Project Description

Converting a digital color photo to black and white goes beyond merely removing the colors. This video demonstrates how to create, apply, and control gritty black and white looks. Watch the video to learn what edits emphasize grit and methods for creating unique textures, balancing grain effects, and more.

Photos: Jay Marroquin


This lesson demonstrates how to create, adjust, and apply gritty black and white looks to images.

Why make black and white look gritty?

In many cases, gritty black and white looks were inspired by vintage movies. Common characteristics for this type of look are high contrast, dense texture, and darker exposure for a mysterious feel.

We are using Exposure for this demonstration. If you don’t own Exposure, download the  fully-functional trial from our website

Developing for gritty black and whites

Before creating a gritty black and white look, make adjustments to the RAW image with the controls on the Basic panel, including white balance. Gritty looks are typically darker and moodier, so a primary editing goal is to address overexposed areas or blown highlights.

A simple way to convert to black and white is with Exposure’s library of analog film presets. There are loads of contrasty black and white film selections, like high ISO varieties from Fuji and Ilford. There are pushed film presets with increased amounts of contrast and grain. And there are several vintage presets with organic borders and texture overlays.

The conversion to black and white can be performed by hand. A few adjustments to the controls on the Basic panel and color sensitivity controls can dial-in the images tones. The Black and White editing video on our website gives a thorough walkthrough of that process.

Several presets can be used simultaneously to build up unique texture and tone density. You can simply right-click on a preset and choose to add it in new, fully-controllable layer. To learn more about creating, managing, and manipulating layers, check out the working with layers video on our website.

Controlling gritty black and white effects

Once you have a great looking black and white, begin to enhance the Hollywood grit with the following adjustments.

Strong contrast is an essential characteristic of a gritty black and white look. In many cases, a simple contrast boost will all add the necessary pop to make a shot look punchy.

Adding clarity is a great way to give flat images impact. Use more subtle amounts for photos of people because clarity can emphasize wrinkles and skin texture.

Texture is a foundational component of a gritty look. Overlays can be applied in separate layers for an additional level of control over the effects. Textures like dust, scratches, and paper stack together nicely.

If strong adjustments are made to images in post processing, it can make noise more visible in the photo. Noisy photos are excellent candidates for grainy effects. For a gritty look, plan to use rougher and stronger grain than you normally would.

Select the right type of grain for each photo. Contrasty, harsh grain works better with masculine subjects because it can emphasize wrinkles and texture in skin. It can also make outdoor scenes seem more rough and craggy. Landscapes and architecture can benefit from this type of grain.

Softer grain effects, like the fine grain of 4X5 film, work better for portraits of children, babies, models, or automobiles. For more info about grain effects, check out the adding film grain video on our website.