How to Make Stylish Black & White Digital Photos with the GIMP

Road Picture - beforeRoad Picture - after
How exactly do you turn the dull, boring image on the left into the one on the right? Easy, read on for the tutorial!

01. The Basics of GEGL

For this tutorial, you will need the GIMP. It’s a program much like Photoshop, only it’s open source and free. If you don’t have it, you can download the latest version here.

(Sorry, Adobe users, I haven’t used commercial software for more than 5 years now, so my Photoshop knowledge is woefully out-of-date. There may be a method and plugin in PSD that does similar things, but I have no idea if that’s true or what it is. If you do, then please leave a comment about it at the end of the page. Thanks.)

Once you’ve installed and started the GIMP, open your photo (please work from a copy so as not to mistakenly overwrite your original file!) and navigate to the Tools dropdown menu and select GEGL Operation… as shown below left.

Select GEGL Operation from ToolsClick on Operation and select C2G
Now the GEGL Operation window will show up. Click on the currently-empty Operation box and select C2G. If you don’t want it to start working on the image as soon as you click it, uncheck the Preview box. If you leave it on, then it will take a while depending on your computer and the size and complexity of the image to apply the effect on the picture.

The Default values of the C2G plugin
Above you see the default values of the C2G plugin. For now we’ll leave them as is. Depending on the picture, you may not need to tweak these at all, but for this tutorial I have chosen one that does need a bit more work. If the default values work for you, go ahead and click OK.

Picture of the road with the default C2G values
This is what the picture looks like with the default values. First of all, the sky looks hideous. The C2G plugin has a knack of picking out detail you may not even know existed in your pictures. I’ve found it to work especially well on overexposed or low-contrast images. But in this case, it’s done a bit too much. I also don’t like the lack of subtle greys and blacks in the picture; it looks a little too much like a computer effect.

But first thing’s first: fixing that sky.

02. Flattening the Sky

Use the magic wand tool to select the skyPick the light color in the sky
We’re going to have to make that sky a lot simpler so its hidden details don’t get picked up by C2G. Select the sky with the Magic Wand (Fuzzy Select) tool. Add to the selection by keeping shift pressed when you click until the majority of the sky is selected. It’s okay if a few bits near the mountains aren’t because we don’t want to chop any of them off.

Create a new transparent layerNow, using the Eye Dropper tool pick a light colour in the sky that you want to fill it with. It doesn’t matter if it’s almost white, as we will see later. Right now you just want an even tone. In the Layers pane, create a New Layer (and make sure you select ‘Transparent’) above the current layer (i.e. your original image). This is where we’ll paint in the flat sky’. The marching ants will still be visible around your selection of the sky, and using the Paint Bucket tool, fill in this selection on the transparent layer with the light colour we selected before (as seen below).

Fill in the selection with the light colour

Now that the sky is mostly flat and white, go to the Layer dropdown menu and select Merge Down. The flat light sky has now been pasted onto the old one, and we can get back to converting it to Black & White.

03. Tweaking GEGL

C2G conversion with flattened sky and default valuesC2G conversion with flattened sky and tweaked values
Reopen the GEGL operations window and select C2G as before. Now that it has been flattened the sky renders as a smooth grey. But the default values still aren’t producing the desired results (left) so I tweak the variables in the C2G window until I am satified, and get the image on the right.

My tweaked C2G values
Here are my tweaked values for this picture. I have increased the radius to 400 — I find that this gives me better grey tones in the foreground elements, and less harsh black/white sections. I also increase samples to 5, as this puts in more black into the image. And finally, the iterations go up to 15 resulting in a smoother, less-noisy image.

It’s hard to come up with an all-purpose setting for this, but I’ve found that for most of my photos, somewhere around these values produce the results I want. Fool around with them and see what suits you. Remember, however, that as the samples and iterations go up, processing time will too. It’s already a pretty slow process, and without a progress bar it’s a bit unnerving to sit there waiting. My advice is to put preview on, let it do its thing, and apply when it’s done. Go do something else in the meanwhile. Fix yourself some coffee, or check your email. The results are worth the wait!

