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Create Better Black and White Photos Using Local Adjustments in Lightroom 5


Local adjustments in Lightroom

I showed you how to convert your photos to black and white in Lightroom in an earlier article. But, considering it dealt purely with global adjustments, the piece only gives you half the story. Global adjustments get you started, but in order to get the best black and white conversion possible you need to make local adjustments as well. This article will show you how to do this.

First, a couple of definitions:

Global adjustments: Any adjustments (to brightness, contrast etc.) that affect the entire image.

Local adjustments: Adjustments that affect only part of the photo.

Before I show you how to make local adjustments, let’s think about why you would do so. Certain things pull the eye more than others. For example, when you look at a photo with people in it, your eye will go straight to them, even if they are small in the frame. This is probably down to human curiosity more than anything, but it works.

Two other things that pull the eye are highlights and contrast. The idea behind making local adjustments is that you can alter the brightness or contrast of certain areas in the frame to influence where the eye goes. This creates a better, more beautiful photo.

Dodging and burning

Here’s the photo we’re going to work with in today’s article. I’ve already converted it to black and white using global adjustments.

Local adjustments in Lightroom

As you can see, it lacks a focal point. It also contains lots of beautiful textures which will look great in black and white if we can bring them out.

In order to make effective local adjustments you need to decide what you want to achieve before you start. Here, I decided to make the central watermelon the focal point of the composition. Decision made, it’s just a question of how to achieve it.

Dodging and burning

Although Lightroom itself doesn’t use these terms, you will find them referred to time and again in post-processing. Dodging is the act of making part of the photo lighter, and burning is the act of making it darker. They originated in the chemical darkroom and are also done in photo editing programs like Photoshop.

The first step to achieving my aim of making the central watermelon the focal point, is to make the rest of the photo darker. I did that by placing a Radial Filter over the central watermelon and moving the Exposure slider left.

Local adjustments in Lightroom

Note: The Radial Filter is new to Lightroom 5. If you have an earlier version of Lightroom, you can use either Post-crop Vignetting or the Adjustment Brush instead.

The two watermelons either side of the central one are a little too bright. So I used the Adjustment Brush to select (mask) them and moved the Exposure slider left to make them darker. The screenshot below shows the area covered by the mask. Note how I only painted the top parts of the watermelons as the bottom part was already dark.

Local adjustments in Lightroom

This is the result of the local adjustment.

Local adjustments in Lightroom

Contrast and Clarity

The next step is to improve the appearance of the central watermelon. I can do that by increasing contrast to bring out the beautiful textures of its skin.

I placed another Radial Filter over the watermelon (you could also use the Adjustment Brush) and ticked the Invert Mask box so the adjustment was applied inside, rather than outside, the filter. Then I increased Contrast and Clarity, and moved the Highlights slider right and the Shadows slider left. The result is a big increase in contrast, bringing out the texture of the watermelon’s skin. Here’s the result.

Local adjustments in Lightroom

Here are the before and after views so you can see the difference, which is entirely down to the local adjustments.

Local adjustments in Lightroom

That completes my overview of using local adjustments in Lightroom. As you can see, the local adjustments turned an average photo into a much stronger one. There is nothing overly complicated about it, it’s more a matter of training your eye to see in black and white and then deciding how to use the tools that Lightroom gives you to realize your vision.

I’m curious to hear how you use local adjustment when you convert your photos to black and white. Please let us know in the comments.

Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White

Masterlng Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White by Andrew S GibsonMy ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White goes into the topic of black and white in depth. It explains everything you need to know to make dramatic and beautiful monochrome conversions in Lightroom, including how to use the most popular black and white plug-ins. Click the link to visit my website and learn more.

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image, What's New in Lightroom CC? and Use Lightroom Better.

  • keepntch

    Andrew, as a beginner in photography I am wondering why you would say the photo has no focal point when that center melon obviously jumps right at you? I have most of your books and am slowly learning LR5, the books as well as you clearly written articles here are very instructive and helpful. Thank you.

  • Dodging water and burning rocks and clouds:

  • Thanks for sharing. Beautiful photos!

  • Because in the original black and white conversion the watermelons are a similar tone and the eye wanders around all over the image. Now that I look at it again after reading your comment I can see the central watermelon is lighter than the others and could be called a focal point. One of my aims during processing was to make sure it was unmistakably the focal point.

    I suppose it shows just how subjective composition can be. One person sees a focal point in a photo, another doesn’t.

    Hope that helps.

  • keepntch

    Yes, that helps. I have had a review or two of my photos and am surprised that the viewer is seeing something entirely different than what I thought I was taking a picture of. Thanks

  • Choo Chiaw Ting


  • Very interesting article, it got me thinking. I am using Camera Raw 6.7 to process RAW so local adjustments have to be done Photoshop. I would be curious to know how much Lightroom has improved since CS5 used the basic engine for Camera RAW.

  • It’s improved a lot Jason, easiest way to see for yourself is to download the trial and give it a go.

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