3 Tips for Better Black and White Conversion using Lightroom

3 Tips for Better Black and White Conversion using Lightroom

Ever wondered how the professional photographers get those dreamy black and white or sepia toned images? Wonder why yours come out looking dull and flat looking?  I’m going to give you 3 tips to help you do better black and white conversions using Adobe Lightroom, and solve that problem!

Today’s cameras are pretty smart, and many of them offer a black and white setting or shooting mode. I recommend using those to start, especially if you’ve never done any black and white (B&W) or if you are not currently doing any post processing or image editing on your files. BUT, if you have some experience with b/w photography, and you are processing your images, I recommend doing the conversion yourself as you have more control over the look of the final image.  I’m going to show you a few ways of converting them into B&W using Lightroom.

Note:  for the most part these tips will work in Photoshop as well, using the Adobe Camera Raw features and sliders.

First a quick note about my background. Back when I took my photography degree (dare I say, in 1987-88, and date myself) I spent the entire first year shooting black & white only, using a 4×5 view camera no less. I processed my own film and made my own prints. I spent a lot of time in a black & white darkroom, so I’m pretty well versed in how it works and how to control it to my advantage.

To grab some info from those film days, it’s important to note and understand that your camera sees light and colours differently than does the human eye. Black and white film sees blue tones much lighter than our eyes, for example.  Coloured filters were used to shift how the B&W film “saw” and rendered the scene.  Using a red filter would lighten anything red in the image and darken blue tones.  So if you were a landscape photographer you’d often use a red filter to darken the sky and make it less washed out.   A green filter would lighten green and blue tones and darken red and orange.  So photographers used the appropriate filter to capture the scene as they envisioned it.

In Lightroom and ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) in Photoshop you have the same tools at your disposal!  So without the use of filters, you can adjust how the scene is rendered in B&W.  That brings me to the first tip.

Tip #1 – use the B&W mix to do your conversions

In Lightroom’s Develop module (and ACR) there are a few ways that you can convert your images into B&W.  You can just pull the saturation slider all the way to left to -100. You can also do similar with the Vibrance slider, but it may not give you a 100% B&W image, depending on the image. Both of those options will give you a black & white result. However, they give you no control over how the colours render into the various shades of grey. A better choice, in my opinion, is to use the B&W mix, located on the third panel down on the right in Develop – see below.

Black and white mix panel in Lightroom Develop module

Let’s take a look at an example using the same image.

Original colour image

B&W conversion done using the Saturation slider at -100

B&W conversion done using the B&W mix in LR

In the images above, notice how the blue sky went really light using the desaturate method?  This is often the case when you have a lot of blue sky in an image, as I explained above.  Using the B&W mix and pulling a few of the sliders I was able to get very different tones.  This is what my sliders in the B&W Mix panel look like on the third image:

Notice the blue slider is pulled all the way to the left to -100.  That is what is darkening my sky.  Also worth noting is the green and yellow sliders are moved in the opposite or plus direction.  This lightens both yellows and greens (most grass and trees are often a mix of green and yellow, sometimes more yellow than green).  I have not done any selective adjustments to darken the sky here, just the sliders you see to the right!  How very different this image is from the desaturated one, and so simple to do using this method!

Also on this panel notice there is an “Auto” button.  Clicking it will allow Lightroom to apply a predetermined B&W mix for you.  You can also set up in your Lightroom preferences to apply that for you when B&W mix is selected, then you can just fine tune from there.  Otherwise all the sliders will start at “0”.

Another little known trick for using these sliders is the funny looking little double circle thing on the top left.  As you move the mouse over it, you will see this:

Adjust Black & White Mix by dragging in photo. So what on earth does that mean, you may wonder?!  If you click on the little circle your mouse pointer will now have little up and down arrows, as well as your cursor showing the same icon as you hover over the image. Click anywhere on the image, hold and drag, and it will adjust ONLY the colours that you’ve clicked on.   Drag up to move the sliders to the right (+) and drag down to move them to the left (-). How cool is that?!

This is very helpful if you do not know which sliders to adjust.  Just select the area of your image you’d like to adjust the tones on and drag away!

