How to Convert iPhone Photos to Black And White

In my last installment, I talked about some things you might consider when shooting Black and White photos with your iPhone. I suggested that you try to "see" in black and white. When looking at a potential shot you should try to imagine the colors drained away leaving you with various shades of gray. I also mentioned the use of color filters that can affect how your camera sees different colors and will ultimately affect the resulting B&W photo.

Seeing in B&W takes practice. I've found that it's best to start with a very simple scene where you focus on a single subject. Reducing the number of colors you have to deal with may reduce the headache of imagining how your final photo will look like and lets you concentrate more on composition.

This week I'll focus on converting color pix into B&W. As usual, I've got a lot to cover in a small amount of time, so lets get to it.


Back when digital photography was new there weren't a lot of tools available for post processing, and those that were on hand were very basic. Back then the only technique available to convert a color photo into B&W was to "desaturate" or remove all of the color information from the photo while leaving the intensity. It was a natural way to produce B&W, but the resulting photo often lacked something.

After playing around with the desaturation technique I found that if I made color adjustments to my photos BEFORE I desaturated, emphasizing color then I'd end up with better B&Ws. The reason for this that, as I explained earlier, colors and the intensity of them yield various shades of gray. Therefore, if I tweak certain colors, intensify the reds for instance, then those tweak will show up as tweaked grays.

Which color should you tweak and how much?

I don't know. Really.

It depends on what you want the end product to look like. Tweak this color and the sky gets darker. Tweak that hue and grass becomes a big white blob. If that's what you want it to look like, go for it.

Take a look at this original color shot of a fence and guard tower near Johnson Space Center, Florida. It was shot with Pureshot in dRAW so no in-camera post processing was done. It has nice composition, but it's pretty bland.

 The original colot shot "Restricted", PureShot, dRAW(TIFF). All photos shot on an iPhone 5 by Vern Seward

If you'd like to try your hand at desaturation there are many apps that will let you drain color to your heart's content. Snapseed, for instance, let's you remove the color from a photo, but what you have left is pretty lifeless. I suggest you use the Drama filter first then desaturate. You can then play with contrast and vibrance to get the shot you need. I also like to add a bit of grain and dark vignette. That's how I got this conversion.

Converted using destauration method in Snapseed

Filterstorm Neue also offers desaturation and it has more options to fine tune your image. Photogene has a desaturation option as well and includes a nice variety of filters

Beyond Desaturation

Nowadays you mention desaturation as a B&W conversion technique and even your selfie-taking grandma may yawn. I could be wrong, but I believe only the purists do that anymore. New tools for converting color pix to B&W do so much more, so you don't have to.

Snapseed, Filterstorm Neue and Photogene all have B&W options which arguably does a better job at converting your color pix to grayscale. Each handles the job a bit differently and the results can be pleasing or not so much.

If you want great B&W pix without all the manual labor behind it you might want to check out some apps dedicated to B&W conversion. My current favorite is Dramatic Black & White HD for iPad (or Dramatic Black & White for iPhone).

This app gets B&W converting down to a simple process that just about guarantees great results using adjustable filters. Pick your shot and the app almost steps you through the process of converting and tweaking.

The results can be pretty impressive. Here's the same shot as above, but processed through Dramatic B&W HD.

Converted in Dramatic B&W HD

I'm not sure which I like better, my manual conversion from Snapseed or the filtered version from Dramatic.

Here's another shot I processed through Dramatic.

"8" processed in Dramatic B&W HD

What I'm not liking about this rendition is the blown area in the sky. I tried, but I couldn't pull that part back in. Snapseed now has dodge and burn tools which should work to reveal detail in the blown area. I haven't had time to play with it before finishing this article. I'll have to talk about that process another time.

Here's another beach shot. (Do you get the feeling that I spend a lot of time on the beach?) This one was done in Filterstorm Neue.

"The Fisherman" converted using Filterstorm Neue

Here I converted to B&W using the the tool's option which allows fine tuning by varying the primary colors (red, blue, green). From there I punched up the contrast, the luminance, and brightness, added a wee bit of dark vignette, and cropped a bit so that the focus was more on the fisherman.

OK, so which app to use for B&W conversion? Truth be told, I've found that no one app can give you the most options, so I keep several. I primarily use Snapseed, Dramatic Black & White HD, and Fitlerstorm Neue. I suggest you try these and a few others and find one or two that works best for you.

And that's a wrap. Next week I'll look at panoramas. Stay tuned.