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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 as a tool 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 (called Picture Control in Nikon and Picture Profile in Sony cameras).

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 only 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.

You don’t need to spend a huge amount of time perfecting a colour image before diving into black-and-white.

You’ll discover that sometimes the settings you select in B&W look horrible in colour. Learn to think in B&W while you edit, knowing that all the adjustments are non-destructive.

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.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

You can get a much better result if instead of setting the saturation slider to -100%, you click the ‘B&W’ button or hit the ‘V’ keyboard shortcut.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

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. This is where tweaking the colours will come in.

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.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

Most colours in the original image won’t fall exactly on just one of these sliders. 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 dog dragging up, followed by clicking on the grass and flowers down. This enhanced the contrast between the dog and the background.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

For most B&W work, the aim is to produce an image that has a full range of tones, good contrast and fine details. Black-and-white photos often look best when the darkest pixels are truly black. And it often pays off to adjust the whites, the contrast, and clarity after tweaking the colours.

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.

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.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

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.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

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.

 black and white photo of a dog

Fastest Way of Editing B&W Images In Lightroom

You might have already heard of Lightroom Presets. They are basically a saved set of settings that you can apply to your images with one click.

In Lightroom, some black and white presets are automatically available. They are mainly for adding contrast, clarity, and changing different colour luminosities. You can find them on the left sidebar under the Presets menu.

Screenshot of editing black and white photo in Lightroom

However, if you are aiming for a more unique look, you can create your own presets. It is also possible to install free or purchased presets from other photographers and apply them to your pictures.

Screenshot of Lightroom black and white settings

Presets are great tools for making your workflow faster and more effective. They also add a universal look to your photos, while creating an atmosphere. So don’t be afraid to try various presets and save the ones that suit your style the most.

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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