4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

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Some photographers use Photoshop for converting photos to black and white, others use plugins. But what you might not know is that you can create beautiful black and white images with Lightroom. The benefit of keeping your workflow within Lightroom is that it saves you a lot of hard drive space (as the only way to send a full-quality photo file to a plugin or to Photoshop is to convert it to a 16 bit TIFF).

The tips in this article will help you create beautiful black and white photos in Lightroom without Photoshop or an extra plugin!

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

1. Shoot Raw

The first tip is quick and simple. You need to use the Raw format to make the most out of your camera and for Lightroom to get the best out of your photo files. JPEG files have already been developed and compressed by the camera and don’t contain the information that Lightroom needs to make a good black and white conversion.

2. Learn to use the B&W tab

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom - B&W panel

The B&W tab is part of the HSL / Color / B&W panel. When you click on the B&W tab, Lightroom converts your photo to black and white. At the same time, it automatically adjusts the Black & White Mix sliders (see below) to the settings it thinks will give you the best black and white conversion.

As this is an automated process, it is quite likely that you’d like to take control and override the settings. But first, you need to know what the Black & White Mix sliders actually do. They work very simply and make the tones in your photo lighter or darker according to the underlying color.

The easiest way to explain this is with examples. The color photo below has a deep blue sky which would look great in black in white.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

When you click on the B&W tab Lightroom carries out an automatic conversion. This is what the photo looks like.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

And these are the Black & White Mix sliders as set by Lightroom.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

Tweak it a bit

The conversion looks good, but you can take control by moving the sliders yourself to see what happens. In this example, you could move the Blue slider left to make the sky darker, which would make the conversion even more dramatic. Or you could move it right to make the sky lighter and give a softer, more subtle conversion. It’s up to you.

You can see the difference when I move the Blue slider more to the left.

 

Here the blue sider is at -30.

Or move it to the right and the sky gets lighter: Blue + 25

Skin tones

The next example shows how the Orange slider makes a big difference to Caucasian skin tones. Here’s a portrait converted to black and white in Lightroom, with the Black & White Mix settings as chosen automatically by Lightroom.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

This is what happens when you move the Orange slider. To the left makes skin darker – to the right makes it lighter.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

Orange at -31. It makes the model’s skin darker and brings out its texture. If that is not desired – move the Orange slider to the right. 

Orange at 0.

Orange at +20

Experiment with the B&W Mix sliders to see the effect they have on your photos. Keep these points in mind as you do so:

  • The sliders always affect the underlying colors in the photo. If it helps to see the colors in your photo so you can understand which tones are affected by which sliders, click on the Color tab in the HSL / Color / B&W panel. Click the B&W tab again to return to black and white and your settings will not be lost.
  • The B&W panel is for subtle adjustments. If you move the sliders too far you’ll get strange effects like pixelation. Try not to go past +35 or -35.
  • If there are people in your photos pay attention to skin tones when adjusting the Red, Orange, or Yellow sliders. Zoom into 100% to double check your adjustments haven’t done anything odd to their skin tones.

3. Apply Clarity wisely

Clarity is a powerful adjustment that increases contrast, emphasizes texture, and adds punch to your black and white photos. But it needs to be used wisely in order to avoid an overcooked look. If you are new to Lightroom this can be hard to judge at first, but a good rule of thumb is to always add a little less Clarity than you think you need.

Another tip is that Clarity may be more effective when it’s applied locally. A good example of this is a photo taken with a prime lens at a wide aperture, with the subject in sharp focus and a blurred background. In this situation, it’s best to apply Clarity to the sharp areas using a local adjustment.

Let’s look at some examples. In the first, the entire scene is sharp. You can apply Clarity globally (using the slider in the Basic panel) to photos like these. Here, I set Clarity to +80 to emphasize the texture of the metal.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

In the second, I applied Clarity only to the cow’s head, but not to the blurred part of the photo, using the Adjustment Brush.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

This screenshot shows the mask created by the Adjustment Brush.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

4. Learn from Lightroom develop presets

Follow the tips in this article and you’ll have a good foundation for working in black and white in Lightroom. Now it’s time to get even more creative. There are lots of techniques you can use, from Tone Curve adjustments to Split Toning and manipulating contrast.

One of the best ways to learn these techniques is to download Develop Presets made by other photographers. These are helpful if you are new to black and white photography by giving you a quick and easy way to convert your photos to black and white without paying too much attention to the details.

But you can also learn a great deal from those presets by analyzing the settings used. Go into all the Develop module panels and see what the photographer has done. For example, I developed the photo below using a preset.

Black & white in Lightroom

One of its characteristics is that there are no true black tones in the photo. This is confirmed by the gap on the left side of the histogram.

4 Tips For Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

How has this been achieved? The answer is in the Tone Curve panel. The creator of the preset lifted the left-side of the Tone Curve up, which gives the effect seen in the photo.

Black & white in Lightroom

Conclusion

Lightroom is a powerful tool for black and white conversions and you’ll be amazed at what it can do when you learn how to use it properly. The tips and techniques in this article will get you started. If you have any questions about this then please let us know in the comments!


SuperBlack Presets for Lightroom

Want to get a head start with black and white? Take a look at my SuperBlack Presets for Lightroom, developed to help photographers like you create powerful black and white photos in Lightroom.

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He's written over 25 popular photography ebooks and is the creator of the Lightroom Secrets Email Course, open now for enrollment for a limited time. Download his Composition PhotoTips Cards now for free!

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