Established 1988

Category: B&W

Black and White images on black backgrounds


 Black and White images on black backgrounds

by Glenn Springer, President, Haliburton Highlands Camera Club

A Britisher by the name of Antony Northcutt recently posted some black-and-white flowers on a black background on Facebook. I loved it and bought his eBook to learn the technique. Then I changed it!

Pablo Picasso said that a “good artist copies; a great artist steals”. The great artist uses the work of others as an inspiration, builds on it and makes it his own.

In Photoshop there are a million ways to do anything. Everyone’s approach is going to be different! In this short tutorial, I’ll show you my workflow and some of the thinking behind it, to give you some ideas.

This deals with making black and white images on black backgrounds. The key points are subject choice, selection, background rendering and toning. I edit in Photoshop CC 2014 but most of this works in earlier versions as well.

Selecting the subject

I don’t have that great an eye, but I’m looking for repetitive patterns and not-too-fine details. I look for textures. I fill most of the frame because I don’t want to have to crop too much. I used a flower in this example.

Expose for the subject because the background is going to be removed anyway. Shoot in RAW. Bracket exposures because colours can fool you. The key is to watch the histogram and be sure not to blow out the highlights.

Initial Processing

I use Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. Sometimes I’ll crop up front, because I personally like square images for this approach. At first, my goal is to tone the image so that I have details at both ends – dark and light. Ignore the background and just look at the subject. This is just a “rough cut” – now you’re ready to export to Photoshop.

ALWAYS hit Ctrl-J, (Cmd-J on a Mac) as the first step in Photoshop, to duplicate the background layer in case you want to go back, reduce opacity or change blend modes on the working layer(s).

Making the Selection

One of the simplest ways is the Quick Selection Tool, followed by Refine Edge. Another easy tool to use is Topaz Remask. Get all of the flower, you can finesse the edges later. If you select too much you can erase it later, but it’s much harder to add something you missed. Suffice it to say, the simpler the subject, the easier it is. Complicated edges can be very challenging!

Now once it’s selected, Ctrl-J (Cmd-J) copies your selection onto a fresh layer.


The starting image after cropping square and the initial selection

Making a black background

KISS principle. Northcutt had you select the layer underneath, create an exposure adjustment layer, slide the exposure down as far as it will go, and you have an almost-black background. There’s one advantage to that method: you can keep some vestiges of what was around the subject in the final image. But the problem is, you won’t get a pure black. That makes a huge difference when you go to print.

Here’s my simpler way. Create a new layer. Fill it with black (alt-backspace on PC, option-delete on Mac). Slide the new layer underneath your selection layer. You’re done.


The selection is pasted into a new layer with a black layer added underneath

Now it’s time for a little cleanup. Don’t use the eraser tool – if you make a mistake, it’s hard to go back. Instead, add a mask on the layer and paint on the mask. Anything painted in black will reveal the layer underneath, anything painted in white will hide it – and it’s easy to go back and forth (the “X” key switches the foreground and background colours).

The Black and White Conversion

You could leave your image in colour. But I like black and white for this, and, well, I’m the artist today! Again, there are lots of ways to approach this. Before we do…

I want to work on a combined layer now. So I “Stamp” a fresh combined layer with “Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E” (Cmd-Option-Shift-E). I do this often, so I’ve programmed that into my tablet on a single hotkey.

Sidebar: You’ve already done a bunch of work. Save often, as a .PSD file to preserve all your layers

For the black and white, you could just go up in the menu and change the whole thing to greyscale. But it’s better to create a black-and-white adjustment layer. Now you can choose what happens to each colour in the original. Play. Sometimes I’ll use Silver Efex or BW Effects for the conversion.


After black-and-white conversion and curves adjustment

Toning your image

Curves adjusts the overall toning of the image. Make the curve “S”-shaped if you want more contrast. Pull specific spots to re-tone specific densities. Now do a non-destructive dodge and burn.

Create a new layer and fill it with 50% gray. Change the blend mode to “overlay”. In this mode, it has zero effect on your image. But if you paint in black on this layer, it burns in what’s underneath it. White dodges. Choose a soft brush, turn the opacity and paint. Use the “X” key to switch back and forth. Make a mistake? Switch colours. Or just fill the whole layer with grey again and start over!


