Some people think converting to black and white is an easy way to make their photos look better. It’s true that the simplified color scheme can minimize distractions, but good black and white photography takes work. Most people don’t want to put up with the hassle, and stop after desaturating their images. But stopping there doesn’t take full advantage of your photo’s potential. Today, I’m going to walk you through my processes and hopefully show you how you can take your work a few steps further and make something great.
After I’ve imported a RAW image into Adobe Lightroom and made minor changes like lens correction and cropping, I switch the treatment (first option under the “Basic” section) to Black & White. I could desaturate the image but I don’t because this method doesn’t give you the option to change the color mix — and this is important. The Black & White Mix tool (located right after the “Curves” section) allows you to adjust the individual brightness of each color. Pull down the blues and watch your sky sink into a rich black. Boost the greens and watch trees take on a surreal infrared look. For this image, I decided to darken the yellows and oranges because it created a stronger contrast in the photo. Don’t be afraid to experiment to get the right mix. You can also make changes to the color temperature and tint to alter the way the original colors of the photo influence your final product.
When I was happy with the color mix, I jumped back to the Basic section to make global adjustments. I boosted the overall contrast and exposure. I created more dramatic contrast in the darker areas of the image by making the blacks deeper and shadows brighter. I also added a little clarity to bring out details across the photo. I liked where the image was going and I decided to switch over to curves to continue pushing more of the contrast towards the blacks. I created two control points on my curve. One to boost the shadow areas and one to keep the curve from pushing the highlights too far. Little changes make a big difference and it may take several tries to get the look you want. Remember, when it comes to curves, the steeper the angle the greater the contrast.
Once I had adjusted the curves to a place I liked, I created a vignette to darken the edges of the image and bring more visual weight to the center. Speaking of visual weight, now is a great time to talk about how black and white photos can change the rules about what draws the eye. Generally speaking, we will be drawn to unique elements in photos. One of the things that makes an element unique is it’s color. A single yellow taxi in a sea of blue cars will instantly grab your attention, but convert that image to black and white and some of the magic is lost. When color doesn’t matter, tone becomes even more important. If we process our image so the taxi is brighter and the other cars are darker it begins to stand out again. You could accomplish this in the color mixer but I prefer to use dodging and burning because it can be applied more selectively and because the adjustment brush lets you change more than just the exposure.
In this photo, I applied 11 separate adjustment brushes to fine tune the way viewers are drawn into it. First, I darkened the entire photo except for the tree by −0.50 stop. Then I increased the exposure of the tree by only 0.10 stop but also brought up the shadows by 20, increased the clarity by 20, and increased the sharpness by 18. I knew the tree’s roots were the strongest visual element in the photo and by using selective adjustments, I was able to make them stand out even more. In several places along the tree the highlights were nearly blown. In those areas I decreased the exposure and the highlights.
Because of the vignette, some of the detail on the main trunk of the tree on the right and in the wall carvings on the left was lost. I used the adjustment brush to increase the exposure in both of those areas. I also used the brush to brighten and slightly sharpen the large carved figure next to the windows. My final step was to apply a −4.00 stop brush to the supports in the window to hide them. This is the only time I used a brush greater than 0.50 of a stop in either direction. Adjustment brushes are powerful tools but they need to be used correctly. Too much dodging and burning can quickly ruin your image. If you do need to make a drastic change, I recommend using a large feather on your brush or using the Auto Mask feature so the changes are only applied to a specific object.
My final step was to give the photo a warm tone by going to the Split Toning section and setting the shadow hue to 54 and saturation to 15. I left the highlights uncolored and set the balance to zero.
The final image I created was significantly stronger than the image I had when I first converted to black and white. By adjusting the mix, contrast, curves, and tones of the image I was able to make something that was more visually appealing. These same techniques can be applied to any image you want to render in grayscale. You don’t need to follow the exact order I made adjustments in. In fact, I tend to switch between tools while I’m working to get the right look. Feel free to find a workflow that is right for you. Remember black and white photos get much of their appeal because they have the power to simplify the world. Keep that in mind as you think about how you want to draw viewers into your photos. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any question on black and white photography, I’m be happy to answer them.