We aren’t done, however, as that sky is now just a little too flat for my liking. Let’s see what we can do with it.

04. Un-Flattening the Sky

You’re probably wondering why I’m tweaking the sky after converting it to Black and white using C2G. The answer is because I’ve tried doing it after the next step, and you don’t want to see how ugly the results were, he he. So save any gradient tinkering — as we will do below — for after the conversion, or C2G will bring out revolting shapes in it just like it did the clouds in the original, untweaked image.

Select the sky again with the magic wand
Using the Magic Wand tool again, select the now-grey sky. The C2G process has probably added in a good deal of noise here, so it won’t select as much as it did before, and you can probably spend a half-hour shift-clicking like crazy to get all of it selected.

Adjust the thresholdInstead, adjust the threshold on the magic wand tool’s options (at the bottom of the left-hand pane). I found that 50 worked for me here (the default was 15). Don’t put too high a number here or half you image will be selected, not just the sky! As always, pushing the numbers up a little at a time will get you to the sweet spot easier. Now, go ahead and select the clouds as above. You don’t need to get all of it like before — a few gaps here and there are okay.

Use the eyedropper to select the grey colour the sky has now become before the next step.

Use FG to BG in the Gradient ToolNow we need to remake the sky, so to speak. Select the Gradient Tool. In the right pane, make sure FG to BG is selected. The Foreground Color (FG) is the grey we selected, and by the default the Background Colour (BG) is white. This will do nicely, as the C2G process usually adds a white glow around sharply defined shapes like the tops of the mountains here.

Create a gradient keeping in mind the horizon line
Now create a gradient for the sky keeping in mind the horizon. In this picture I have the handy telephone poles acting as a natural perpendicular to the horizon. Since its a skewed image, just make sure the gradient is drawn more or less parallel to this line as shown in the picture, ending a little bit above the edge of the selection where the white glow and the grey intermingle.

The finished gradientAnd here we have the finished gradient. If you are satisified that it all looks okay, clear any selections, because there’s one final step.

05. Adding a Bit of Colour

The odd thing about Black & White images is that they aren’t all truly black and white. In the film days the chemicals and elements used in each film stock produced subtle variations — subtle colours — in the final image. Sepia images have a brownish tinge, and cyanotype ones blue. How to recreate these in the computer, while keeping the black and white image as we’ve just done?

Thankfully the folks over at have come to our rescue! You can follow their detailed tutorial on sampling toned images here (but I’ve covered the basic method below). The real resource you’ll need, though, is their massive collection of Toning Samples. Download the ones you need, the ones you’d like your photos to look like. I find that I like Platinum Palladium the most, so I’ve used it in all of these examples, and in this tutorial below.

Use Sample Colorise to tone the image
Once you’ve downloaded a sample, while keeping your C2G tweaked image open too, open the toning sample. Select your black and white image’s window. Now you need to map the tones to this image, so go to Colors –> Map –> Sample Colorize…

The sample Colorize windowThe Sample Colorize window will come up, hopefully showing your image on the left (Destination) and the tone map on the right (Sample). If not, select each until as shown above from the drop down menus.

Then, click on Get Sample Colors to transfer the tones from the sample to your image. You can fiddle around with the setting to your liking, but I usually find that the defaults work okay. Finally, click Apply.

And that, in a nutsell is it! The image has been converted to Black & White, and given a spiffy tone. Here’s the result:
The final black and white image

06. And Finally…

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on my personal method of black & white conversion. All of this information can be found through a quick google search in other places, but I always find that there are always tiny variations and quirks to how each photographer interprets and employs a technique, and so another one doesn’t hurt.

I leave you with some more Before/After examples of pictures made with this method. Enjoy.

