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

Technique: Reductive Production

Because most colors are actually composed of shades from a few color groups, you may have to add additional colors back into the photo at minor saturations to get the hue you're looking for.
Because most colors are actually composed of shades from a few color groups, you may have to add additional colors back into the photo at minor saturations to get the hue you're looking for.

If your subject of interest isn't a single object but rather a legion of bright color (say, a field of sunflowers or a flock of team jerseys), hand-selecting each piece might be more trouble than the final image is worth. If you want to highlight a single color or family of colors throughout a photo, a simple reductive production technique can achieve this striking effect.

  • First, open the color adjustment window in your editor. (In Photoshop, this is called Adjust Hue/Saturation.) This will allow you to select specific color ranges, such as blues, greens, yellows or reds, and then adjust their temperature, brightness and saturation. Saturation is the variable we're interested in here.
  • Select a color you don't want to highlight and drop its saturation to 0.
  • Repeat this for all but one of the color groups.
  • As always, make sure you save your edited image under a different name (using Save As) so that you'll still have the original color photo.

So what does this do to the photo? By pulling a particular color's saturation down to 0, you're omitting it from the image and creating grayscale. Whatever colors are left will be striking. You can play with the saturation levels of each color group to create the amount of grayscale — and the specific hues — you're interested in. Your final product will be a mostly black-and-white image with a few key objects painted in bold colors.

This technique will produce color highlights without the sharp contrast of the selective filtering technique from the previous page. However, adjusting a color's saturation will affect everything from that color group in the photo: If your bridal bouquet and the brick church walls are both shades of red, they'll both pop. You can select any unwanted color areas and apply a black-and-white filter to them.

Enjoy your new-found power as you practice these techniques, but never forget the fundamental rule of photo editing: The most striking effect in the world is pretty much worthless if you use it on a lousy photograph. Composition, balance, rhythm and good exposure should always come first. Use these fundamentals to make a striking image; your special effect will push a good image over the top to truly wow-worthy [source: Ghodke].

How to Create Black-and-White Photographs with Color Accents: Author's note

There's a saying that posits all writers really just want to be photographers, while all photographers want to pen bestselling novels. I'll admit to being in the former category; whenever I can take out my DSLR and snap a few photos as part of an assignment, I'm a happy, happy writer. Maybe it's the writer's frustration of trying to paint images with words, or the photographer's struggle to capture an entire story in a single moment; the two mediums seem to complement each other, telling richer stories together than either one can on its own.

While researching this piece, I stumbled across the Web site of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, which houses in its collection the first photograph ever taken. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a French gentleman of means, created the image in the spring of 1826. The blurry, grainy view from Niépce's villa window is hard to see in the Web site's gallery, but the ghostly image still made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Who would have thought that a random sunny day in the French countryside would be captured, frozen on a dinged metal plate and preserved for generation after future generation to stare at in wonder. It's a visceral, immediate magic that differs from the slow, steady burn of powerful writing. The two are beautiful in their own rights, but each certainly plays to its own strengths.

Related Articles


  • Design-Lib. "Graphic Design Principles." 2012. (Feb. 12, 2012)
  • Ghodke, Prakash. "Creating Impact with Partial Colour." Photo Tuts+. Nov. 10, 2010. (Feb. 13, 2012)
  • Greenspun, Philip. "History of Photography Timeline." Jan. 2007. (Feb. 9, 2012)
  • Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. "The First Photograph." (Feb. 9, 2012)
  • Morton, J.L. "Basic Color Theory." Color 2011. (Feb 13, 2012)