HDR for Black and White: A Step By Step Guide

HDR for Black and White: A Step By Step Guide


Eckert_Example HDR B&W 1.jpg

A few months ago, DPS published an article I wrote entitled “How to See in Black and White.” That article had a small bonus section at the end, in which I talked about how useful HDR can be to the monochrome photographer – a fact that is initially somewhat counterintuitive, since HDR is stereotypically held to be all about garish, over-done colors and excessive haloing.

In fact, as I talked about in that previous article, HDR can be extremely useful in bringing out microtexture, enhancing the effect of light and shadow, and in creatively influencing the overall tone of the image. All of these things lend themselves immediately and powerfully to black and white photographs, making HDR another viable tool in the monochrome photographer’s arsenal.

That section of the article received many comments and questions. In particular, a lot of photographers were wondering about the “right” way to make a black and white HDR, given that there are, in fact, numerous possible paths you can take through the editing process to achieve the end result. With this article I will show you how I do it – my ‘recommended’ way – and also address a few alternative methods. I encourage you to experiment and discover which method works best for you, artistically, creatively, and economically.

My ‘Recommended’ Way to Create a Black and White HDR Image

Eckert_Example HDR B&W 2.jpg

I want to emphasize again, before we begin, that this is the workflow I currently use and recommend to others, but it isn’t necessarily the right way, or even the way some experts (including those who develop the HDR products I’ll talk about) recommend.

For this article I’ll be using Oloneo’s new and impressive PhotoEngine v1.0 for all of my HDR rendering. Every example photo in this article was tonemapped using Oloneo PhotoEngine v1.0. However, the same basic workflow steps apply regardless of which HDR software package you are using, be it HDRSoft’s Photomatix, Nik’s HDR Efex Pro, Photoshop’s own Merge to HDR Pro, or any of the many others.

First of all, I always shoot RAW. This allows me greater latitude and control of adjustments in post, and, when shooting bracketed shots for HDR, if there was too much movement in the frame I can use a single RAW shot to create a pseudo-HDR (by saving three different JPEGs from the same RAW, each with different exposure values – see the addendum at the end of this article for more).

When I have my three RAW files, taken via bracketed exposure (usually +/- 2 or 3 EV), I run each RAW through Photoshop’s Camera RAW, using a preset so each exposure receives identical treatment. I boost the clarity, contrast, sharpness (masked), and reduce noise, but I don’t alter the color, white balance, or exposure at this point. I then save off JPEGs from each RAW, usually just calling them 1, 2, and 3.

I then pull these three JPEGs into Oloneo PhotoEngine, and start the tonemapping process. With Oloneo, as with Photomatix and the others, I can create presets that are roughly setup according to my general preference (I like a more natural look to my HDR images, rather than overdone or excessively haloed). Oloneo allows for rapid tweaking with immediate feedback at a very detailed level, and I will often tweak whichever preset I chose to get the right look and feel.

At this point, if I know for sure I want to eventually end up with a black and white shot, I will tweak the tonemapping to enhance the textures, lighting, and depth of shadow. Essentially, I’m aiming for a color version that will work well in black and white. This will take practice and experimentation to get used to, but you can refer to my previous article on “How to See in Black and White” for more on this concept.

Once the image is tonemapped, I save it as a new JPEG. Some people prefer TIFF, for lossless quality, but after many back-to-back trials I personally can’t see any difference between a 100% quality JPEG and a TIFF file, and the JPEGs are much smaller files to work with. I then pull that JPEG into Photoshop.

In Photoshop I reduce the noise further, as necessary – most tonemapping introduces noise, because you are combining three images and noise is additive. I personally use Topaz’s noise reduction plugin for this, but any method you like should work. I generally then need to boost the contrast a little, and may need to use Content Aware to remove any dust specks that might not have shown up on one shot, but do now after the image has been tonemapped.

