Make It Monochrome: My Favorite Black-And-White Film Emulation Software


All Photos © Joe Farace

There’s more to black-and-white photography than simply a lack of color. Maybe we wouldn’t feel this way if the first photographs were made in color but that didn’t happen and I grew up admiring the works of W. Eugene Smith and other photojournalists who photographed people at work, play, or being themselves in glorious black and white.

The biggest advantage of creating black-and-white images from color files is that it leaves your originals untouched. If you shoot portraits, it’s also easier to retouch before converting the image to monochrome because a color file offers more skin tones to work with. And black and white is a wonderful media for portraiture because the lack of color simplifies the image, placing the focus on the real subject of the photograph instead of their clothing or surroundings. Sometimes the nature of the subject demands that the image be captured in black and white. Arnold Newman’s portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky at the piano could never have been made in color and have the same impact it has as a monochrome image.

In the film days, gurus jealously guarded their formulae for processing film using a precise blend of Rodinal, grain alcohol, and rainwater, along with a shot of Dr. Pepper—shaken not stirred. Nowadays you’re just as likely to hear their digital descendants raving about different products and techniques for converting color files into monochrome and everybody has their favorite method and tool(s) they prefer to use. Here are a few of my favorites.

Monochrome In The Digital Darkroom
Photoshop’s Image > Adjustments menu contains several ways to create black-and-white images. One of the easiest is Desaturate, which converts a color image by equally assigning red, green, and blue values to each pixel to a grayscale conversion that remains an RGB image. The lightness value of each pixel doesn’t change. This command has the same effect as setting Saturation (in Hue/Saturation) to minus 100.

Channel Mixer produces grayscale images by letting you choose the percentage of contribution from each color channel. It uses a mix of the image’s color channels and lets you add or subtract data from a source channel to the output channel. Channel Mixer was improved in Photoshop CS3 and now includes black-and-white presets, making this process simpler.

Channel Mixer

The Black and White command under Adjustments lets you emphasize certain areas of an image and deemphasize others based on the original photograph’s colors, without having to know—or worry about—Channels. Then there’s the Monochrome command found under Mode that uses different shades of gray with Photoshop, discarding all of the color information in the original image. The gray levels of the converted pixels represent the luminosity of the original pixels.

Black and White Command

The latest version of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) that’s part of Photoshop contains monochrome conversion controls, providing a gateway for converting not only 150 Raw formats but JPEG and TIFF files as well. Conversion is as simple as selecting the HSL/Grayscale tab and clicking the box marked “Convert to Grayscale.” You can then use ACR’s other controls to tweak the image.

But it’s not just Adobe’s game; there are lots of other programs you can use, including Corel’s AfterShot ($54) and the oddly named GIMP or GNU Image Manipulation Program. Like ACR, AfterShot is a Raw file converter that offers its own family of plug-ins, including two Channel Mixers: zChannelMixer, which supports black-and-white conversion before or after (or both) mixing the channels, and Mix3, which creates monochrome images by mixing RGB channels while preserving luminosity using a weighted RGB average. GIMP is freely distributed software for photo retouching, image composition, and image authoring. It works on Mac OS and Windows as well as its original Linux platform and is more of an image enhancement program built using a LEGO-like structure allowing you to add modules, such as a black-and-white Channel Mixer.

Photoshop-Compatible Plug-Ins
Adobe Photoshop has an open architecture that accommodates small applications—plug-ins—that increase the program’s functionality and let you customize the software. You don’t need Photoshop to use compatible plug-ins. Adobe defined the standard but many compatible plug-ins can be used with other image-editing programs, including Photoshop Elements and Corel’s PaintShop Pro, PhotoImpact, and Photo-Paint. Many, if not most, of these plug-ins offer trial or demo versions and I urge you to try those of interest with your own photographs. While testing a plug-in, keep in mind that any effect is subject dependent, so if it doesn’t work with one particular image, it may be killer with another.

DxO FilmPack 5 is available in two versions: Elite ($129) contains 82 “film looks” and Essential ($79) has 44. The Elite version also includes 18 color filters, along with vignetting and blur features, while Essential has eight color filters, along with vignetting and toning. FilmPack 5 also emulates color film, a trend common in this category. The software can work with Raw files, automatically compensating for optical defects, and minimizing digital noise in favor of simulated film grain. It’s all wrapped in a relatively intuitive interface with most controls within easy reach, with the ability to apply some effects with a single click. FilmPack 5 can function as a stand-alone application or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, Apple Aperture, or DxO OpticsPro.

