Black and white photography can look incredible, especially after some careful post-processing. But how do you edit black and white photos? How do you go from a mediocre, flat image to a stunning final product?
In this article, I share plenty of tips and techniques for turning a standard photo into a masterpiece. I explain how to approach a black and white edit – and by the time you’re done reading, you’ll know exactly what to do for amazing results.
Let’s dive right in.
How to think about black and white editing
Not all photos look equally good in black and white. And not every black and white edit turns out great.
Because great B&W photos tend to include three key features, which I share below. I recommend you keep all three features in mind as you take photos, and I certainly encourage you to think about the features while editing.
Black and white photos are literally composed of tonal contrast. Which means that, if you want elements to stand out, you must make sure contrast is present.
A black and white photo with limited contrast appears flat, while a black and white photo with lots of contrast generally looks eye-catching and three-dimensional. And – generally speaking – eye-catching, three-dimensional photos are best!
So whenever you head out with your camera, if you plan to convert your photos to black and white, be sure to look for contrast. Find areas of dark and light; find interesting shadows and powerful highlights.
And then, when you start your black and white edit, make sure to maintain (or even increase) that contrast. It’s an easy way to create a punchy, impactful image.
For me, the presence of texture is what takes a black and white photo to the next level.
You see, texture provides variation in the tonal range, giving an image an added sense of three-dimensionality.
Plus, texture evokes a sense of touch, which makes the viewer feel more present and engaged.
When you’re out taking B&W photos, look for textures. They can be human-made or present in nature; the key is to make sure they’re clearly recorded by your camera.
Some textures that work well in black and white include dirt, stone, metal, and wood. Trees, water, and aged skin also translate well.
As you edit, you can bring out texture simply by boosting the contrast (see the previous section). But you can also increase texture by carefully increasing the Texture and/or Clarity sliders in your favorite post-processing program.
Composition is a fundamental part of every image, but black and white shots, in particular, rely heavily on compositional prowess.
Why? Well, in black and white, compositional arrangements tend to be more obvious. There’s no color to distract the viewer; instead, the underlying structure of the image is highly visible.
Composition, of course, starts in the field. If your camera has the option, I’d recommend setting your electronic viewfinder or Live View to Monochrome. It’ll let you see exactly how your photos look in black and white (and whether the composition holds up).
Additionally, when editing, you can enhance composition in a few different ways.
First, you can crop to emphasize different features and to remove unwanted distractions. I recommend you always consider possible crops before starting an edit, and while you don’t have to use a cropped photo, it’s often a good way to test out different compositional options.
I’d also recommend selective editing to enhance your compositions. For instance, you might darken lines that lead the eye into the background. And you might add a vignette around the edges of the frame to focus the viewer on the main subject.
How to edit black and white photos: step by step
As a digital photographer, you have two options:
You can shoot in color and convert to black and white later on, or you can set your camera to its Monochrome mode and shoot in black and white from the get-go. (Note that, assuming you shoot in RAW, you can always convert a black and white shot to a color image if you so desire.)
If you do decide to start in color, then the first step in your editing workflow should be a black and white conversion process:
Step 1: Convert your image to black and white
The simplest method to create a black and white shot is to desaturate all the colors. Just crank down that Saturation slider, then check out the result.
Sometimes, this method works very well. If you’re editing a high-contrast scene, you may not need to make any additional adjustments; just drop the Saturation, quickly evaluate your image, and you’re done.
However, if you desaturate your image and it doesn’t look as good as you had hoped, you have another option:
B&W color sliders.
Step 2: Access the black and white color sliders
Programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop offer a highly useful tool for black and white editing, one that allows you to adjust black and white tones based on individual colors.
Now, this may sound confusing. After all, black and white images possess no color at all.
But post-processing programs are able to access the original color information of a black and white file. And they can use the information to make tonal adjustments.
For instance, you can lighten or darken only the blues, or the purples, or the reds. The areas of the image that originally corresponded to your selected colors – prior to a black and white conversion – will change in response. If you photograph a mountain beneath a blue sky and then decrease the Blue slider, you’ll darken the sky; if you photograph a leaf on a rock and then increase the Green slider, you’ll brighten the leaf. Make sense?
In other words, this form of editing allows you to carefully adjust your black and white tones for the best results.
Here’s how it works:
In Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, select the Black & White option in the Basic panel:
Then simply scroll down until you find the B&W panel, where you’ll see all your color options:
Finally, make adjustments until you get a stunning result.
How do you do that? It’s all in the next step:
Step 3: Use the B&W panel to create contrast
Remember how I said that contrast is an essential part of great black and white photos?
Well, the B&W panel is great because it allows you to fine-tune contrast.
Instead of just adding general contrast via the Contrast slider, you get to work with different parts of the image to create plenty of beautiful tonal separation.
If you’re just starting out with the color sliders, you may be tempted to play around with the different options, and that’s fine. In fact, experimentation is a great way to learn the ins and outs of the adjustment.
However, once you’ve done a bit of experimenting, I recommend you take a measured approach.
Simply identify the main subject of your black and white photo…
…and adjust the color sliders to make that main subject stand out.
For instance, you can brighten up a yellow subject while darkening a green background. Or you can darken a green subject while brightening a blue background.
My boat image seemed a bit flat:
So I reduced several color sliders, knowing that the adjustment would make the boats pop off the background:
And that’s how I produced a contrasty final image, one that features clear separation between the subject and the background:
Of course, the color sliders are not the only way to create contrast in a black and white photo. But they offer very precise selective adjustments, and they’re a great way to make the subject contrast with the background, assuming the subject and the background are different hues.
If you’d like to test out other methods of adjusting black and white contrast, I encourage you to try the Lightroom Tone sliders (Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks). I also recommend you try the Tone Curve panel, which allows you to carefully target different tonal ranges in your image.
Step 4: Make additional adjustments to improve the photo
Once you’ve completed a successful black and white conversion, you don’t need to call it a day. You can use other editing tools to enhance the image further.
For instance, you can crop for a better composition (remember the importance of cropping?). You can use dodging and burning or Radial Gradients to selectively emphasize certain areas of the frame. And you can boost texture by increasing those Texture and Clarity sliders.
So have fun. Test out different options. And create some amazing photos!
How to edit black and white photos: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to edit your black and white photos for beautiful results.
Just remember to emphasize the contrast, and you’ll do great.
Now over to you:
What is your favorite method to convert color images to black and white? Which of these steps do you plan to use in your own workflow? Share your thoughts in the comments below!