A Guide to Black and White Conversion in Lightroom

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Vintage, retro, moody, classic are all adjectives that might be used to describe black and white photographs. It may seem counter-intuitive in an age where cameras are lauded for their abilities to render colors and skin tones in super accurate or pleasing ways, to just go and eliminate all the colors in post-processing. Nevertheless, the timeless qualities of grayscale images continue to persist, and the alluring beauty shows no sign of subsiding.

A black and white architectural photo

Since most of us see in color, black and white images seem to be inherently abstract.

In Lightroom (LR), the transformation of a photo from color to black and white is simple – drag the Saturation slider all the way to the left. The end.

I’m only half-joking. Although this will drain all of the color from the photo, there are many other considerations to mull over, various entry points to begin the process, and an immense amount of control and fine-tuning to explore.

Image Selection

Naturally you will need to start with a photo, so the decision as to which photo is a good candidate to make the transformation to black and white is your first task.

There are a few characteristics in a photo that would make it qualify as a good candidate. Obviously any photo that has strong colors, which add strength or appeal may not make the cut. You would be doing yourself a disservice by taking a beautiful, saturated sunset shot only to rob it of its finest feature.

I prefer to convert photos which have a lot of repetitive detail, high contrast, or have an inherent look that would be accentuated by converting to black and white. Architectural shots work well, and sweeping landscapes with puffy clouds against a blue sky stretching off into the horizon can be dramatized tastefully.

Without any colors to lean on, black and white images must have other strengths. Your black and white images just may have to rely a tiny bit more on the subject, composition, emotion or lighting. This is a good thing. Thinking in black and white can help train your eye to look for other photographic strengths which will make your color images that much stronger as well.

Where to Start

In Lightroom there are several features built-in that enable you to control the look of your black and white images. Let’s take a look at their dedicated black and white converter.

LR-bw-conversion

The B&W sub-panel gets your images to grayscale in one click.

If you simply click on the B&W panel in the Develop module, LR converts the image to gray scale. The same thing can be accomplished at the top of the Basic panel where it says Treatment by selecting Black & White.

Note that when you do this the eight Black & White Mix sliders are all zeroed out. You may also note that there is a curious little oval-shaped Auto button hanging out underneath the sliders. What might this do? In case you didn’t guess, LR will use its own infinite wisdom to evaluate your image and adjust the color tones to what it thinks is appropriate. I’ve never clicked that button and said “wow” but you never know.

LR-bw-conversion-2

The Auto button adjusts tones as LR sees fit, but I find further editing is usually necessary.

If you like the settings that LR chooses for you with the Auto setting you can have it applied automatically every time you convert an image to black and white by navigating to Edit>Preferences and under the Presets tab, check the box that says: Apply auto mix when first converting to black and white, as shown below.

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You can have LR instantly apply its automatic black and white settings upon conversion by navigating to Edit>Preferences and checking the appropriate box.

Filters

Before you open Pandora’s Box and start dragging sliders all over the place, let’s see what other kind of shortcuts LR has to offer.

Within the Navigator panel is the handy Presets menu. The first three selections are dedicated black and white preset menus including Filter Presets, Presets and Toned Presets. The 25 presets found within these menus are pretty cool and are way more powerful one-click options than the Auto button.

A sample of LR's black and white filters

LR is loaded with 25 black and white presets to give you some quick conversion options.

The filters can also be used as jumping-off points from which to work in your editing endeavours.

Start with the Basics

I would like to preface this section with something to keep in mind when converting an image to black and white and processing it: LR edits that may appear to affect colors only, also effect tones and contrast in grayscale images. For example, although I never change them in my black and white processing, the White Balance and Tint sliders are active, and can be used to alter tones in your black and white photo.

The rest of the sliders, in both the Basic and Tone Curve panels, do the same for a black and white image as they do for a color one. You can be more zealous with contrast since there are no colors to be over/under saturated. I also find that the Clarity slider works especially well to tease out tons of detail in black and white images. Beware, however, that it can be unkind to wrinkles and blemishes in portraits, unless that is the look you are going for.

Simply increasing the Clarity on a black and white image can add a lot of drama. No other edits have been made to the above photo except increasing the Clarity to 100 per cent.

Simply increasing the Clarity on a black and white image can add a lot of drama. No other edits have been made to the above photo except increasing the Clarity to 100 per cent.

The HSL/Color/B&W Panel

I briefly touched on this earlier when mentioning the the Auto setting. So what happens when you start messing around with all of those sliders? Well, if you’re anything like me when I was fumbling my way through LR back in the day, you’ve already gone through and started indiscriminately throwing sliders all over the place.

What they do is increase or decrease the luminosity of the corresponding color in the original image, which is now represented in various shades of gray. If you’ve already applied one of LR’s black and white filters these sliders may not be zeroed out any longer.

