*Selective Color use in Black and White Photography

One fun, and very easy technique in Photoshop is to use a small point (or points) of color in a black and white image to draw focus to a particular area or provide a particular mood.  It is easy and can provide a bit of intrigue to an image. This is my basic way of achieving this using an image in Photoshop.

There are a couple ways to go about this.  Basically, you need to start with a color image file and duplicate it into a black and white version.  I have found that photoshop provides decent black and white conversion which can be done in quite a few different ways within the program.  You can also achieve this effect by processing a copy of your color file in a different software or plug in.  (Personally, I have fallen in love with NIK Silver Efex Pro which can be purchased as a plug in, or as a stand alone program.)  Photoshop does well, but requires more work to get the file looking (in my opinion) really good, where NIK – SEP has provided a one click solution to produce a variety of black and white processes and then offers nearly unlimited tweaking from there.

Regardless, to achieve the effect, we need a color file and a duplicate black and white file.  I’ll show you how I would bring an image processed using a third party black and white conversion software (NIK Silver Efex Pro in my case) into Photoshop, as well as the same image duplicated and processed in Photoshop directly.  Two different methods to achieve more or less the same result.  It just depends on how you prefer to process your image in black and white.

Here are my two images, the original color image, and a duplicate version in black and white resulting in the image above.

the color 'background layer'

my black and white version which I layer on top of my color copy

First, here’s the Photoshop direct method.

  1. Open your image in Photoshop and duplicate the background layer (drag your background to the create new layer icon or with it selected go to Layer>Duplicate Layer)
  2. With the duplicated background layer  selected, go to Image > Adjustments > Black & White (you can adjust the levels to your preference).  Click OK.
  3. With the (now) black and white background copy layer (“Layer 1” unless you changed the name) selected, add a layer mask (the dot in the rectangle at the bottom of the layers palate).
  4. Choose the brush tool (B), hit “D” to revert to your “default” foreground and background colors (white and black), press “X” if you need to switch between white and black,  and paint in the layer mask with black to reveal the color layer below it in just the areas that you want to be revealed in color.

Your layers palate should end up looking something like this:

*if you need to “reapply” the black and white layer to areas that you want to turn back into black and white, just hit your “X” key to switch between foreground and background colors and repaint over the areas (with white selected) which you’d like to ‘switch back’.

It’s as easy as that!

Here is the procedure to follow if you have an already converted black and white version of your color image.

  1. If you have a black and white duplicate version of a color image that you’ve already processed and you want to use that version as your black and white layer, open both the black and white version, and color version of the same exact picture in Photoshop. For our purposes, we need to make sure the images are unaltered dimension wise so that you can stack the black and white version directly on top of the color version so that it will match up exactly, otherwise you will need to decrease the opacity of the B&W layer to manually drag the image on top using the move tool (V) until you line it up properly, then increase the opacity back to 100%.
  2. So, with both versions of the same image opened in Photoshop, make sure you are able to see both images on your desk top (if not, click “F” until that is the case) and click on your black and white version to select it as the active project.  Choose the move tool (V) and while holding the “shift” key first, click, drag and drop the black and white version on top of the color version, unclick your mouse, then let go of the “shift” key, which will provide us with, essentially the same set up as we’d done above by copying and desaturating the background copy layer. From this point, follow steps 3 and 4 above to achieve the same effect.

Like many things, moderation can be key.  This may not be the best way to process ALL of your images, but it is a cool, and easy to use tool for the pictures that may really benefit from an effect like this.

Enjoy, and remember to post your results in our flickr group here!

Here are a couple others I’ve done.   Cheers and happy shooting, – Tyson

Give it a vintage wash for an old world feel.

using a bit of blue toning to utilize a little color contrast

It can be fun for a little color pop on birth announcements, etc.

12 thoughts on “*Selective Color use in Black and White Photography

  1. Hi Tyson! I’ve done this before in Paint Shop Pro, but I don’t have photoshop so I gotta do what I gotta do. Just as a personal preference, I tend to use a split channel for the B&W layer. So I split the reference color image into three B&Ws, Red, Green, and Blue channels. I usually pick the green since it’s the highest res on my 40D (red is notoriously noisy) but the 5D is good on all three channels. Then I tune the one B&W image I like best and use that one. I feel left out from all those wonderful plugins to PS!


    • Shetha!

      Great to see you here. I’ve not used Paint Shop Pro, but I have used split channels in PS for a couple of different things in the past. Thanks for the heads up here. Have you tried using GIMP? It’s a free shareware that was built to provide a very similar interface and skill set to PS. I don’t think it is compatible with the same PS plugins, but it does most of the rest, and it has the whole free thing going for it. It may be worth checking out.

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by and read through! One of these days I’m sure our families will cross paths here in town. We’re almost ready to start taking little baby what’s his face out for extended excursions as we gain a bit more time between, and move further away from mandated nap time meltdown avoidance as he gets older. Just in time for summer, if it ever shows up anyway…



  2. Selective color is something that, if done right, can make an incredible statement. Equally, if done wrong, can ruin an otherwise perfectly good image.

    Here, the former is the case…although it’s a bit eerie given your b/w treatment. Nevertheless, quite the compelling image and your discussion of it is equally interesting1 Well done!


    • Thanks Jason, I really appreciate it.

      I’m a firm believer in moderation. I try my best to process the image, and then take whichever “effect” I’m using down at least 25%, move on, then go back to it to look at it with fresh eyes and then adjust from there. (Most of the time, I bring it down ever more.) If I don’t go back to it, I tend to end up with over baked and over processed images… Rarely in my eyes do the over processed images make sense, but they do have their place from time to time, depending on the final medium anyway.

      I’m looking forward to reading through your blog!




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