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How to Create Black-and-White Photographs with Color Accents


Technique: Inverse Selection

Adding color accents to your black-and-white photos isn't hard to do, but, like any artistic technique, it's most effective when used judiciously. Study the color photo: Where do you want to direct the viewer's attention? Maybe the main subject has a colorful feature, such as a bright red bow in a model's hair. On the other hand, you might want to colorize a small background detail, pulling the viewer away from the subject and adding mystery -- the viewer will wonder what's so important about the seemingly tiny detail. Sometimes, after all, the fun is in making your audience think and keeping them guessing.

Digital editing tools allow you to apply various filters and effects over your original image. After opening a color photo in your editor, apply a black-and-white filter to it. (You may find this option in the Filter, Enhance, or Adjustment menu -- in Adobe Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.) The on-screen image will change to black-and-white, but the software will retain the color data. The black-and-white reduction you see would vanish if you undid the filter. Just don't convert the image to black and white -- that will prompt the software to ditch the color data entirely.

But what if you placed the filter over only part of the photo?

Undo the filter, returning your photo to its original state. Then:

  • Use your editor's selection tools to select the spot you wish to highlight with color. With a little practice, you can highlight tiny, precise sections of the image.
  • Next, invert your selection (in Photoshop, go to Select > Inverse). This selects the rest of the photo, effectively masking your subject area from whatever changes you apply to the rest of your photo.
  • Finally, apply a black-and-white filter or effect. The mask will preserve the color in your subject area.
  • Save your edited photo under a new name (using Save As) so that you'll still have the original color photo.

The amount of color you reveal will depend on the image and your artistic goal. But the mechanics behind the effect are really that simple.

What if the color you want to bring out in your photo is located in tiny bits and splashes throughout the image?