At this point I save the color JPEG. Then I create a duplicate layer and fire up Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2. This plugin is my favorite method of converting a color image into black and white – it simply provides an enormous range of options and precise levels of control, and really lets you achieve, artistically, what you have set out to achieve. That being said, you can use the Black and White adjustment layer in Photoshop, or Topaz’s black and white plugin, or just about any other color to black and white conversion method you prefer.

After playing with the image in Silver Efex Pro 2 (I generally select the “high structure, smooth” preset and then tweak it to my liking), I have my black and white image. I recommend at this point you try one more thing: since you have the black and white image on a duplicate layer, try reducing the opacity of that layer to 70% or so part of the color background layer shows through. This gives you a “desaturated” look that can be incredibly powerful for some shots, so much so that you may actually prefer it to the black and white you were going after.

If you like the black and white, set the layer opacity to 100%, merge down, and save and voila! you now have your black and white HDR image. This workflow required several different software packages and a fair amount of patience. The steps, broken down, are:

  1. Import each RAW into Camera RAW and use a preset on each, then save as separate JPEGs
  2. Pull each JPEG into your HDR rendering software, tonemap, then save as a new JPEG
  3. Pull the new JPEG into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, save the color JPEG
  4. Create an adjustment layer
  5. Run your favorite color to black and white conversion method
  6. Save off the black and white JPEG

These steps require the use of Photoshop (or GIMP, or their equivalent), an HDR tonemapping package, and, if you follow what I do, software for denoising the image and more software for changing the image to black and white. Basically:

  1. Photoshop (for Camera RAW and RAW processing, and cleanup of the HDR image)
  2. Oloneo PhotoEngine (for tonemapping and creating the HDR image)
  3. Topaz DeNoise (for noise removal)
  4. Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 (for black and white conversion)

There are simpler (and less expensive) ways.

Alternative Methods for Creating a Black and White HDR Image

Eckert_Example HDR B&W 3.jpg
Most HDR software packages, including Onoleo’s PhotoEngine, accept RAW files for processing bracketed shots and most have presets built in that will create black and white images for you right off the bat – no importing into Photoshop or another external black and white conversion plugin needed.

The steps are, obviously, much simpler:

  1. Import each RAW into your HDR software
  2. Use a black and white preset
  3. Tweak as necessary

Onoleo in particular makes this very easy, with a couple preset black and white options to choose from and then tweak. And the results are not bad at all. I personally prefer the sharper, clearer look and greater flexibility I get using my ‘recommended’ workflow, and the central drawback of this simpler workflow is you do not get a separate color version to play with (without processing again with a different preset, of course), nor can you easily create that interesting desaturated look I described above.

However, this method is much faster, which can be very important when you are processing a large number of shots on a tight schedule. It is also cheaper, since you could get away with only one piece of purchased software (your HDR rendering package). And if you wanted to do simple clean up or global edits, you could forego Photoshop or Lightroom in favor of open-source (and free) GIMP.

Another alternative workflow is a tweak on my ‘recommended’ workflow. In this version, you skip processing the RAW files in Camera RAW; the remaining steps are the same. So:

  1. Import each RAW into your HDR software
  2. Tonemap (in color) as you prefer and save as JPEG
  3. Pull the new JPEG into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, save the color JPEG
  4. Create an adjustment layer
  5. Run your favorite color to black and white conversion method
  6. Save off a black and white JPEG

This method saves time by not making you run through Camera RAW, and still lets you save off a separate color and/or desaturated version of the shot. It is also the method some of the developers of HDR software recommend using, since the RAW files contain the most information for the HDR rendering software to use. I have found, however, that Camera RAW (and other RAW processing software packages) have some of the best sharpening and denoising algorithms available, and as such I like using them from the start to get those clear, sharp results.

There is yet another workflow possible. In this one, you convert to black and white before you bring the images into your HDR software. This is doable but I don’t recommend it, because you are throwing away too much useful data too early in the workflow process. It’s my contention that you’re better off working in color, getting the most out of that color, and only converting to black and white at the end. But your mileage may vary.