DxO FilmPack 5

Tiffen’s Dfx ($149) includes 134 filters, Rosco and Gam filter and gobo libraries, and 288 presets for emulating different color and black-and-white films, motion picture stocks, and historical processes. Dfx also includes image adjustment tools, such as nondestructive crop, rotate, and scale functions, and an RGB curves panel. Effects can be used within layers and groups of image files can be batch processed. Color accuracy is maintained through ICC profiling; Raw, JPEG, TIFF, CIN, and DPX file formats are supported and 8-, 16-, or 32-bit images can be processed. The plug-in is compatible with Adobe Photoshop, Elements, and Lightroom.

Tiffen Dfx

Macphun Software’s Tonality uses a 16-bit Raw processing engine and algorithms to produce black-and-white images. Starting with a bunch of presets, Tonality offers layer-based editing, adaptive exposure and smart contrast, user-loadable textures, clarity control as well as structure and grain emulation for more than 20 different film types. The software has adjustment brushes and finishing tools wrapped in an interface that encourages experimentation. Tonality can be used as a stand-alone app ($14) or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Elements, and Lightroom with an advanced Pro version ($69) that adds Advanced Layers, Histograms, and Zone System controls for balancing gray shades.

Macphun Software Tonality Pro

Alien Skin Software’s Exposure ($149) has roots in black-and-white and color film emulation and darkroom effects and the latest version adds Kodak Portra 160, 400, and 800 along with Ilford XP2 Super 400, Kodak BW400CN, and Kodak T-Max 400. Films such as Tri-X were analyzed to faithfully simulate their characteristic tonal ranges and grain structures. There’s more than 470 preset effects that can be applied with a mouse click. Exposure 7 integrates with Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, adding the look of discontinued films, printing techniques, and textures. It’s compatible with Raw image files, performs nondestructive editing, and provides folder/file browsing so you can quickly open individual photos or batches of images.

Alien Skin Exposure 7

Perfect B&W ($59) is an application/plug-in that’s part of onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite that also includes six other applications you might find useful. Perfect B&W is an automation plug-in and appears in Photoshop’s File > Automate menu. It lets you adjust tone, color response, or tonal curve and includes noise reduction features. It has live previews that let you toggle on/off as editing progresses. Its customizable presets can be renamed and shared with others. But wait as they say on TV, there’s more: onOne’s Perfect Effects plug-in ($59) contains 20 specific monochrome presets under the Film > B&W menu plus another 30 monochromatic effects in the Hipster menu, many of which are built using a layered structure that the right-hand menu of sliders lets you tweak further.

onOne Software Perfect B&W

PictoColor is the maker of my go-to color correction software—iCorrect Portrait—but also makes iCorrect EditLab Pro ($99) that includes color balance and tonal range along with brightness, contrast, and saturation controls. It includes HueSelect Control Points to perform hue-selective edits and automatically corrects for memory colors like sky blue, foliage green, and skin tones, plus will convert to black and white or sepia while controlling the contrast and detail based on the colors in the original image. Along with color correction, iCorrect EditLab Pro also applies sharpening and noise removal. A stand-alone version ($149) is also available.

PictoColor iCorrect EditLab Pro

Silver Efex Pro And Beyond
There’s no doubt that Google’s Silver Efex Pro is the 880-pound gorilla. Originally Nik Silver Efex, Google made some not-so-obvious changes and it seems a bit slower (on my newer, faster computer) and feels slightly different. Nevertheless it’s still my go-to software for working in black and white. Silver Efex Pro’s presets start with a neutral conversion and include more than 20 adjustments ranging from historic processes to images that emulate film types. You can use presets as a starting point to create and share your own customized black-and-white style. Color filters, vignettes, and toning controls are other choices. Sliders allow tweaking brightness, contrast, and structure. Silver Efex Pro is sold as part of the Google Nik Collection ($149) that includes Analog Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Viveza, HDR Efex Pro, Sharpener Pro, and Dfine. It is available for Mac OS and Windows.

Google also offers Analog Efex Pro that lets you choose from 10 different tool combinations to apply effects, or use the Camera Kit feature to mix and match. While not strictly a monochrome conversion tool (there are color film/camera effects as well), you can select a preset, then personalize the effect using 14 tools to process your images. The plug-in uses Nik’s famous control points to selectively add or remove an effect without layers or masks. Control points are available in Basic Adjustments, Dirt & Scratches, Light Leaks, and Photo Plate Tools.

Google Silver Efex Pro

Imagenomic’s Realgrain ($99) offers methods for simulating the grain patterns, color, and tonal response of black-and-white or color film and different resolutions to convey a film-like effect. The plug-in lets you adjust grain size based on an image’s physical dimensions and renders accurate grain patterns for different file sizes. Realgrain comes with presets for a range of effects and includes controls that let you adjust grain balance, tonal, and color fine-tuning.

