The Many Shades of Black & White

Even though it has been many years since I developed that very first roll of b&w film, I can still remember the fascination and excitement I felt when I saw the image slowly came to view — as I gently swirl the tray of developing solution. While I truly miss this development process of old school photography — in addition to the complex challenges of working in a red light darkroom; I discovered creating b&w images using today’s sophisticated darkroom software definitely has a lot of advantages over the old school — though not without it’s own challenges. In fact, I think because of the software’s capabilities, it’s more difficult to achieve good results without having some understanding of the basic principles of black and white photography. Perhaps it’s my fine arts background, but I find that processing b&w photography is like creating a pencil drawing; besides the composition, you need to keep your mind on the light and dark, but also the gradual shades of gray in between.

Today’s post, I thought I would share my “darkroom secrets” and demonstrate how I turn a color image into black & white using Adobe Lightroom3.

This is the original straight out of the camera image. ISO: 200; 250mm; f/6.3; 1/400 sec. Before you begin, create a virtual copy of the image you want to process. That way, you always have the original as a reference.

Step 1: Crop and convert color image into b&w

Usually, I try to compose and shoot an image while in camera instead of cropping during processing. However, for this image; the extra space on the top and bottom seems more distracting. By cropping the image to 1×1, the composition focus more on bright lights, the grapes and surrounding texture.

Using the Lightroom presets: General – Grayscale, convert image into b&w. The preset gives me the basic adjustments and I can then start from there to make the necessary adjustments I need to get the result I want to achieve.

Once converted, I refer back to the color image to see the differences and values. I see that the b&w image lost the lights and warm glow from the sun. The grapes are too dark andΒ  also lack contrast.

Step 2: Adding light and contrast.

In the develop module, I made the following adjustments:

Tone Curve
Highlight +60
Lights +54

Below the Tone curve is the b&w mix section. This is where you can darken or lighten an area depending on the color of the area before conversion. To lighten and bring out the details of the grapes even more, I moved the red level to +50. This lightens the areas of the b&w that contains red. And if you want to darken then move the level to minus. This section gives you control over light and contrast based on color of the original image.

Black & White Mix
Red +50

While I think the overall tone is good, it still doesn’t quite have the sunlight glow feel to it. Also, I like to add color to my black and white. I know… but some images look better with some color toning to it rather than just shades of black & white. And this is where the split toning section comes in handy. However, do keep in mind when using split toning that the colors matches your subject and the environment you want to create. In this case, I chose green and brownish purple which compliments the subject and the tones are warm red and green rather than cold tones of the same hue — which would give you a totally different feel. I also find that by adding the tones at this step gives me better control in getting the correct lighting and contrast.

Step 3: Add split toning

Split Toning

highlights: hue = 102; saturation = 16
balance: 0
Shadows: hue = 12; saturation = 18

Once I added the tones, I noticed there are still some areas that need some additional highlight. This is when you want to use the brush tool for spot correction. A little bit goes a long way. It’s easier to add than wasting time erasing. Also, make sure to keep in mind the direction of the light. When you add too much light to areas that’s not possible in reality, it will look fake and unnatural.

Step 4: Spot correction and final adjustments

Brush Tool

Brightness: 25
Clarity: 100
Sharpness: 100
Brush Size: 3.6
Feather: 65
Flow: 100
Auto Mask: On
Density: 75

Once I’m done with the brush, I noticed the overall tone is still a little bit dark. In the basic development section, I increased the overall brightness to +64.

And that’s it! Hopefully you are able to understand my writing and that you find the information helpful. Please let me know if the steps are not clear or if you just have questions about Adobe Lightroom3. Email me anytime… I’m happy to share whatever knowledge I know about the software. πŸ™‚

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15 Comments on “The Many Shades of Black & White

  1. Excellent processing and explanation. I use to do B&W primarily in PS or Silver Efex. But lately I’ve been using LR more & more, especially for toning or adjusting lighting. Split tone panel totally rocks IMO, and you did an excellent job of showing how so in this one.

  2. Great post, and your process is much better thought out than my “play with the adjustment sliders until it looks right” technique.

    • Actually, I do the same when I’m experimenting. And I just keep track of what works and what doesn’t. When I do the right look, I just copy/paste the effects on photos that have similar values and tones.

  3. You have great knowledge and skill.I also like white and black photo. There are many things that I can learn from you.

  4. Very clear Emily. I never use Lightroom for this sort of thing. I only use LR for exposure corrections and white balance correction so I make sure I get the most out of my RAW files. Then it’s over to PS. Interesting to hear how you do it in LR.

    • It’s amazing what you can achieve in the Lightroom that would take longer in PS. I find that other than large spots, object removals, and special texture effects, you can do just about any kind of adjustments in Lightroom. Also, the brush in Lightroom allows you to do individual adjustment without having to use magic wand, tedious selecting, layers with PS. These are just some of the benefits. You should try editing in Lightroom… it just might surprise you. πŸ™‚

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