The steps here would be:

  1. Import each RAW into Camera RAW and use a preset on each, then save as JPEG
  2. Convert each JPEG into a black and white using your preferred method of conversion – just make sure to use a preset and apply the same settings to each exposure
  3. Pull each JPEG into your HDR rendering software, tonemap, then save as a new JPEG
  4. Pull the new JPEG into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, save the black and white JPEG

Clearly, the big drawback here as well is you have no option to save a color tonemapped version of the image. For me that’s a deal breaker, but it’s worth trying this workflow to at least see if you end up preferring the end result.

Whatever method you end up choosing, the most important single factor is your happiness, creatively and artistically, with the fruits of all your labor. Experiment, try each way with the same set of bracketed shots, and figure out what you are most comfortable with. There are still other workflows possible, so try things out and have fun, and make it your own.

Addendum: Creating a Black and White HDR from a Single RAW File

Eckert_Example HDR B&W 4.jpg

An advantage of shooting in RAW is that you can, in post, manually alter the exposure value of the shot. This means you can save off three different JPEGs from the same shot that have different exposures, and then combine those in an HDR rendering package to tonemap and turn into an HDR shot.

Some people do not consider this “real” HDR, since you aren’t using truly different exposures; however, even if it’s just “fake” HDR, it can be extremely useful when you have a shot with a lot of movement in the frame and yet the lighting/shadows/etc would benefit from HDR. An example might be a dramatically lit crowd scene, where people are chanting and moving and therefore bracketed shots would be impossible to align. And, even when there isn’t movement to worry about, the end results of this “fake” HDR technique are often indistinguishable from a “real” HDR shot – I’ve tested this myself a couple times.

The steps would be as follows:

  1. Import the RAW file into Camera RAW and use your preset; save as JPEG 1
  2. Import the RAW file again, set the exposure to -2.00; save as JPEG 2
  3. Import the RAW file a third time, set the exposure to +2.00; save as JPEG 3
  4. Pull each JPEG into your HDR rendering software; manually set the correct exposure values if the software asks for them (because the JPEG data for each image will show the same exposure)
  5. Tonemap, then save as a new JPEG
  6. Pull the new JPEG into Photoshop, denoise and clean up, save the color JPEG
  7. Create an adjustment layer
  8. Run your favorite color to black and white conversion method
  9. Save off a black and white JPEG

Read more from our Post Production category

Joseph Eckert is an avid, self-taught photographer currently living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest with his wife, cute corgi, and two obnoxious but loveable cats. Read more reviews and musings on photography at Joseph Eckert Photography,

Some Older Comments

  • Kartik March 22, 2012 02:57 am

    I got some nice inspiration from this article. Here's another example of B/W HDR photography:


  • Wedding Photographer Perth February 14, 2012 09:12 pm

    Will have to try more HDR I seldom use it but love what can be achieved.

  • Michiel February 13, 2012 09:24 am

    Changed website sturcture.... This is the correct URL: http://www.michielhulst.com/bw/decomposing/
    (@Admin: the previous URL can be removed :))

  • Michiel January 21, 2012 10:49 am

    Great to see al your work. Personally I love B&W photography. Contrast and light is essential to make or break a photo. Looking at my own work I really like this picture:


  • anotherphotographynoob January 16, 2012 05:05 pm

    uhh, finally got to try it...

    went for contrasty look (and cheated with a single raw :()


  • Bob Carney January 10, 2012 01:51 pm

    Great find on the PhotoEngine v1.0. I'm digging that more so than SNS-HDR.

  • raghavendra January 7, 2012 05:20 pm

    black and white photographs are too good
    i took little flowers in black and white

  • anotherphotographynoob January 6, 2012 09:56 pm

    wauw . i definitely gotta try this ! super cool article and nice photos too !

  • Walt December 30, 2011 04:03 am

    I've interested in HDR for both color and B&W photography, but as someone else mentioned, my post-production skills are lacking. I'm also wondering about the best post-production tools to use in Linux (if such animals exist) and also what the learning curve might be. Thanks.

