with the dodge and burn tools)
  6. Select a fairly large soft brush (350-500 pixels) in the preferences bar at the top
  7. Select ‘saturate’ from the drop-down ‘mode’ menu
  8. For ‘flow’ select somewhere between 40-60% depending on how dark or light your image is (lower percentage for darker images; higher for lighter images). I used 52% for Duke above, which was a fairly overexposed image. 
  9. Start applying the saturate sponge to your image and watch the magic happen.

If this works for you the way it did for me you will be saying “wow……. WOW!” and wondering how in the world it does that. Apparently the process increases the local contrast in an image, in ways I don’t really understand. Note: I didn’t do anything extra to the shot of Duke above- no sharpening or levels or anything else- just exactly the steps listed above. 

To read more about this cool trick, check out the forensic photoshop blog post where I found the tutorial. 

Also, be sure to do a google search for ‘local contrast’. You can learn a lot about how the brain processes visuals. It’s really fascinating stuff!

LOVE this trick! It even fits in with my TMOL (two minutes or less) editing philosophy. Have fun with it all of you shutterbugs!

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6 thoughts on “super cool photoshop trick for better black and white digital images

  1. What a great technique!! I did it on CS2 and love it! For some reason, when you convert images to B&W on CS3, I find they just look blue. I tried this trick on a couple of photos and found it gave them a real artsy look. Thanks!

  2. Thanx for the cool tip Jamie…I am definately going to try it…my b/w conversions always seem to leave me wanting…It is the only time I really miss film and my trusty old Ilford Delta 400…

  3. I am glad that you enjoyed the tutorial and that you found it useful. The difference between this technique and LR is the ability to control locally vs. globally. This technique gives you great local control, as you have found.

    All the best,

    Jim Hoerricks
    Forensic Image Analyst and best selling author of Forensic Photoshop – a comprehensive imaging workflow for forensic professionals and the Forensic Photoshop blog.
    Find me on line at and

  4. @mia: when you use the technique, it really does look like magic happening before your eyes. it’s soo cool. in fact, I think I need to go use it again right now, lol. Let me know if you post any images after doing this!
    @grace- I use LR pretty much exclusively now (LR fans unite!!), including for b/w. (I have some awesome b/w presets I designed- let me know if you’d like them and I’ll send them to you. You use the 5D right?). I only use PS/bridge for putting blog images into their templates and might now use it at times for this new black and white technique, which I just can’t get enough of. 🙂

  5. whoa, never tried processing black and whites this way. seems very interesting. do you ever use lightroom to do your conversions as well?

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