Tip #2 – don’t just stop there, add some punch

Sometimes even using the B&W mix sliders the resulting image still looks a bit flat and dull looking.  Take it up a notch by adding some punch to your image.  I do the following to most of my B&W images:

  • increase the clarity:  if it’s a scenic I’ll push it quite far like +60 or higher, if it’s a person I keep it under +30 or they start to look a bit crunchy and overly wrinkled (especially if the photo is of your mom or your spouse, they tend not to be too happy about that)
  • lower the black slider, until it looks good.  Highly scientific, yes! Here’s a little trick for you as well using the Blacks slider:  if you click and hold the Opt/Alt button while you slide it, you will get to see exactly where your blacks are clipping (meaning going off the chart on the histogram and having no detail). You can use that information to make sure you have just enough blacks, but make sure you keep all the detail in important areas.
  • increase the contrast either using the Contrast slider or Curves

Occasionally after making these contrast adjustments it will affect the overall image and you may want to go back and rework the B&W sliders a bit too.  It’s a dance, play them back and forth until you get a mix you like.   Here’s the final version of the image above, with contrast and punch adjustments applied.

Notice how much more snap it has, while still maintaining that nice rich, dark sky!

Secret to making great B&W images that the pros won’t tell you . . .

Black!  That’s it.  Make sure you actually have some black, and some white in your image.  Check the histogram and use my little tip on seeing the clipped bits. Add contrast or increase the blacks, whites, or both to get a full range of tones.  No matter what the subject is in the photograph, having enough contrast to have pure white, and pure black is key to having a stunning B&W image.  Otherwise you’re just left with a bunch of grey mud.

Tip #3 – creating selective coloured images

There are a couple ways to make selectively coloured images, and also to create that faded look that is really popular. Once again you can use the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in the Basic panel, however they will affect colours in the entire image the same.  You can also use the Adjustment Brush and paint in a lower saturation onto parts of your image where you want to fade out the colour.  I use that method quite often, even on full colour images, to do tone control on items in the background that are distracting.

Lastly you can use the sliders in the HSL panel.  By sliding selected colours to the left you can desaturate only those colours.  You can also use the little Click and Drag tool we used earlier to do the B&W Mix to click on your image and pick the areas to fade.   Here’s an example using each of these methods.  None is right or wrong, just give you a different look and some have more control than others.  Choose the one that works for you on in individual image basis.

Original colour image

Vibrance slider set to -75

Saturation slider set to -75

Adjustment brush used to paint in saturation at -75 to the whole image except for the wool

HSL sliders used to desaturate by separate colours

*Bonus Tip – making a nice duotone or sepia toned image

A little extra bonus tip for you.  Adobe has made it super easy to create a really nice duotone (just means two tones, go figure!) image, which includes Sepia.  Just go to the Split Toning panel after you’ve done your B&W conversion, it’s the fourth one down.

You will see sliders for both Highlights, and Shadows.  My personal tip on how to keep a nice clean sepia or toned image is to use ONLY the Shadows sliders and do not touch Highlights.  That will leave you with clean, crisp white highlights even after you’ve applied the toning.

How to create the duotone

First start by choosing the Hue slider (for Shadows).  If you want a nice brown colour, start with it around 40-45. Each image tones slightly differently, so start there and adjust to your taste and style.  You may notice that nothing happened, right?  That is because you need to increase the Saturation slider before the tone will show up.  The more you increase saturation, the deeper and more vibrant the colour tone will become.  Again, there is no right or wrong, it’s all about preference.  For a subtle, dark, chocolate brown try 10-20.  For a deeper colour go higher with saturation (NOTE: make sure the “balance” slider is set to zero)

If you want a different tone just move the Hue slider.  You can create some really neat affects this way including Blue Tone or a true Duotone.

Example using a portrait

For this final example I’ll show all the steps we’ve just covered using a portrait.  This is applicable to any people photos, you don’t need to make portraits to use this information.

Original colour image

Notice the last image where I’ve added in colour to the Highlights and how it completely changes the look of the image. The whites have a yellow tint now instead of a nice clean look. I personally prefer the third one but there are times I do use this option. Do what feels right for your image, you’ll know what to do.

A “duo” tone using different colours for the Highlights and Shadows. Shadow settings: Hue 232, Sat 70 – Highlight settings: Hue 52, Sat 37. I did move Balance to -27 to skew the colours more towards the Shadows as well.

What next?

As always I encourage experimentation.  If you have another way that you like better, that’s awesome!  Please share it with us if you will.  Another way to do some really quick B&W inside Lightroom is to find some good presets. There are literally tens of thousands of Lightroom Develop presets available for free on the internet.  Try a Google search for:   Free lightroom b&w presets.  Then just pick the ones you like and install them.

Now get out there and go make some images and let’s see what you can do in Black & White!

UPDATE: Learn more about Black and White Photography with our new Essential Guide to Black and White Photography.