  • Jake December 24, 2011 02:07 am

    Since now I wasn't really sure about HDR photography. I did not like the look of many I saw, but with black and white pictures it is completely different.

    Here is my first try: http://usedglass.blogspot.com/2011/12/black-and-white-hdr.html

  • Luca December 23, 2011 11:25 am

    Great Work, I generqlly shot my HDR with Canon 5d mkII in raw, and even with my tiny poket Lumix, here are 2 example
    1st with Lumix 3 shot -1 1 +1 full auto http://flic.kr/p/aZokg8

    5d MK Ii 1 raw shot http://flic.kr/p/amHPP8

    Now with this tutorial I can make better picture!

  • Rex Boggs December 22, 2011 09:02 am

    Excellent, very comprehensive.

  • Luccas Ruzzon December 21, 2011 08:13 pm

    I usually don't comment here, but this is one of the best articles I have ever read here in DPS. Thanks a lot!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer December 21, 2011 04:33 pm

    Thank you Joseph for the very detailed process you use to first make your HDR images and then convert them to black & white. It makes me think I need to add steps to my own HDR workflow rather than importing RAWs into Aperture 3, having the standard presets apply, then exporting JPGs into Photomatix.

    I also use and love Silver Efex Pro (high structure filter is a favorite). I thought this HDR image of a binocular viewer was more appropriate in B&W:


    I also really like your Golden Gate Bridge shot in B&W, which provides a unique take on an oft photographed subject.

  • Kartik December 21, 2011 02:52 pm

    Excellent tutorial. I would still use TIFFs instead of JPEGs in the workflow as I can process it as quickly and the 16 bit tonal range is indispensable IMO.

    Here's my attempt at a B/W HDR. Hope you like it!


  • Nathan December 21, 2011 09:08 am

    To do with film: Expose the negative to get detail in the shadows. Shorten the development time to retain detail in the highlights. Find a base exposure for the print, dodge and burn to taste. HDR b/w photography has a long history.

  • af December 21, 2011 08:06 am

    It's really nice to see a tutorial that has had this much thought and planning go into it. I agree with Rick that it's one of the best we've seen here in a long time. Thanks to the author for going beyond a simple recipe and providing us with some reasons for the steps in the process.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck December 21, 2011 07:10 am


    HDR is fascinating if used in the right circumstances - moving to Monchrome adds yet another dimension of possibilities. I plan to convert one of my older Nikons to InfraRed and revisit The Salton Sea to recompose and shoot the fishy beach! Thanks for sharing your workflow and tips!



  • Fernando December 21, 2011 07:00 am

    Agreed with the comments above, this is a great Tut, and a helpful reminder that HDR and Black and White go very well together!
    Thanks for this post!

  • Rick December 21, 2011 02:24 am

    This is one of the better DPS tutorials in quite awhile. It's outstanding, in fact, and the accompanying images are of very high quality. I'll clip this and save it for later. As a guy who does a little HDR and monochrome, it's good to have some tools like this to improve my own work. Thanks for posting this. I look forward to putting it in action.

  • Maxime Gousse December 21, 2011 01:30 am

    I am not too much into HDR. One, I don't like the looks of it (for the most part) and two, I will admit, I do not have the PP skills required for it.

    HOWEVER, this B&W HDR looks GREAT and this post might just get me started.

  • Gary Hicken December 21, 2011 01:26 am

    As a fan of Ansel Adams I'm glad there is a digital method to achieve his Zone System. I think Black and White is much better for compressing or expanding exposures because the grey tones come out better than colors in color HDR. I've converted some of my HDR photos to b/w but I lack good noise removal software.


  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com December 21, 2011 01:17 am

    Wow this is brilliant! I've been trying to get into doing more black and white photography for some dramatic effect, especially in the type of photography I do.

    I do car photography for http://CustomPinoyRides.com

    I've had some successful shots, some using strobes, and I'm pretty happy with how the photos turned out. But what you said here just takes it to another level, and I believe I'd be able to improve my black and white photography further using HDR. Thanks for sharing!