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How to Edit Black and White Photography in Lightroom

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Black and white photography has kept its popularity over the decades. Even in the era of colourful digital photography.

You can use Lightroom to edit black and white photography. This article will show you how.

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Monochrome vs Black-and-White

You may sometimes hear black-and-white photography referred to as ‘monochrome’. 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. Meanwhile, B&W photography always refers to shades of grey.

Diptych showing difference between a B&W (left) and monochrome (right) photo of a bridge
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

Capture the Scene With B&W in Mind

Black and white photography can be considered in two phases. Taking the photo and then post-processing it. This tutorial is about post-processing colour images into black and white images.

But a few notes on photo capture and camera settings are worth discussing first.

Start taking a photo with the intention of creating B&W photography. You will think about your subjects in a different way. This will affect both your choice of subject and composition.

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

A laptop on a home office desk

Use the Monochrome Setting to Visualise Black and White Scenes

When you take any photo, 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 many user-defined settings.

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 shoot in monochrome. This trains your eyes to visualise black and white scenes better.

If your camera is set to only shoot JPEG images, don’t use this option.  Your camera will show you the monochrome photo 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 for Black and White Images

We talk about ‘converting to black-and-white’. But remember that Adobe Lightroom is a non-destructive editor. You will see the effects of your editing on the colour master photo. A true B&W photo 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 you are in the develop module, simply hit the ‘V’ keyboard shortcut.

To show a black-and-white photo 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. There are many different conversion algorithms in use. B&W conversions can give different tonal values for the same colour in different applications.

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

Black and white image of a gondola in Venice

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 often 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 have on the final shade of grey.

In this example, the subject of the photo is obvious since the red stands out from the green background. Rather than 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

Start the black-and-white conversion. Lightroom will show you a black-and-white image that’s very similar to the one you’d get by simple desaturation alone. In other words, it may not look impressive at first. Check out the image below to see what I mean.

Notice that the reds and greens mapped to very similar shades of grey. The poppy no longer ‘pops’ out, 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.

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 grey values.

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

Hit the V key to toggle between colour and B&W. You’ll discover that sometimes the settings you select in B&W look horrible 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 B&W while you edit, knowing that all the adjustments are non-destructive.

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

Tweaking Colour Contributions

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. 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 enhanced the contrast a lot between the poppy and background.

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

For most B&W 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. And it often pays off to adjust the whites slider. Then 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

How to Achieve a Vintage Portrait Effect

There are many special effects you can apply after black and white conversion. Here are the steps you need to take to create 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’ slider;
  • 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 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 black-and-white presets.

Apply some post-crop vignetting. Open the Effects panel, set the style to ‘Highlight Priority’ and the amount to a quite 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 only, and you want a solid border, here’s how to do it.

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.

First, 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.

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.

White borders added in Lightroom to a black and white picture of a country house
A black-and-white image with a black border made using the Print module.

Conclusion

Editing in Lightroom might seem tricky at first. But with practice and an experimenting attitude, you can improve your skills in no time.

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

For all you need to know about editing in Lightroom, try our Effortless Editing course! 

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