Read more from our Post Production category

Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru (Aug 31st - Sept 13th, 2019), Thailand, and India (Oct 28th - Nov 11th, 2019). To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

Some Older Comments

  • Darlene September 11, 2013 03:11 pm

    @sudeep thanks so much, I'm flattered by your comments

  • Sudeep Mukherjee September 9, 2013 09:26 pm

    Hi Darlene,

    This is one of the best articles I have read on Black and White conversion using Lightroom bar none. Very well written and thanks so much for sharing.


  • Darlene March 4, 2013 01:02 pm

    @Stephen - awesome, glad you liked it and I'm sure your family will be very pleased with that option!

  • Stephen Rudolph March 3, 2013 05:57 am

    Excellent. Both for readability and for technicality.

    I was demo-ing Silver efex 2 and liking it, but not liking the $200.00 for it. I am going to skip that and take her and the kids out to dinner after reading this!

  • Colin February 17, 2013 11:24 am

    Great advice for B&W

  • Darlene Hildebrandt February 16, 2013 05:17 am

    Thanks Betty, glad to hear you're having success!

  • Betty A Duffy February 16, 2013 04:48 am


    I love this article!! I haven't done a whole lot with black and white, but I have a wedding upcoming so will no doubt use these tips.

    I WAS one of those people afraid to shoot in raw. My first attempt was as close to disaster as I wanted. Although I had edited jpegs in LR for years. Finally after much coaching from you and others, I gave it another shot!! Wow! What a difference it makes!! I have not looked back!

    You rock!!

  • Darlene February 7, 2013 07:29 am

    Cheryl - thanks for much. I think you're my first triple love comment LOL. I'm so glad you found this helpful.

  • Cheryl Schoen - CIS Images February 7, 2013 03:32 am

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED this!! Thank you for those tips. I have been getting the photo finishes I like in a different way (trial and error), but the methods presented here may be time savers. I just LOVE B&W, sepia and the whole tonal gamut. Thank you...

  • Darlene Hildebrandt February 1, 2013 04:45 pm

    @Rick, sorry for that, let me clarify.

    I actually said RAW format is "intimidating" for beginners, not necessarily confusing. In my experience when people first get a new DSLR they shoot in JPG because it's familiar, they probably did so with their old point and shoot camera. Therefore they don't "have to" edit their images in any way or bring them into a software to be able to post on facebook, email to friends, etc.

    But shooting raw requires them to process, which means getting software and learning. That's the part that scares many beginners, especially those not really computer savvy.

    Does that make more sense?

  • Rick February 1, 2013 04:27 pm

    With LR, it's no more difficult to shoot in RAW and then edit, than it is to shoot a jpg and then edit. I'm not sure why you mean that it's confusing to beginners to do so. In any event, this is good information to have. I actually prefer moving the saturation sliders to the left, then adjusting the HSL from there. I just seem to get better control over my final output that way. Also, don't forget to add in a little grain for that faux film look. :-)

  • Kiki January 31, 2013 05:42 am

    Very helpful! I can't wait to try playing around with that!

  • K.A. Gilligan January 28, 2013 03:30 pm

    Hi Darlene,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to comment on my post. I like your ideal of boosting the contrast in tandem with the histogram. Sometimes it requires subsequent additional adjustments but that is where the artistry comes in.

    All the best,

  • Kool2bbop January 25, 2013 03:39 am

    You are doing a great job!
    We are improving day after day thanks to you

    Have a great day

  • Darlene January 22, 2013 04:40 pm

    Chris - great idea!

    Jules - no I think you're in the wrong area, you don't have to "convert" anything to make the image b/w. If you are converting it to greyscale you are dumping all the color information. By doing it the other way you keep it all. Try it again, I'm not familiar with the way you're doing it but I'm assuming you're opening it in Photoshop using Adobe Camera raw. Just open it without converting. It should work just fine using Adobe 98 or srgb.

    K.A. nice job! I really like the one with the kids in the foreground. Take a look at this one using your histogram http://www.photosbykag.com/Landscapes/Black-White/24307263_dTK5q4#!i=1980180030&k=z3dSvZ6&lb=1&s=A - look for does it touch the edges? Is there pure white and pure black? If not bump the contrast up until it does. You can increase the whites or blacks or both, OR contrast. It will give the image more punch.

  • K.A. Gilligan January 19, 2013 02:34 am

    Excellent article. Great tip on the doubl circle and changing the colors by dragging on the photo. Thank you. Really enjoying BW landscapes right now. Here is a link to my galley of BW images from the Los Angeles beach are called the South Bay. It is usually sunny with blue skies. I like the contrast of showing the landscapes in BW as most people do not think of it that way. All comments welcomed. Thank you.


  • Geoff January 19, 2013 01:38 am

    Thanks for the great tips, Darlene. I've been using some B&W presets I've downloaded. But using the tips in this article helps me to be more creative.

