Black and White with Selective Color Effect in Photoshop Elements

A few layers and adjustments make one photo object pop with color

Have you ever seen a photo that was black and white except for one object, which is in full color? It's a popular effect, and there are a number of ways to achieve it. The following instructions are a non-destructive way to create a black-and-white photo with a dash of color using adjustment layers in Photoshop Elements. The same method will work in Photoshop or other software that features adjustment layers.

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Convert to Black & White with Hue/Saturation Adjustment

Adding a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer

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Apply Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to mimic image desaturation.

In the Layers palette, select the New Adjustment Layer icon indicated by a black & white circle. From the menu, select Hue/Saturation. Drag the Saturation slider all the way to the left for a setting of -100, then select OK. The image will now be 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.

Next, select the eye icon next to the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to switch off the layer's effects. (The eye toggles the visibility of an effect.)

Do not use the remove color or desaturate commands, because these commands discard the color information.

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Convert to Black & White with Gradient Map Adjustment

Applying a Gradient Map Adjustment

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Create another new adjustment layer, but this time choose Gradient Map as the adjustment instead of Hue/Saturation. In the Gradient Map dialog, select a black-to-white gradient.

If your image looks like infrared instead of black and white, you've selected the gradient in reverse. Select Reverse under gradient options.

Select OK to apply the gradient map.

Now select the eye icon 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.

Compare the two versions—Gradient Map relative to Hue/Saturation Adjustment—and delete the layer that looks worse. Different images perform differently based on image complexity and background shadows.

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Understanding Layer Masks

Adjustment Layer with Layer Mask

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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.

The gradient map layer uses two thumbnail icons. The one on the left indicates the type of adjustment layer. The one on the right is the layer mask. 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 will reveal the color of the apples from the background layer by painting on the layer mask with black.

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Restore Color by Painting in the Layer Mask

Restoring Color To the Apples by Painting in the Layer Mask

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Zoom in on the area where you'd like to preserve color. Activate the brush tool, pick an appropriately sized brush, and set the opacity to 100 percent. Set the foreground color to black. (Press D, then X.) Now select the layer mask thumbnail in the layers palette and begin painting over the area you want to color.

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

If you're more comfortable making selections than painting in the color, select the eye to turn off the gradient map adjustment layer. Select the area you'd like to color, then turn the adjustment layer back on. Select the layer mask thumbnail, and then select Edit > Fill Selection, using Black as the fill color.

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Clean up the Edges by Painting in the Layer Mask

Cleaning up the Edges by Painting in the Layer Mask

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To clean up mistakes, switch the foreground color to white by pressing X, then use a small brush to erase the color back to gray. Zoom in close and clean up unacceptable edges.

When you think you're done, set your zoom level back to 100 percent. If the colored edges look too harsh, soften them slightly by selecting 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

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There's one more (optional) finishing touch to add to this image. Black-and-white photography ordinarily displays some film grain. Because we're working with a digital photo, you don't get any of that grainy quality. Add some with a 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, select Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Set the amount between 3 percent and 5 percent, then select the checkboxes for Distribution Gaussian and Monochromatic. 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 select OK. If not, adjust the noise amount or cancel out of it.

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The Completed Image with Selective Colorization

The Completed Image with Selective Colorization

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The final result approximates a vintage black-and-white photograph with one element highlighted in color.