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Create black and white ‘colour pop’ photos using masking

In this mini-tutorial, we look at how to preserve areas of colour in a black and white image by masking Black & White Adjustments in Affinity Photo.

Black & White Adjustment layers in Affinity Photo are non-destructive, which means, we can play around with how they affect the image below. Using this image as an example, we will show you how to change a colour image to black and white while keeping specific areas of the image in colour.

Using a Black & White Adjustment Layer

  • To begin, open your image in Affinity Photo.

  • Go to the Adjustment Panel and select Black & White or click the Adjustments icon in the Layers Panel and select Black & White. You’ll see that this creates a new Black & White Adjustment Layer in the Layers Panel.

  • A Black & White panel will appear, allowing you to adjust the different colour values in your image. Tweaking these allows for richer tones of grey and greater control over the appearance of your black and white image. It also allows you to adjust the Blend Mode on the adjustment layer and the Opacity, although this can also be altered in the Layers Panel.

In this image, we want to change the colour to black and white but keep the shoes red, so we are going to use a simple masking technique.

  • Select the Erase Brush Tool (E) and with the Black & White Adjustment layer selected, start erasing the area you want to revert back to its original colour. This creates a simple masked area, allowing the original colour to show through.

See it in action

A walkthrough of using a Black & White Adjustment layer.

So, how does it work?

When you create a new Adjustment Layer, it creates a separate, non-destructive layer over your original image, which applies that adjustment to the layers below. By erasing from the Black & White Adjustment layer, we are removing the adjustment from that area of the image. You’ll notice that on the Layers Panel, the Black & White Adjustment layer appears white and areas you have erased appear black.

Note; you can also use the Paint Brush Tool with black selected instead of the Erase Brush Tool to create the same effect. Or use the Paint Brush Tool with white selected, to paint the adjustment back in. Have some fun by experimenting with different opacities and different brushes, too.

You can also use the Selection Tools to precisely select areas of the image, and then by selecting the Black & White Adjustment Layer, use the Flood Fill Tool or Paint Brush Tool (set to black), or the Erase Brush Tool to remove the adjustment from that area. This also works for other non-destructive Adjustments, such as HSL, as shown in this article.

Tips and tricks

As the Black & White Adjustment is non-destructive you can edit it in different ways, without affecting your original photograph.

Here are some tips:

  • As you can ‘layer up’ different Adjustment Layers, try applying an HSL Adjustment alongside a Black & White Adjustment to alter the colours on your photograph and create interesting effects.
An HSL Adjustment added to our layers allows us the change the colour of the shoes on each image and still preserve the black and white areas.
  • When using the Erase Brush Tool to remove the Black & White Adjustment, set the brush Opacity to a low number. This will make the colour in the original image appear more gradually, allowing for some dramatic changes to the tone of the image.
A walkthrough of how to use a low opacity Erase Brush Tool to make subtle colour show through on a Black & White Adjustment layer.
  • Use the Gradient Tool and set the colour points to black and white to create a fade from black and white to colour across your whole image. Note that the black point will show colour and the white point will show black and white.
A walkthrough of how to use the Gradient Tool to create a colour fade from colour to black and white on a Black & White Adjustment layer.
  • Change the Opacity of your Black & White Adjustment to make the colour difference more subtle. In the image below, the Black & White Adjustment has been erased entirely from the blossom, making it stand out. But the area around it is not completely black and white, allowing a little bit of colour to come through using the Opacity slider. This gives the image a vintage feel.
A before and after showing partial desaturation of the area around the bright pink blossom by adjusting the Opacity of the Black & White Adjustment.


A before and after of a rainbow crossing.
A before and after of colourful crayons.
For a vintage tone, the image was desaturated using a Black & White Adjustment with areas erased allowing the reds to stand out. An HSL Adjustment has also been applied to subtly alter the shade of red.
The Gradient Tool used on the Black & White Adjustment creates a fade from monochrome to colour.

Artist relations

Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.

Credits & Footnotes

Photographs courtesy of Unsplash:

Red shoes by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash, woman with pomegranate by Mihai Stefan on Unsplash, woman lying on road with rainbow by Tony Ross on Unsplash, hands holding blossom by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash, rainbow crossing by Tayla Kohler on Unsplash, crayons by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash, woman with red lipstick and bandana by Sergio Souza on Unsplash, hands holding a floral heart by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash.