Post-processing tutorial #2: Converting to black and white in Lightroom

06 February 2016

More in this series:

Black and white photography can be extremely powerful. By taking colour away from an image, we remove a variable and thus shift more focus onto shapes, composition and lighting which can lead to dramatic changes in a shot’s overall mood. There’s a reason a lot of street photography is in black and white: the photographers want us to focus on fewer elements, to easily see what they saw, without the distraction of perhaps undesirable colour information in a scene they have no control over.

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However, the fact that colours help our eyes differentiate between elements can be a good thing too, especially in busy compositions. When we convert an image to black and white, we need to ensure that separation between elements is maintained, or even enhanced; otherwise we’ll end up with a flat image that doesn’t draw our eye to its intended focal point.

Over the years I’ve tried many different methods to convert my shots to black and white. I won’t claim credit for coming up with all of them on my own, because they are mostly a combination of various tricks I picked up here and there, but hopefully having them here in one place gives you a good roundup of what’s available to experiment with. Mix and match, see what suits your workflow! Needless to say, always keep a colour backup of your image in case you or your client want it at any point.

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Before you start converting, I recommend making other edits to the image first, such as cloning/healing/liquifying or any other retouching required, in particular for portraiture, unless you’re 1000% sure you won’t want the shot in colour. Otherwise you’ll end up having to retouch it once in black and white, then again in colour if you change your mind!

Artistic considerations

Depending on your subject matter and theme, the type of conversion you’ll want can range from a soft, washed out look to a strong, grungy, high-contrast treatment. I’ll aim to demonstrate how to achieve something near both ends of the scale by using the techniques in this article, but some will work better for one type of conversion than the other. Again, you need to decide what your specific aim is for your image and go from there.

Important note about your monitor: you should calibrate your monitor properly for photo editing. It’s true that a lot of people will view your beautifully adjusted images on non-calibrated screens, and they won’t see 100% of your subtle adjustments, but you should still assume the best case scenario. My portrait clients all receive prints of their purchased images as well as the digitals, so I can ensure the print shows the true quality of the image as it was intended. I recommend viewing this tutorial on a calibrated screen as some of the adjustments may be subtle enough to be lost on a low quality laptop screen, for example.

Black and white the Lightroom way

Lightroom 5 became a big part of my workflow when it came for free with a new camera I purchased. Before that I’d only used Photoshop and Bridge. Now, I don’t leave Lightroom if I don’t have to, as it saves a lot of time and disk space compared to Photoshop. So for the first part we’ll focus on Lightroom, and in the next post I will go into more advanced Photoshop techniques.

Image 1: Clean portrait

We’ll be working with this studio portrait first. I’ve taken care of retouching blemishes in Photoshop, and brought the flattened PSD back into Lightroom. I could either take it further and adjust the colours, or… convert to black and white! In this case I felt that the green background didn’t add much to the image, and that the subject’s elegance and delicate hands would be enough of a focal point, with the added bonus of her darker skin tone. Darker skin can look amazing in black and white.

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First off, the obvious: move the Saturation slider to -100.

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This is the equivalent of a Desaturate command in Photoshop. It’s… OK, but a bit flat. We can do better!

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I’ve changed the linear RGB curve to a gentle S shape, by adding one point to the curve that brings up the lighter tones of the image, and one point that darkens the darker tones. This is exactly what I explain in the Curves tutorial too, so as you can see it is a big part of my workflow, and one that yields quick and obviously nice results.

This is a high contrast treatment, which is what I like for this type of shot, but let’s say you want a more faded, retro look.

Just bring up the end point of your S-curve a touch to make the black point lighter.

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Taking this one step further, sometimes it’s nice to add a slight tint to a black and white image to make it warmer or colder. Strictly speaking it won’t be black and white any more, but I’m talking about a very small adjustment, keeping it monochrome of course. Go into your all-powerful Curves again, this time selecting the Blue curve. Add a point near the middle of the curve to reduce the blues in the image, thus tinting it very slightly for a warmer feel.

It kind of still looks black and white at first glance, but I think the warmth makes a difference when you compare the two versions.

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Image 2: Busy street shot

As I mentioned above, busy street photos may need a slightly different approach to make them more dramatic. Let’s consider this image:

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What’s interesting about it is the kissing couple, and the smaller Pret a Manger sign in the background behind the trees (which means “ready to eat” in French). We’re not interested in what colour anything is, as it doesn’t add anything extra to the shot, and the green grass is vibrant enough to be distracting for no reason. The composition isn’t ideal but this is what I could get in that moment with that lens, so we have to work with that. I have already added a vignette – more on that later…

Let’s start by desaturating our image again.

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We’ve removed the colours so the shot is a bit more cohesive now, but just like the first example, it’s too flat for my liking – there are too many similar muddy greys and it’s not dramatic enough.

When you have the problem of having too many similar midtones, it’s a good idea to adjust the Clarity slider. It’s dangerous when you have a close-up of a face because it’ll make even minor blemishes or pores more obvious, but in this case it’s exactly what the image needs.

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Notice that we now have more light vs dark greys in the image compared to the muddiness before – this is good! You can experiment by upping the Contrast slider too, if the Clarity effect isn’t quite enough. Our image can get away with more contrast as well, let’s do it.

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Finally, to draw our eye towards the middle of the frame rather than the corners, we can add a slight vignette. To me this particular shot so obviously needed it that I did it before starting to capture all the steps here for you guys… but see below for the difference! This is a matter of taste and I know there’s a large number of photographers who despise vignettes, but I feel that if done right it can enhance a busy shot by removing some corner/edge distractions.

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Now that we have made all our other edits, consider the final version vs an un-vignetted version. You may prefer the one without the vignette, that’s up to you, but know that the option is there. If you’re new to vignettes, less is more; add one, then come back to the image a few hours later with a fresh eye to check you haven’t gone overboard.

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Summary

As you can see, it’s really simple to take a few more steps to polish a shot, instead of pushing the Saturation slider to -100 and leaving it at that. The core tools we’re used are: Contrast, Clarity and Curves, with the Post-crop Vignette as an optional extra for those who like the effect in certain situations.

Next up, we’ll look at some more advanced Photoshop techniques, including conversion of a portrait of a freckled subject – my favourite! 😉 Stay tuned!

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