In addition to adjusting the individual sliders, there is also a click and drag (target adjustment) tool similar to the one found in the Tone Curve panel, and it’s pretty sweet. Once you activate the tool, click on an area in your image and start dragging, you will notice that LR will not only adjust one slider, but will combine multiple sliders to pinpoint the tones you wish to adjust.

LR-bw-conversion-4

The Targeted Adjustment Tool (left arrow) works well to isolate colors to desaturate. Holding the Alt key presents you with the option to reset all the sliders at once to start fresh (arrow on the right) – this option is available in many of LR’s adjustment panels.

Another approach to this whole black and white post-processing thing can also be initiated in the HSL/Color/B&W panel. If you select HSL and choose the Saturation sub-panel, you will be presented with another set of eight color sliders.

These sliders provide you a quick and easy way to achieve selective color effects. You can start by dragging all of the sliders down to -100 and then add the colors you want to preserve. You also have a click and drag tool that works the same sort of magic as the one mentioned earlier.

You can also select the All sub-menu which reveals all of the Hue, Saturation and Luminance sliders. Adjusting the Luminance sliders gives you control over the brightness of individual colors now represented in black and white.

Utilizing the controls found within the Camera Calibration panel can give you similar, yet much more limited, control over your black and white tones.

Split Toning

If you’re looking to add a radical tint to your black and white images, the Split Toning panel is where you want to be. Okay, so it doesn’t have to be too radical but a little tinting can help alter the mood of your image.

The tool gives you control over the intensity of highlight and shadow tint colors, and the ability to balance the two however you wish. Subtle use of this effect can be a fantastic way to sneak a hint of color back into your photo, while still maintaining the charm of black and white.

Split Toning allows you to tint an image's highlights and shadows different colors.

Split Toning allows you to tint an image’s highlights and shadows different colors.

The Split Toning panel is also where you can apply, and fine-tune, sepia toning effects to get that warm antique look that gives images a grungy and elegant look at the same time.

As you have probably found out by this point, LR does a pretty thorough job at giving you a ton of control processing black and white images – from big global adjustments to small tweaks to tease out just the look you are going for. Don’t forget that you can get really creative by throwing the Adjustment Brush and Gradient tools into the mix, not to mention the plethora of plugins available on the market that give you even more options.

Have you been met with some success in black and white conversion with Lightroom? Show off your results in the comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Jeremie Schatz

is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

  • Christine

    I’ve been exploring black and white lately. Here’s one of my efforts, taken on Lake Winnipeg on a stormy day. I converted from colour to B&W using Lightroom. I usually try out some of the filters to see if I like any of them – if I do, I use that as a basis to mess around some more and fine-tweak it to what I want. Then I use the clarity slider to make things pop a bit more. And finish up with adding some split-toning and a bit of grain. I like the grainy look of old 400 ISO TRI-EX Kodak B&W film, which I used to use “back in the day”. For the split-toning, I try to use just a hint of tint – a little yellow/orange for the highlights and purple for the dark tones.

  • Jeremie

    Nice work! I like the aspect ratio too. Yes, seeing Tri-X style photos is definitely a throw back. I also shot tons and tons of it “back in the day” – buying it in bulk, loading canisters and developing in my home darkroom. How things have changed! Although LR does a pretty good job with B&W, I usually like to use Silver Efex Pro to really bring pics to the next level – you should try it out if you haven’t already.

  • Christine

    Thanks so much! 😀 Silver Efex Pro is on my shopping list – I’d love to try it! Unfortunately, my car needed a lot of work this year… :'( But I’m getting Silver Efex Pro as soon as I can this fall. I’ve always been told that’s the way to go for B&W.

    Yeah, I remember those old darkroom days – I’ve spent many an hour gassing myself in the spare bathroom or down in the basement, back when. I’ve still got the stuff, but I’m really hooked on digital now.

  • Jack Northington

    I liked the comparison of all the B&W presets on one screen. Is that a LR feature, or did you create that?

  • abrianna

    Low Angle Mushroom

  • Jeremie

    Yes, that can be accomplished in LR in the Print module. I created virtual copies, applied a different filter to each copy, select all and open the Print module. There are many different options for laying multiple images out on a page. Export as JPEG and you’re done.

    This article should help:
    https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-make-a-triptych-in-lightroom/

  • Jeremie

    Cool shot and nice lighting. I personally would have probably tilted the image to have the mushroom stem coming into the frame at 45-degree angle for a little more pizzazz and intrigue but that’s just my style. Did you have the camera rested on the ground?

  • abrianna

    Thank you. No I did not have the camera on the ground. I sat on the ground and held my camera close to the ground and used my tilt screen to frame the shot. I don’t use it often, but every so often it comes in handy.

    I would not have thought of tilting the image at an angle-will have to try that sometime-whenever it stops raining here.

  • Sidhant Raghuvanshi

    how about this?
    First attempt at b&w..

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