How to add a non-destructive dodge/burn layer



This is what the dodge/burn layer looks like after it’s done

As a rule of thumb, burn in the dark things and dodge the light areas.



The key here is to select a subject with great tonality and texture, but not too much complexity. Visualize it in black and white. Put it on a pure black background, then enhance it with the traditional darkroom tools now translated into Photoshop. Pay attention to detail and your results will be outstanding.


This is the final product after a few more minor tweaks


Online resources:

Antony Northcutt eBook

Faczen tech blog (the full article)

Non-destructive dodging/burning

Quick Photoshop Tips for B&W

Tony Paine

Tony Paine

Mississauga Camera Club

Tony Paine is the 2-time Club Champion of Mississauga Camera Club, Competition Director at Etobicoke Camera Club and a contributing member to the Toronto Focal Forum.  About 40% of his work is in B&W.  See more examples at

Quick Photoshop Tips for B&W

Black and White is used to add drama and emphasize the structural design of a well-executed image.  My 3 hour B&W Workshop covers 10 Tips & Tricks to make better images (most of which also work in color).  Let me give you a couple of the best quick tips.

Half Dome

 Image: Half Dome View from Shady Lookout

Tip #1: Improve the apparent 3-dimensionality of any image with “Poor Man’s PerceptoolTM(courtesy of; George also has a great free natural HDR program “ALW HDR” for CS3/4/5).  PerceptoolTM is a downloadable program that costs about $100 US, but is also only available for CS3/4/5.  What I call Poor Man’s Perceptool is a free Action you can download (which does a better job on highlights than the paid version), comprised of the following simple steps:

1.       Select the upper layer in your image stack (or the base layer if you just opened an image).

2.       Start recording the Action – call it “GDW Poor Man’s Perceptool”

3.       Press Alt-Control-Shift-E (PC) to generate a new layer representing a copy of all the underneath layers.  Name the new layer “Copy”

4.       Press Control-J to make a copy of the Copy layer.  Name the new Layer “Poor Man’s Perceptool”

5.       Apply a 250 pixel Hi Pass filter to the PMP layer (Filter > Other > Hi Pass > 250 Radius).

6.       Select the Copy layer and press CTRL ALT 2 (PC; or Command Opt 2 Mac) to load the Luminosity as a selection.

7.       Click on the PMP layer; Click Add Mask (rectangular icon in Layers Palette with circle in the middle).  This should put a B&W version of the image in the mask of the Copy layer.

8.       Set the blending mode of the PMP layer to Soft Light.

9.       Stop recording the Action

10.   Delete the “Copy” Layer – I use it to allow multiple under layers.  With only an image layer to start, you will get an error message running the Action, but simply press “Continue” to ignore it.

In use, you adjust the PMP layer opacity (50% is typical for color images; 100% for B&W), or turn off the mask if you like.  The result should be deeper shadows and brighter whites emphasizing edges – a more 3-dimensional look.  I use this little trick (plus George’s Edge Burn Action to create a subtle vignette) on almost every image where it is important to develop a sense of depth – in both Color and B&W.

Mississauga Moonrise

Image: Mississauga Moonrise

Tip #2.  A snappy B&W conversion.  Anybody who looks at the luminance mask (Shift-Click on it) on the PMP layer will recognize the mask image is a very snappy B&W in its own right.  The same B&W conversion can be realized in 4 steps (which I also program into an Action):

1.       Save the image then flatten and convert to LAB color.

2.       Duplicate the base layer.

3.       Select the duplicate layer and perform the 250 pixel Hi Pass Filter on it.  Rename it “High Pass 250”.  Set the Blending Mode to Soft Light.

4.       Add a Hue Saturation Layer and Set the Saturation to Zero.

This is all I did to the color head shot of me at the top of the article.  You may dial down the opacity of the High Pass Layer to taste, but at 100% the result is the same as the mask in Poor Man’s Perceptool.  Usually I flatten at this point and convert back to RGB because I want to work B&W in RGB to add color toning for effect or to offset unwanted printer/paper tones.

Peruvian Encounter

Image: Peruvian Encounter

Once you have the Actions in place, it is a simple matter to run them with a single click and then dial down the opacity of the resulting layers to boost your image potential.