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How to Convert Images to Monochrome With the Gimp

Original Image: Newhaven Quay Edinburgh 2007

Original Image: Newhaven Quay Edinburgh 2007

What is the GIMP and why use it?

The GIMP is a free open source photo editor with capabilities matching those of Adobe Photoshop and some facilities not available in Photoshop.

The downside is the GIMP is harder to use and the documentation could be improved. The rendering engine is subtly different from that of Photoshop and the interface can be confusing.

Both these facts may confuse the beginner and could make it worth purchasing a Gimp package including a manual or a book that explains how to use the Nevertheless after a while it grows on you and you realise it is a very powerful tool

This tutorial was produced using GIMP 2.6.2 for OS X. The Windows and Linux versions should have the same interface.

This article illustrates the use of the GIMP's options for mono and semi mono photo editing.

The term "Monochrome" is normally used for greyscale images or images that contain a single hue varying in brightness. For pedants a true "monochrome" image would be an area of a single colour - say all black or all white. "Black and White" is achieved only by the Threshold operation or in the film world, with Lithographic film.

More about the place where I took these photos

Gimp Monochrome Options

As a lover of colour ( Maybe I should rephrase that but won't ) I am constantly amazed by the fact that black and white pictures may have more power and impact than the original colour version.

The Gimp offers several ways to convert a colour picture to a monochrome picture: a picture that is either black and white or shades of a single colour including: Desaturate, The Channel Mixer, Colorize and the Hue-Saturation control. All these are found on the Gimp's Colors menu and give plenty of gimp monochrome conversion options.

To start copy your image and drag the copy onto the GIMP icon.

Gimp desaturation options








This is the simplest option. There are three options in the Menu. Lightness, Luminosity and average.

Try each one and see whether you notice any difference, and if you do choose whichever you prefer.

Generally speaking I prefer the luminosity option. The advantage of simplicity using Desaturate is counterbalanced by the lack of control over the process and the fact you will probably have to use the dodge and burn tool to create a good picture.

I noticed incidentally, that the “Black and White” pictures in photo magazines often looked more of a chocolate colour and I got a more pleasing result by boosting the red with the colour balance menu


This option lets you change the saturation of all colours or any one of the ranges corresponding to the three primary colours and the three complementary colours. These are arranged in a colour circle. If you increase the hue the colours move clockwise round the circle and anticlockwise as you decrease the hue. If you do not remove the colours entirely you get a subtle effect which can be rather like hand colouring a print, and in any case leaves a trace of colour ( and warmth) in the picture which offsets the coldness of a grayscale picture

Reducing the Saturation

Changed Saturation to -68

Changed Saturation to -68

Scroll to Continue


This menu lets lets you change the hue of a picture and the saturation of the result.
The effect is easier to control than with the Hue-saturation menu and can be very pleasing though sepia is hard to achieve.

Colorized with Hue 30

Colorized with Hue 30

Channel Mixer

This is  a sub menu of the Components menu. Check the Monochrome box and optionally the preserve luminosity box then adjust the sliders till you like what you see. The best effect  normally arises if you adjust the red first. Ideally all the  slider values should add up to 100%

Effect of Channel Mixer

Converted with channel Mixer

Converted with channel Mixer


The GIMP offers a number of ways to convert a full colour image to a single colour or grayscale image, These all produce different results and what works for one picture may not work for others. When converting an image be ready to try any or all of these methods. Always work on a copy not the original.

and may want to learn more about the place where these photos were taken


Choosing image->Mode-> greyscale produces a result that is  close to the ideal channel mixer result but  does not do the same as  Desaturate.  The balance of  the RGB channels is different.


JanMaklak from Canada on January 27, 2013:

It's easier to use Lightroom 4 and Nik Silver Effects Pro for the best results. Then if necessary use Photoshop for the last finishing touches. All professionals use this approach and in my opinion provided the best dynamic structure and contrast. Lightroom is very cheap right now and Nik Silver Effects Pro is reasonably priced and is now owned by microsoft so I am expecting big things in it's future.

monchiron on April 20, 2010:

GRAYSCALE ? did you even read the article?

Mik on January 28, 2010:

Why is it when you want to convert an image to black and white (for newsprint) that all the websites tell you how to convert it to greyscale (prob 16 colours) only and state its black and white. Black and white is 2 colours only not all the different hues in between....rant over.

hikari on October 27, 2009:

Please, name your blog entries correctly, because right now i'm searching 30 minutes for REAL monochrome conversion. And this is not a monochrome, this is GRAYSCALE.

goldentoad from Free and running.... on April 14, 2009:

I thought the gimp was a sexual deviant who wore a mask and lived in a closet

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