From color to black and white using levels in Photoshop

In this article, we will see one of the techniques that I use every time  I convert photographs from color to black and white. Don´t forget there are always more possibilities how to edit the picture, try to train your own imagination, don´t hurry with adjustments of photographs as soon as you came home from a trip, make the photo a soak in the head and then set to work. If you don´t know what I am talking about, see the article patience in black and white photography.

The desired result is in this photograph

What are levels?

Levels is a tool in Photoshop and other image editing programs which can move and stretch the brightness levels of an image histogram. It has the power to adjust brightness, contrast and tonal range by specifying the location of complete black, complete white and midtones in a histogram. How to use this function in conversion to black and white we´ll show immediately.

Some technical information about the shot

This long exposure photograph was taken in village Morbisch am See in Austria.

Nikon D800 + Nikon 16-35

LEE Big stopper + LEE 1.2 ND was used

ISO 100, 29 mm, f/16, 209 sec.

First adjustments

As always, even now we should first work with photograph in color. In this step I recommend to read the article about the first steps in conversion to black and white. Correct the exposure, add some clarity and contrast to create a good basis for subsequent adjustments.

Understanding what exactly are we going to do with the picture

My goal is to extract from the photograph as much contrast as possible. Weather that day wasn´t very favourable, I was waiting for clouds which after arrival blended with into a cloudy sky without any contrast. It turned out that even these conditions may not be bad. What we are going to do is darken pier and contrary to lighten everything else in the photograph.

Creation of two or more versions of photograph

Normally I always create multiple versions of a single photograph, namely neutral, overexposed and underexposed. In this case neutral and overexposed is enough. In creation of these versions helps me the program Silver Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software. I will use either default presets or I will create these versions myself. I recommend beginners to use presets.

Neutral version


Overexposed version


Do the selection with pier in photoshop

To apply the levels only to a single part of the photograph, we must do selection, in this case the selection of pier. You can use the quick selection tool, for more precise selections please read tutorial how to make the most  precise selections in photoshop. Once you are finished, don´t forget to save the selection by clicking on Select -> Save selection, maybe you will need this selection later.

You can use the quick selection tool


And subsequently specify selection of photograph by “Quick mask” (press Q in Photoshop)

Let´s see how I ordered various layers

Layer with the neutral version of the photograph is placed above layer of the overexposed version. I adjust the pier from the neutral version so I click on a neutral layer, induce the selection of pier that I saved in the preceeding step by using Select -> Load Selection -> Channel Pier. Now when pier is signed, click on Settings -> Levels.

We use this procedure only to adjust part of the photograph that we have signed, in this case it is the pier itself, from neutral layer.




When we look at the levels of pier, I darken it in a way that the triangles which adjust whites will be shifted to the left.

The intensity of black choose according to your taste,  I prefer the black completely dark. If you think the pier shall be like this, on the layer of Levels that is just signed, press the right mouse button and select the option “Merge down.”

The result is that we darkened the pier on the neutral version of the photograph

Combining the overexposed version with darkened pier

I repeat, we have still two layers that interest us. Neutral version already with the darkened pier and under it the overexposed version. I also adjust the sky by using the levels, practically repeat the same procedure as for the pair.

On the upper neutral version layer I will again induce the selection of the pair by clicking on Select -> Load Selection -> Channel Pier. As soon as I have this selection induced, I click on “Add Layer Mask” to use just the pier from the given version.


Can you see the great contrast created? Someone would say he doesn´t need to continue with adjustments. I also think that photograph adjusted like this is absolutely fine, I like it, however, why not go further? Play with different parts of the photograph, combine them and decide yourself where is the point when you say – wow, great job, now it is done! I pushed the version to the final result so that I added midtones to the water area with the aim to add photograph more depth.

Final result

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