Cloudy Morning Sky over Turhalli, Bengaluru - BeforeCloudy Morning Sky over Turhalli, Bengaluru - After

Dome of a mosque in Sharjah - BeforeDome of a mosque in Sharjah - After

Exhaust stack of a power station in Ajman - BeforeExhaust stack of a power station in Ajman - After

Portrait of two men - BeforePortrait of two men - After

Close up of a cement mixer - beforeClose up of a cement mixer - after

Two men walking with power plant in the bakground, Jebel Ali - beforeTwo men walking with power plant in the bakground, Jebel Ali - after


5 Basic Steps Towards Delicious Digital Food Photos

Photo of an empty white presentation plate with a green chilli placed on its wide textured rim
God bless the digital camera, that turned documenting everything you have for lunch into a viable option; the minutiae of everyday life into viable subjects. Face it, most of us take the food we eat for granted, not paying it much more attention than whether it arrives on our plates hot and on time and if it’s tasty. But to those among us who are happy to call ourselves gourmands and foodies, the food we eat is a thing of beauty, to be cherished, considered, and respected.

One of the things I never thought I’d ever be good at, let alone be asked for tips on, is food photography. But life takes us in unexpected directions, and over six years of having a digital camera, food photography has become and important and enjoyable part of my photo-taking. In the film days I was always curious about it, and would drool over beautifully-photographed cookbooks, but I don’t ever recall taking any food photos.

Now I take food photos nearly every day. It doesn’t seem like a special thing to me: I have no fancy light boxes or complex studio set-ups — like a lot of you out there I simply take pictures of the food I eat for lunch or dinner in the available light I have with either my compact camera or digital SLR, whichever suits my mood. So when people compliment me on my food photos and ask me, “How do you do it?” …well, I’m both amused and slightly baffled.

Just such a thing occurred on Twitter a few weeks ago. I was looking through an old folder of unwritten blog posts and tweeted offhand about coming across a food photography post I had planned and abandoned years ago. Soon people were asking me to post these tips, and I promised to, but it slowly slipped out of my mind. Then people started reminding me, saying they were looking forward to it, and I was even more intrigued.

So I gave it a long hard think, and came to the conclusion that I would need a whole book to talk about food photography. Maybe I will write one some day, but for now I needed to make a blog post!

So I asked myself, “What are the basic elements of good food photos? What are the essential factors people should look for, a mental checklist to tick off when they’re taking photos of their lunch?”

And so I came up with these:

1. Light

Photo of a bowl of pasta with vegetables in dappled sunlight

Photography is the art of light, so it stands to reason that one of the major factors to consider in food photography is what kind of photons are bouncing off your lunch.

As a good rule of thumb, using natural light is a good way to ensure better food photos. Think about it: when have you ever looked at a meal in a drab fast-food restaurant or food court lit by fluorescent lights and thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful!”? And candle-lit dinners may be romantic, but could you even see what the food looked like? No, your memories of great meals usually involve al fresco dining, or lunches in restaurants with big windows. And that’s because the sun is one of the photographer’s best friends.

Photo of a ripe red chilli in dappled sunlightAlmost every picture on this page was taken during the day, with available light. And while you can certainly take good food photos in artificial light (I might even do a post on it some time), for now make your life a lot easier (and your food photos better) and take them during the day.

This doesn’t mean you should just throw the plate into the path of the scorching afternoon sun, though — you’ll end up with harsh, flat pictures. Keep the plate just out of direct sunlight, or filter it through something, such as a curtain, or where you see trees casting shadows. Dappled sunlight creates lovely light displays in which to showcase your food.

Photo of a piece of fern placed on a fork in limited lightOn the other hand, don’t give up when you’re faced with limited light. This picture on the right of a piece of fern I found, was taken in a corner of a gloomy highway dhaba lit by (you guessed it) fluorescent tube lights. It was taken as we were waiting for our lunch, and instead of go out and place the fern in a better light, I went with what I had. You can’t tell it’s taken on a drab plastic table with chipped plates, can you?

When low light is an issue, make sure to steady your shot using a tripod, or resting the camera on a table, or using a bean-bag (a soft hand-bag or purse can sometimes substitute. Experiment with what you have around!)

