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Capturing and sharing full colour images may be easier, but black and white photography continues to attract fans. The one thing I’m always asked about it is how to edit black and white photography.

Black and white photography forces you to disregard the original colours. Instead, you have to concentrate on texture and patterns, shape and form. It encourages a reductionist attitude in composition.

It’s a great way to train your eyes to look for subjects that will be visually interesting. This article will show you how to use Lightroom to edit black and white photography. At the end, you’ll be able to add this classic to your photographic skill set.

Monochrome vs Black-and-White

You may sometimes hear black-and-white photography referred to as ‘monochrome’ and although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. Monochrome means ‘one colour’ and it can be any single colour in various lightness levels whereas black-and-white photography always refers to shades of grey.

Editing B&W in Lightroom, picture showing difference between B&W (left) and monochrome (right)

Left: A black-and-white image contains no colour so each pixel is a shade of grey. Right: A monochrome image contains just one hue at different brightness levels.

Camera and Computer

As with colour, black-and-white photography can be considered in two phases – taking the photo and then post-processing it. This tutorial is primarily about post-processing colour images into black-and-white photographs. But a few notes on image capture and camera settings are worth discussing first.

If you venture out with the express intention of taking some black-and-white photos, you will think about your subjects differently. This will affect both your choice of subject and composition.

If you’ve not taken many black-and-white images before, it can initially be difficult to visualise a black and white scene. This visualisation is made much easier if you set up your camera for monochrome.

Seeing in Monochrome

When you take any photograph, your camera captures the scene in full colour. Then it compresses the information into a JPEG. The way raw data is processed to make that JPEG image is determined by a number of user-defined settings (Picture Style, Picture Control, etc., depending on camera brand).

This setting controls how colours are processed. One option you can select is Monochrome, as shown in this Canon Picture Style menu.

Picture style menu on a Canon camera

The Monochrome option can enable novice photographers to instantly shoot in monochrome, and train their eye to better visualise black and white scenes.

If your camera is set to only shoot JPEG images, don’t use this option.  Your camera will show you the monochrome image on its screen and store a monochrome image on its memory card. This leads to losing all colour data that the raw file keeps.

If you can set your camera to shoot raw, do it. You can take advantage of the monochrome picture style without losing the original colour.

diagram illustrating how to shoot raw and monochrome using the picture style menu on your camera

If you shoot raw, a monochrome picture style can help you visualise how the scene might appear in black-and-white. And you still have a full colour raw image for further processing.

Post-Processing to Black and White

Although we talk about ‘converting to black-and-white’, remember that Adobe Lightroom is a non-destructive editor. You will see the effects of your editing on the colour master photo. A true black-and-white image won’t be created unless you export your work as a TIFF or JPEG file.

Until then, you can switch between seeing the colour or black-and-white versions at any time when in the develop module simply by hitting the ‘V’ keyboard shortcut.

In order to show a black-and-white image on-screen, Lightroom takes the red, green and blue values for each pixel and calculates a new single value. This is applied to all three to force the pixel to a shade of grey.

There is no single ‘right’ way to calculate this and there are a number of different conversion algorithms in common use. As such, black-and-white conversions can give different tonal values for the same colour in different applications.

And even within Lightroom itself, it depends on the controls used.

Basic Desaturation vs Black and White Mix

If you set the saturation slider on the Basic panel all the way to -100%, you’ll get a black-and-white conversion of sorts. The result will almost certainly lack contrast and you might not even notice the subject anymore.

You can get a much better result if you can determine how much influence different colours will have on the final shade of grey.

In this example, the subject of the photo is obvious since the red stands out against the green background. Rather than simply setting the saturation slider to -100%, click the ‘Black and White’ button or hit the ‘V’ keyboard shortcut.

editing a picture of a poppy in lightroom to turn it into black and white

Once you’ve started the black-and-white ‘conversion’, Lightroom will initially show you a black-and-white image that’s actually very similar to the one you’d get by simple desaturation alone. In other words, it may not look impressive at first.

Editing Black and White in Lightroom with a picture of a poppy

Notice that the reds and greens mapped to very similar shades of grey. The poppy no longer ‘pops’ and the histogram has been compressed.

The vibrance and saturation sliders are no longer available but all the other Basic panel controls are – including the temperature and tint sliders.

Once in the black-and-white domain, altering the colour temperature can have a very significant effect on the tonal distribution. This happens because it changes the underlying colours used to generate the grey values.

Make a virtual copy of your colour image before you begin to process it so that you can experiment with extreme colour temperature settings.

Hit the V key to toggle between colour and black-and-white and you’ll discover that sometimes the settings you select in black-and-white look ghastly in colour.

In other words, you don’t need to spend a huge amount of time perfecting a colour image before diving into black-and-white. Learn to think in black-and-white while you edit, confident in the knowledge that all the adjustments are non-destructive.

