Black and white photography has kept its popularity over the decades. Even in the era of colourful digital photography.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Editing in Lightroom might seem tricky at first. But with practice and an experimenting attitude, you can improve your skills in no time.
For all you need to know about editing in Lightroom, try our Effortless Editing course!