Creating High-Contrast Art in Photoshop

Kayaks wait for the tour group to embark.

The original full-color image of the kayaks was an RGB image.

Years ago, back when I was just learning how to develop black-and-white film and make prints, I became intrigued by high-contrast film photography. There was a Kodak film made for graphic arts applications that essentially reduced images down to a silhouette. The graphic artist in me was busy looking at form, shape, and the interplay of positive and negative space in the image. The photographer in me saw a good way to take a marginally interesting photograph and get something more vivid out of it.

I haven’t done much photo work lately due to time constraints, but I’ve been doing some dabbling and came up with an interesting way to create a high-contrast image using Photoshop’s built-in filters. I am still using an older release of Photoshop CS, but this technique should work with any of the newer versions of the software. It may also work with other photo-manipulation software, including Photoshop Elements, but you will have to look at your software’s manual or menus to see if you have any filters that are similar.

I started with the color photo of the kayaks, which was in an RGB (red-green-blue) mode, and ran the Graphic Pen filter on the image. This particular filter results in an image that looks only black-and-white, but the image is still RGB. Next, I adjusted the curves until I had the water dark and the sky white. The shape of my curve was an “S” shape laying on its side. You’ll just have to pull at the curve until you get a result that you like — this isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription for all photos.

A high-contrast image of the kayaks.

The high-contrast image of the kayaks owes its detail to the graphic pen filter used.

Finally, I pulled up the Hue/Saturation menu and made adjustments. I clicked on the box labeled “Colorize,” and adjusted the other sliders until I had something that I liked. You’ll need to do some experimenting, but your end result should be a high-contrast version of the image that you started with, although depending on your settings, there will be some amount of detail in the image. What you end up with is basically black-and-white (or whatever color you picked in the Hue/Saturation menu), without intermediate shades of gray.

Tip: work on a copy of your image, so you don’t accidentally save over a photo that you want to keep.