And finally with regards to light, turn off that flash! Unless you’ve got a complex external flash set-up, chances are you’re using your camera’s built-in flash. It may be okay to take pictures of drunk people partying in clubs for your Facebook memories, but in-built flashes are notorious for making photos cold and flat. The light is harsh and doesn’t play with the inherent translucence of most food, making it seem dull, lifeless, and unappetising.

2. Colour

Photo of a bowl of colourful breakfast cereal with milk

We love colours. Black may always be the new black, and the man in the shiny striped tie may be the butt of office jokes, but admit it: it’s hard to ignore someone in a clown suit, is it?

And food is the same way. Bright, warm colours make food appetising (this is why we don’t have many blue foods), and a few strawberries can make dull grey oatmeal something to look forward to. Look for the colourful parts of your meal, and highlight them. Push that piece of tomato around to the front in your burger. Sure, you think you’re there for the meat, but the photo is about so much more than that. And sitting next to that tomato, it’s going to make the meat seem that much tastier.

Photo of three dry red chillies on a brushed metal plateSpeaking of which, when discussing food contrast probably warrants its own point — heck, its own seperate post — but I’m putting it here, because I’m looking at it from a colour point-of-view. Using contrasting colours between your food and the things around it — and in different components of the dish itself — is one of the easiest ways to make nicer food photos. This is one reason you see a lot of food photos are taken on white plates, and rarely on heavily patterned and colourful ones. In this case, the lack of colour in the plate brings the colours in the food out more.

So put soft against sharp, warm against cold, red against blue and dark on light. It works wonders. Nobody’s going to notice your food if it’s lost in a bland setting of sameness, or hidden in a muddle of colours.

Photo of dry spiced and salted fishBut hang on, what about sameness? Just what do you do all those times you want a picture of something that kinda looks all the same, colour-wise? You can’t take everything and put it on a plate: it’s just going to look clinical & antiseptic. Well, embrace the sameness. Go in close. It may look all brown to you, but unless it came out of a factory chances are it has a lot more colour range than you think. Use the tips we discussed in the previous point, and let the light find every little piece of colour in your subject and bring it out. You may be very surprised by the results.

And one final tip: change your camera’s White Balance settings from Auto to Daylight for instantly warmer-looking pictures.

3. Texture

Photo of discarded stems of cilantro

We’ve talked about how things look, but how do they feel? Great food photographs instantly make your mouth water. You can’t help but imagine what they taste like, your mind flooded with thoughts on how that particular food will be to touch, to roll around your tongue.

That, my friends, is texture.

It’s a bit of an indirect element; after all, we can’t actually feel the picture (Touch-O-Vision™ hasn’t been invented — yet!), but a photo can make the viewer have exactly that kind of visceral reaction to the food, highlighting the more tactile elements.

Photo of a cross-sectioned bunch of stems of parsley When taking your food photos, take a moment to imagine what the food is like to touch with your fingers and tongue. Touch and taste it, if you want to. What are the feelings that stand out? Crunchy? Smooth? Soft? Then, look for those elements in the plate and make sure you include them. Texture is everywhere. These examples are just the more direct ones that I had taken. From the ridges on potato chips to the unctuous sheen of hot pasta tossed in olive oil, the patterns on fruit and even the clarity of plain water — every food tells you what it’s made of, and we all instinctively know what something will feel like when we look at it. That is what you should try to highlight.

Photo of a papercraft origami swan placed on a roll of sweetsOf course, you can convey texture without ever showing any food. The experience of eating food involves so many textures that aren’t of things we ingest: the ceramic of the plate, the smoothness of a fork, the wrapper on your favourite chocolate. One look at some of these elements, and you can lead your viewer to think about exactly the food you want them to. There are no sweets in the photo to the left. But we’ve all prized that roll of toffees when we were kids, clutched it in our hands, delicately unwrapped each piece from its wax-paper cover (here converted into an origami swan). Even without the brand-name, I’m pretty sure most of us would know what we are looking at. And hopefully, you’re now craving toffees.

Job done.