Tweaking Colour Contributions

In order to take control of the contribution of different colours to the final result, open the ‘HSL / Color / B & W’ panel in the develop module and then click on the ‘B & W’ tab.

This will display a panel of sliders that control how bright the greyscale image renders each underlying colour.

Lightroom sliders

As you move a slider to the right, that colour will contribute more to the brightness of any pixel featuring it. Sliding to the left will reduce its contribution. Most colours in the original image won’t fall exactly on just one of these sliders and it can be tedious tweaking each one.

A much better way is to use the Targeted Adjustment Tool circled above. Using this tool, click and drag over a colour whose influence you want to increase (by dragging up) or decrease (by dragging down). This will alter one or multiple sliders at once as you drag.

In this case, I clicked on the poppy dragging up, followed by clicking on the grass and dragging down. This significantly enhanced the contrast between the poppy and background.

how to enhance contrast in Lightroom while editing for black and white

For most black-and-white work, the aim is to produce an image that has a full range of tones, good contrast and fine details. To achieve the optimal tonal range, use the black slider in the Basic panel to pull the histogram to the left. You can shift-click the black slider to make Lightroom do this automatically.

Black-and-white photos often look best when the darkest pixels are truly black. Similarly, it often pays to adjust the whites slider and also the contrast and clarity sliders.

Altering the Black & White Mix sliders can generate very different results as shown here.

four photos showing different results of black and white editing

1: Colour image. 2: Equal contribution mix 3: Low red and high green contributions 4. High red and low green contributions.

A Vintage Portrait Effect

There are a number of special effects you can apply after conversion to black-and-white. Here are the steps you need to take to produce a typical ‘vintage’ sepia toned portrait.

full colour portrait of a blonde girl

  • In the Develop module, select the ‘B & W’ tab to access the ‘Black & White Mix’ sliders
  • Use the targeted adjustment tool and click on a medium flesh tone while dragging up to make the skin brighter
  • Use the same tool to click and drag on the background
  • In the Basic panel, shift double-click the blacks slider to set the black point and adjust the clarity as needed

We now have a well balanced black-and-white portrait.

editing the black and white portrait of a girl in Lightroom

Notice the histogram shows a full range of tones from absolute black to just short of pure white.

To apply a sepia tone effect, open the Split Toning panel. This enables you to apply one colour overlay for the shadows and another for the highlights.

For sepia toning, it’s generally best to leave the highlights as white and apply a little colour to the shadows. In this case, the shadows hue was set to 50 with a saturation of 30.

sepia portrait in Lightroom

Use the Split Toning panel to apply a soft and subtle sepia effect or dial in any two colours for a more unorthodox result. You can also use one of Lightroom’s black-and-white presets.

Apply some post-crop vignetting. Open the Effects panel, set the style to ‘Highlight Priority’ and the amount to a fairly large positive value.

This will lighten the edges of the image. Experiment with the Roundness and Feather settings to achieve a pleasing fade.

vintage portrait in Lightroom

Applying Borders

You can enhance black-and-white photos with a strong black or white border. In Lightroom, the Effects panel doesn’t have a ‘border’ slider.  At this point, you can continue your edit in Photoshop to add any kind of edge. But if you want to use Lightroom exclusively and you want a solid border, here’s how to do it.

Firstly, make sure you finish all the other adjustments you want to make. Then select the photo in the filmstrip and switch to the Print module.

how to add borders in Lightroom for a black and white photo of a country house

The Print module can add borders and then save the image as a JPEG.

Open the Image Settings panel and tick the box marked ‘Stroke Border’. Slide the Width slider and click on the small swatch just above and to the right of this slider to select a border colour.

Open the ‘Print Job’ panel and change the ‘Print to’ option from ‘Printer’ to ‘JPEG File’. Set the JPEG Quality slider to 100 and then click the ‘Print to File…’ button to select a destination for your image.

Lightroom will make the JPEG image and save it to your chosen destination but it won’t automatically add it to your catalogue. If you want to be able to find it again easily, don’t forget to re-import it.

Don’t have Lightroom? Check out our guide on editing b&w in Photoshop, or our best alternatives to Lightroom.

final image showing borders added in Lightroom to a black and white picture of a country house

A black-and-white image with black border made using the Print module.

If you’re interested in trying a Lightroom alternative, check out our Capture one vs Lightroom article!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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David Baxter

Dave is a photographer and writer based in Oxfordshire, England. He has a science and engineering background and has been taking photographs for over 40 years. His broad experience includes computer graphics, image processing, studio, landscape, macro, architectural, and panoramic photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and has published numerous technical articles for a Canon based photography magazine. He now runs photography workshops in Oxfordshire and is currently working on a new Lightroom book.

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