Black and White with Selective Color Effect in Photoshop Elements

Guggenheim museum

 Wynand van Poortvliet / Getty Image


One of the more popular photo effects you may have seen is where a photo is converted to black and white, except for one object in the photo which is made to stand out by keeping it in color. There are many different ways to achieve this effect. The following shows a non-destructive way to do it using adjustment layers in Photoshop Elements. The same method will work in Photoshop or other software that offers adjustment layers.

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Converting to Black and White with Desaturate Command

boy in overalls and straw hat with a bucket of apples


For the first step, we need to convert the image to black and white. There are many ways to do this. Let's go through a few of them so you can understand which is the preferred method for this tutorial.

Start by opening your own image, or you can follow along with the photo shown here as a practice model.

The most common way of removing color from an image is by going to Enhance > Adjust Color > Remove Color. (In Photoshop this is called the Desaturate command.) If you'd like, go ahead and try it, but then use the Undo command to go back to your color photo. We are not going to use this method because it changes the image permanently and we want to be able to bring back the color in selected areas.

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Converting to Black & White with Hue/Saturation Adjustment

Adding a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer


Another way to remove color is by using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Go to your Layers palette now and click the "New Adjustment Layer" button which looks like a black & white circle, then select the Hue/Saturation entry from the menu. In the Hue/Saturation dialog box, drag the middle slider for Saturation all the way to the left for a setting of -100, then click OK. You can see the image has turned to black and white, but if you look at the layers palette you can see that the background layer is still in color, so the original has not been permanently altered.

Click the eye icon next to the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to temporarily switch it off. The eye is a toggle for making the effect visible. Leave it off for now.

Adjusting the saturation is one way to convert a photo to black and white, but the desaturated black and white version lacks contrast and appears washed out. Next, we'll look at another method that produces a nicer result.

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Converting to Black & White with Gradient Map Adjustment

Applying a Gradient Map Adjustment


Create another new adjustment layer, but this time choose Gradient Map as the adjustment instead of Hue/Saturation. In the Gradient Map dialog, make sure you have a black to white gradient selected, as shown here. If you have any other gradient, click the arrow next to the gradient and select the "Black, White" gradient thumbnail. (You may need to click the small arrow on the gradient palette and load the default gradients.)

If your image looks like infrared instead of black and white, you have the gradient in reverse, and you can just tick the "Reverse" button under gradient options.

Click OK to apply the gradient map.

Now click the eye back on for the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, and use the eye icon on the Gradient Map layer to compare the results of both methods of black and white conversion. You'll see that the gradient map version has better texture and more contrast.

You can now delete the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer by dragging it onto the trash can icon on the layers palette.

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Understanding Layer Masks

Adjustment Layer with Layer Mask


Now we'll give this photo a punch of color by restoring color to the apples. Because we used an adjustment layer, we still have the color image in the background layer. We are going to paint on the adjustment layer's mask to reveal the color in the background layer below. You may already be familiar with layer masks but if not, here's a recap:

Take a look at your layers palette and notice that the gradient map layer has two thumbnail icons. The one on the left indicates the type of adjustment layer, and you can double-click on it to change the adjustment. The thumbnail on the right is the layer mask, which is going to be all white at the moment. The layer mask lets you erase your adjustment by painting on it. White reveals the adjustment, black blocks it completely, and shades of gray partially reveal it. We are going to reveal the color of the apples from the background layer by painting on the layer mask with black.

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Restoring Color to the Apples by Painting in the Layer Mask

Restoring Color To the Apples by Painting in the Layer Mask

 D. Spluga

Zoom in on the apples in the photo so they fill your workspace. Activate the brush tool, pick an appropriately sized brush, and set opacity to 100%. Set the foreground color to black (you can do this by pressing D, then X). Now click on the layer mask thumbnail in the layers palette and then begin painting over the apples in the photo. This is a good time to use a graphics tablet if you have one.

As you paint, use the bracket keys to increase or decrease the size of your brush.
[ makes the brush smaller
] makes the brush larger
Shift + [ makes the brush softer
Shift + ] makes the brush harder

Be careful, but don't panic if you go outside the lines. We'll see how to clean that up next.

Optional method: If you're more comfortable making selections than painting in the color, feel free to use a selection to isolate the object you want to color. Click the eye to turn off the gradient map adjustment layer, make your selection, then turn the adjustment layer back on, click the layer mask thumbnail, and then go to Edit > Fill selection, using Black as the fill color.
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Cleaning up the Edges by Painting in the Layer Mask

Cleaning up the Edges by Painting in the Layer Mask


If you're human, you probably painted color onto some areas that you didn't intend to. No worries -- just switch the foreground color to white by pressing X, and erase away the color back to gray using a small brush. Zoom in close and clean up any edges using the shortcuts you've learned.

When you think you're done, set your zoom level back to 100% (actual pixels). You can do this by double-clicking on the zoom tool in the toolbar or by pressing Alt+Ctrl+0. If the colored edges look too harsh, you can soften them slightly by going to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and setting a blur radius of 1-2 pixels.

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Add Noise for a Finishing Touch

Add Noise for a Finishing Touch


There's one more finishing touch to add to this image. Traditional black and white photography would ordinarily have some film grain. Since this was a digital photo, you don't get that grainy quality, but we can add it with the noise filter.

Make a duplicate of the background layer by dragging it to the new layer icon on the layers palette. This way we leave the original untouched and can remove the effect simply by deleting the layer.

With the background copy selected, go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Set the amount between 3-5%, Distribution Gaussian, and Monochromatic checked. You can compare the difference with and without the noise effect by checking or unchecking the preview box in the Add Noise dialog. If you like it click OK. If not, adjust the noise amount more to your liking, or cancel out of it.

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The Completed Image with Selective Colorization

The Completed Image with Selective Colorization


Here is the final result of your efforts.