  • Jules January 18, 2013 11:57 pm

    Found it... have to change the colour profile. The gamma2.2 will not work together with the convert to greyscale... try to switch to adobe rgb 1998.

  • Jules January 18, 2013 11:48 pm

    I just ran into a problem with adobe camera raw... i wanted to try out your tips, and i have checked the convert to greyscale button, and it works. But when I try to save a jpg it all goes red, and broken, and like the screen is smashed.
    If i just take the saturation to zero, and save the file it will save normally, so I'm guessing that it has to be with the convert button.
    Any toughs?

  • Chris January 18, 2013 10:08 am


    Thanks very much for this article, very informative. I've found a useful compromise for Black and White shooting is to set the camera to RAW+JPG and set the camera to process the JPG as Black and White. That way you see a visual Black and White picture at the time of shooting plus you gain the flexibility of the post production of the RAW image in Lightroom or Camera RAW - even keeping a colour image if you decide.

  • Judy Royal Glenn January 18, 2013 08:48 am

    Thanks for the great tips. I look forward to trying them out! ~ Judy

  • t-fiz January 18, 2013 08:12 am

    Thank you for this article...which I ALMOST overlooked. It's so easy to forget that Lightroom has these awesome but often overlooked tools!

  • Jim Woolsey January 18, 2013 07:42 am

    Very cool article. Sometimes by black and whites conversions are very inconsistent. These are good tips. Thanks!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt January 18, 2013 06:40 am

    Luca to previsualize in b/w look at the contrast and light of the scene. If you aren't sure how it will come out shoot one using the b/w setting your camera offers. Then go back to raw and shoot if it works.

    Gary I've heard good things about silver fx, but have not used it so I can't really comment. You can always do a free trial I think if you want to test it.

    Stephen you use camera raw, in what program? Photoshop cs5 or 6 or Elements? I personally prefer Lightroom over photoshop for most of what I do. There's a trial for Lightroom too if you want to compare and see which you like more before buying.

    Thanks for all the positive comments. Glad you are finding this helpful.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt January 18, 2013 06:35 am

    Rick you certainly can disagree with me. However I stand by my suggestion. I teach photography classes and know that raw and any processing is intimidating for many beginners. You are 100% right about not getting the data back if you shoot bw jpg, but back in the days of film (dating myself now) you had to make a choice. There was no "I'll make it bw later". You could but it wasn't very good.

  • Paul January 18, 2013 05:44 am

    Thanks very much for your tips. Ive tried the target-like circle that you pointed out for helping with B+W conversions and I really think it a hidden gem!

  • Alan January 18, 2013 04:03 am

    Applause, applause.
    Well written.

  • ED January 18, 2013 02:09 am

    Great article, never thought about it but you are right, the secret is to make sure you have true blacks. That makes all the difference. Thanks!

  • Mei Teng January 17, 2013 11:38 am

    Great set of tips. I am new to Lightroom. This post is really informative.Thanks for sharing.

  • Stephen Emlund January 17, 2013 03:53 am

    I primarily use Camera Raw instead of Lightroom, but the same BW options are available. When I first start using the black and white mix sliders, I was amazed at the results. I'll never do a simple de-saturation again.

  • desi Traveler January 17, 2013 01:20 am

    Thanks for such a useful post.. will experiment with some of the things you mentioned...

  • sandeep January 16, 2013 05:19 pm

    Hi Darlene, a very neat job.

  • Gary K January 16, 2013 01:17 pm

    Excellent tips thank you. I am certainly going to delve more deeply into the controls you mentioned before running off and buying the Silver EFex Pro 2 plugin.

  • Luca Gandolfo January 16, 2013 01:16 pm

    these are simple to remember and very useful tips, Darlene! Thanks for that, and for sure I will try them once the occasion will present itself [not so easy to pre-visualize in B&W though :) ]


  • Rick Mays January 16, 2013 01:01 pm


    I enjoyed the article and the work you did on your images....However, I completely disagree with your first recommendation. With today's digital cameras and PP options there is never a reason to ever shoot in B&W. If you are shooting in RAW format the color is still recorded. Much better for the camera to record everything possible for a beginner. Beginners often shoot in .jpg and cannot recover all that data if they shoot in BW on some consumer/prosumer model cameras.

  • Gaz January 16, 2013 10:52 am

    Thank you for this! Just when I was trying to figure that out

  • Darlene Hildebrandt January 16, 2013 09:13 am

    Hi Joe, you're welcome. Are you a Lightroom user?

  • Joe Gavin January 16, 2013 07:42 am

    Thank you for this.