4. Focus

Photo of a metal bowl of dry red chilliesPhoto of sauteed mushrooms in a brown sauce poured over thick chunks of toast, garnished with parmesan cheese

The human brain is a fantastic information processing engine, filtering through millions of different stimuli so we can concentrate on what’s important. Scientists have realised that if we were consciously aware of everything in the world around us, we’d go crazy. A good food photo is a bit like the human brain, picking out elements that are important and shoving others to the side, still keeping the awareness that they’re there, but not letting it all overwhelm.

In order to focus on some parts of the dish more than others, you need to understand a little about Aperture & Depth of Field. Don’t worry, I won’t be going into a science lesson here: all you need to know is that if your camera has an ‘A’ or ‘ASM’ mode on its dial you can switch it to ‘Aperture Priority‘ mode.

In Aperture Priority mode you can affect a number denoted by F (F2.8, F3.5 etc). Higher numbers mean that more of the image will be focus, so in order to get a very shallow depth of field like in these photos here, set it to the lowest you can. If everything you want in focus isn’t, adjust the F number a step or two up. You’ll soon get the hang of it.

Photo of a bowl of couscous with tuna in a tomato saucePhoto of a bowl of wholewheat spaghetti with vegetables

Many compact cameras unfortunately still do not come with an Aperture Priority mode, but this is getting rarer as people’s enthusiasm for more control over photos grows. Still, do consult you camera’s manual for specific instructions on how to set Aperture Priority.

While you’re at it, you may want to see if it can do ‘Manual Focus’ too. This way you can not only get the correct depth of field, but precisely get just what you need in focus.

A note about using these more manual features: as the aperture goes up, the shutter needs to be open longer, leading to more chances of a shaky shot. So use a tripod or bean-bag as mentioned before to get clear, crisp shots.

5. Background

Steel bowl of upma and kanda poha in Harihareshwar Maharashtra

To mangle a phrase: No plate is an island.

Nothing exists in a vacuum, so don’t assume your food does either. A lot of our memories to do with great food we’ve had has as much to do with where we had something as what we had. Try to include bits of background in your picture. It doesn’t need to be much: a few props on the table, or an angle that shows the surrounding. Give your food photos a sense of place.

The photo above was taken on vacation two years ago, and every time I see this picture I not only remember the excellent upma & kanda poha the hotel served, but also the view from our room of the hilly Maharashtrian coast, and a flood of other memories. Don’t just take photos for others: do them for yourself as well, to keep memories of places and events in your life alive. It’s odd to think that a plate of food and a little out-of-focus scenery does more to remind you of a place than other, more direct holiday snaps, but it does.

A little background can add a lot of personality and character to food photos.

Photo of two plates of bean salad with pecorino romano cheeseBut the background isn’t just useful for, well, background. As above, so below — or so they say. In food photography terms its means you can use the background to further convey information about the food itself. For example, this shot of some salad I made for lunch a couple of days ago. You can show a close-up of the food in the foreground and a similar whole plate in the background, thereby — in a single photo — conveying how the food looks at an individual component level, and how it all comes together on the plate. Two for the price of one, and other such things (my, isn’t this section getting massively punny?)

Photo of a half-dry orange skin against a backdrop of dark-leaved bushes Super-macro photo of an unknown seed placed on the thumb
Focus isn’t just something you should use within aspects of the plate, however. Placing food against an out-of-focus background does a good job of ‘framing’ the food in an interesting way, while still keeping the whole picture interesting. It also adds a tremendous amount of mood without overwhelming the picture with detail and clutter.

Keep your background in mind, but don’t let it overwhelm the important thing: the food!

Parting Shots

I hope this post has helped you idenitify the basic elements of good food photography. Certainly, on an unconscious level, I’m always keeping these five things in mind when I’m taking any food photo. Sometimes I want to emphasise one element over the other, and that’s fine — every food photo you take need not have equal parts of every facet.

And hey, if there’s one sixth element, it is: Experiment! Take more photos. In this digital age with multi-gigabyte memory cards and instant-reviews, there’s really no excuse to be stingy with your photos, especially when you’re learning. Do make mistakes, do try whatever comes in your head, because that can lead to some happy accidents — and great photos!


Photo of a Kodak c875 compact camera in a white presentation plate