In this article, you’ll see a few different ways to interpret and get creative with black and white photos using Lightroom Classic.
One of the central ideas in my latest ebook, Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book Four – Black & White, is that you should always use the Raw format because it lets you make more than one interpretation of a photo.
“The negative is the score and the print the performance.”Ansel Adams
The same applies to digital photos. Raw files contain all the information captured by your camera’s sensor. That in turn lets you push Lightroom Classic’s sliders further and make deeper adjustments using the various Develop module sliders and settings.
Following are three examples of different subjects and how they can be approached in black and white.
Example #1 – Fruit
Let me give you an example. Here’s a color photo that I made last month.
It has a strong, simple composition, tonal contrast, and lots of lovely detail to enhance. In other words, it’s perfect for black and white!
Below is the first interpretation I made from that image. I went for high contrast, which I got by choosing the B&W 04 profile (in the Lightroom camera profiles section) and adjusting the Highlights and Shadows sliders in the Basic panel.
I also applied Clarity using the Adjustment Brush to just the fruit to make it stand out and enhance the texture.
Then I darkened the plastic tray on the left using the same tool. You can see the masks for these local adjustments on the fruit above, and the plastic tray below.
Related: The Upside-Down Trick – a Photography Hack to Help You Make Better Images
Once you’ve done a good basic black and white conversion, think about what else you can do to enhance it.
Here I tried a different interpretation. I selected a different profile (B&W 08) and made the entire photo darker to give it a kind of low-key look. Here’s the result.
Then I tried something a bit more out there, just for fun.
My aim was to create the effect you get from developing a paper print in lith developer in a chemical darkroom. To get the following look, I increased the Clarity and Texture sliders in the Basic panel, added grain in the Effects panel, and applied a split tone in the Color Grading panel.
Here’s the result.
As you can see in the images above, that’s three very different results that were created from the same Raw file.
This shows what you can do with a little bit of playfulness and experimentation. Look at all the tools inside Lightroom Classic and ask yourself this question, “How else can I enhance this image and punch it up?”
Example #2 – Portrait
Let’s look at another example. Here’s a color portrait that I took of a friend a few years ago.
It’s another photo with a strong, simple composition, and lots of texture. Portraiture in particular is a subject that is open to creative interpretation. These elements make it ideal for a black and white conversion.
Once again, start with the basics. Here I selected the B&W 03 profile, then adjusted the Tone sliders in the Basic panel, and finally added a slight vignette in the Effects panel. This is the result.
Then I thought it would be interesting to see if I could make the background darker. This was a simple adjustment that was easily done with the Radial filter, but it made a huge difference and gave me a new interpretation.
This is the mask created by the Radial Filter (below).
Add some style
Next, I thought I’d get creative and go for a kind of modern, gritty look. I started by selecting the B&W 11 profile.
Then I used the Adjustment Brush to apply Clarity and Texture to the model’s clothes, especially the imitation fur surrounding her face. The local adjustment is important here because I didn’t want to apply Clarity or Texture to her face (not flattering for people).
This is the mask created by the Adjustment Brush (below).
Finally, Grain was added in the Effects panel and a split tone in the Color Grading panel. I also went back to the Radial filter and increased the exposure on the background a little to bring back detail. Here’s the result.
Example 3: Forbidden City
This final example is a photo that I made in the Forbidden City in Beijing. Below you see the original color version. The textures and glossiness of the statue also lend themselves well to black and white photography.
In converting this to a creative black and white photo, I started with the B&W 03 profile, then added Clarity and Texture to the lion using an Adjustment Brush. Here’s what the mask looks like – you can see how it only applies to the statue this way.
Below is the result after applying the Adjustment Brush and the b/w profile.
Next, I decided to try a low-key approach so I selected the B&W 05 profile to start The Exposure was then reduced and more Clarity and Texture were added to the lion. This is the result.
Finally, I decided to see what it would look like with a grittier feel, once again emulating the lith print look I created with the first example.
I selected the B&W 12 profile, increased Exposure to brighten the photo, added grain, then increased Clarity across the photo to get the gritty lith look. Here’s the result.
Hopefully, these examples help you understand that there’s no right or wrong way to do it when it comes to making black and white photos. It’s a process that involves experimentation and playing around. The more you do it, the more you’ll see patterns and a sense of style (and maybe even your own voice) start to emerge.
There are some important points I’d like to make about this creative process:
- I encourage you to explore the creative black and white profiles in Lightroom Classic’s Profile Browser. Many black and white photographers ignore them (you may not even know they are there if you haven’t looked) which is a shame because they help you make expressive black and white photos.
- Use Virtual Copies and Snapshots to keep track of the various different versions of your photos.
- You’ll get more out of the process if you enjoy it and take the chance to play and experiment. If an idea doesn’t work out, you can just discard it. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to create good/great images or serious pieces of artwork. You can decide what works afterward. To start, just play and see what happens.
- If you have an inkjet printer make some small prints of your favorite versions on good quality paper. Do your photos print well and can you live with them? This is what you’ll find out when you make prints. If you’re like me you’ll find it easier to be objective when looking at a print than an image on a computer monitor.
Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book Four – Black & White
You can learn more about making black and white photos in Lightroom Classic with my latest ebook, Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book Four – Black & White. It explores Lightroom Classic’s powerful tools and has 10 case studies that show you how to put the ideas into action.