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You won’t have to look far to find Lightroom tutorials that state you should have both a pure black and a pure white in your photos (before digital, I was taught the same thing, but applied to black and white prints). The idea that you need at least a little black and white in a photo is not new. The main reason is that they are like anchor points for the eye that make it easier to discern and appreciate all the tones in between.
Now, the advice has changed. There’s a trend for the matte look, in both color and black and white photography. Today I will show you how it works in monochrome, where it seems particularly effective.
The matte look emulates the look of a photo printed onto matte paper that doesn’t have dense blacks. The darkest tones in the photo come out gray rather than black.
Here’s a comparison so you can see the difference.
The matte effect works well when you have a dark background, or maybe even a pure black background. So the first task is to make the background darker. The best way to do so depends on the composition and content of your photo, but these are the key adjustments.
A: Increase contrast using the Contrast slider in the Basic panel. Most black and white photos benefit from an increase in contrast when you convert them from color. Make your adjustments using the Tone sliders in the Basic panel, not the Tone Curve panel, as we use curves later to create the matte look.
B: Use the Shadows slider in the Basic panel to make the darkest tones in the photo darker without affecting the highlights.
C: Use the Radial Filter to make the background darker. The Radial Filter is handy for portraits, but you may find that Graduated Filters or the Adjustment Brush are more useful in some situations.
Note: Adobe added the Radial Filter in Lightroom 5. If you have a Lightroom 4 or earlier you should use one of the other methods.
In this example I created a Radial Filter and moved the Exposure slider left all the way to -4.0 to make the background darker.
I deliberately removed all the detail from the background in preparation for the matte look. You don’t have to do this, you can retain detail if you like. It’s your choice.
Creating the matte look
The easiest way to create the matte look is to go to the Tone Curves panel and raise the bottom-left corner of the RGB curve upwards. This removes true black from the photo. The further you move it up, the stronger the effect. Judge it by eye, the best placement depends on the photo’s content and your personal taste. This is what the adjusted Tone Curve looks like.
This is the photo with the adjustment.
An alternative method is to click on the RGB curve three times (once where each line intersects it) and then lift the bottom left-corner. The result is a curve that looks something like this.
It creates a slightly different effect. The previous curve made the midtones and highlights slightly brighter. This one just affects the dark tones.
Here’s another example, this time with a photo where it wasn’t possible to make the background dark like the portrait I just showed you. The technique still works. I used this Tone Curve adjustment to limit the effect to the shadows.
This is the result. I was quite aggressive with the effect to make it easy for you to see the difference. You can apply it as subtly as you wish.
It also works with black and white landscape photography.
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