Black and White Options in GIMP (Cuckoo Wasp, Chrysididae)

Cuckoo wasp (Chrysididae) on a flower in Black and white

Cuckoo wasp (Chrysididae) on a flower. (Black and white version)

As I said in my last post, I have not really mastered the art of black and white photography. But, in spite of my deficiencies, you may have noticed black and white versions of my photographs appearing in recent posts. I’ve been making a point to do B&W versions of most of the photos I have processed recently. It’s challenging and fun, and hopefully it will help unlock my Monochrome Vision™. I’ve been using GIMP, per usual, to do the conversions. There are a few different tools you can use, which I’ll briefly discuss in this post.

Changing the image mode to Grayscale is fairly straightforward, but you lose the ability to manipulate the image via the RGB color channels.

menu for grayscale in GIMP Mac

Image > Mode > Grayscale

Another straightforward way to quickly get a monochrome image is to use the Desaturate tool. You can choose the factor of “Lightness” or “Luminosity” (or the average of both) to determine the result; there is a preview function that lets you quickly compare them.

The Channel Mixer provides more control, allowing you to increase or reduce the Red, Green, and Blue values with each respective slider; just makes sure to select the “Monochrome” checkbox to work on your image/layer as a grayscale RGB image. (You can also check the “Preserve Luminosity” box to keep the brightness equal to the original. You can get some funky results playing around with this plug-in; the GIMP online manual explains what’s happening in more detail.)

I have used the Channel Mixer a lot in the past, but recently I’ve been using a plug-in called G’MIC, which has a host of filters; specifically I’ve used the “B&W films” filter in the Film Emulation section. Pat David developed the emulations, and there are quite a few (including color film variants, which you can find in the other G’MIC Film Emulation filters). This filter relies on “toning” or “grading” the RGB channels, as in the Curves tool. (While it doesn’t address monochrome images directly, Pat also has a really helpful GIMP tutorial explaining color grading/toning if you want to learn to develop your own presets.) Longstoryshort, the presets approximate the tones of a wide range of black and white films. I have two or three presets I prefer, and that usually work well with my images, but there’s a lot of different options; they can be interesting to play around with. (Note: the G’MIC suite may not be pre-installed depending on which build you have. My Mac OS X version comes via GIMP on OS X; it has a lot of really useful plug-ins including G’MIC already built-in, which is nice because installing GIMP plug-ins can be maddening at times.)

If I can’t find a Film Emulation preset that I like, I’ll turn to the Channel Mixer. The G’MIC suite also has an “Add Grain” filter in the Film Emulation section if you want to go for that look (which I like to try sometimes). Using layers and masks, you can selectively edit different parts of the image, and it can be a really involved process. It’s probably true to say the most important settings and adjustments are done in-camera before the shutter is released, but there’s definitely a lot you can do in post-processing.

Getting bogged down in trying to parse all the different possibilities isn’t a great way to go. Ultimately it’s about getting the look and balance you want, so it becomes subjective at a certain point. For me I’ve found things that I can work with and I try to build from there. I’m still trying to figure it out, but in the meanwhile I’ve got some black and whites to share.

P.s. I couldn’t leave without posting the color version (below) — gotta love that shiny blue-green!

Cuckoo wasp (Chrysididae) on a flower

Cuckoo wasp (Chrysididae) on a flower.


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