Imagenomic Realgrain

Topaz Labs’ B&W Effects ($59) includes 200 presets in eight collections, including Traditional, Stylized, Toned, as well as classical darkroom presets for Albumen, Opalotype (a favorite), Cyanotype, Platinum, and Van Dyke Brown. There’s more here than black-and-white effects and some presets have color capabilities that produce a Marshall’s Oil colors effect. This Mac OS and Windows plug-in has a menu of presets on the left-hand side of an attractive and functional interface offering sets of global controls along with localized adjustments. You can put B&W Effects 2 in autopilot, click on one of the 200 presets and look at a large preview that appears before applying.

Topaz Labs B&W Effects 2

Power Retouche’s Black & White Studio continues to improve and at $29 remains a bargain for Mac OS and Windows users. It converts color images to black-and-white photography using the light sensitivity of specific films, such as Tri-X, or you can set your own sensitivity curves. It can apply the equivalent to on-camera color filters (yellow, orange, etc.) to an image and in Print mode lets you apply the equivalent of Multigrade paper filters—remember them—with effects ranging from 00 to 5. In Zone mode you can apply highlight and shadow controls as well as make adjustments in selectable zones.

Power Retouche Black & White Studio

PixelGenius’ PhotoKit 2 ($49) is an automation plug-in and is so much more than a monochrome conversion plug-in. It includes 161 different effects offering digital recreations of analog photographic effects, including color to black and white (with filter effects) and black-and-white toning. PhotoKit’s enhancements and adjustments include useful burning and dodging modules that work in a way familiar to many photographers. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only have one Photoshop-compatible plug-in, it would be PhotoKit.

PixelGenius PhotoKit 2

Photoshop Actions & Lightroom Presets
Photoshop Actions are a series of recorded instructions that let you achieve a specific effect without manually applying during each step of a process. Actions use the .atn extension and are compatible with Mac OS or Windows. Once an .atn file is loaded into the Actions palette, it runs with a single button click. Lightroom presets are similar to Photoshop Actions and use the same file type for both Mac OS and Windows systems. Typically (especially true for monochrome conversion) “presets” mean Develop Presets but they are also available for eight other Lightroom functions. Like actions, you can make your own presets or purchase them commercially.

Ameliethe’s Black and White ps actions are a free collection of actions, including Dark Vintage, White Contrast, Black Contrast, Blue-Black-White Contrast, Dark Contrast, and Glow White. Along with other monochrome actions they can be downloaded from DeviantArt’s site (

Ameliethe Black and White ps actions

UltraLinx is a UK-based design site ( that offers a set of free black-and-white actions for photographers and designers, calling them “similar to the concept of Instagram.” The actions are called 5 Free Black & White Photo Actions and include Standard Black & White, which produces impressive effects, Heavy Black, Heavy White, Faded B&W, and High Contrast B&W. There’s even a Help file to get you started.

Silver Shadows 2.5 ($49) is a collection of Lightroom presets from Seim Effects and provides control over shadows, highlights, and tonality. Silver Shadows 2.5 is really a complete system for making black-and-white images and includes more than 100 tools you can mix and match, customize, or tweak without leaving Lightroom. Download the free sampler pack and take a look.

André Ruiter is a Dutch fine art photographer who’s developed two sets of free Lightroom presets: Kodak Film Presets For Lightroom includes five presets that emulate Kodak’s T-Max 100, 400, and P3200, Plus-X 125, and Tri-X 400. His Ilford Film Presets for Lightroom imitate Ilford’s Delta 100, FP4 Plus 125, HP5 Plus 400, Delta 400 and 3200 film. The presets are free but he mentions that “a share or comment is much appreciated.”

Pretty Presets’ affordable ($32) Black & White Workflow lets you produce clean edits, then layer the preset’s effects. The package includes 40 presets that work with Raw and JPEG images and can be layered to match your own work style. There’s even a video tutorial on how to use them.

Totally Rad!’s Replichrome I: Icons ($99) presets give your images the tones and palette of traditional film. The company researched 19 cameras, 137 rolls of film, and more than 4,400 images, producing 13,294,118,900 bytes of scanned film. This study produced 13 film styles (nine in color and four in black and white). If you look on the right side of the screen you’ll see each has variants that let you express differences in exposure and processing. Thanks to Totally Rad! for an installer that minimizes the brain damage often associated with installing presets.

Totally Rad! Replichrome I: Icons

Joe Farace is the author of the now out-of-print book Creative Digital Monochrome Effects, copies of which can be found remaindered at used bookstores and even on