How to create the black and white matte look in Lightroom

How to Create the Black & White Matte Look in Lightroom

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.

Before and after portraits showing the black and white matte look created in Lightroom

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.

Using the Radial Filter in Lightroom to make the background of a portrait 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.

Creating the matte look with the Tone Curve in Lightroom

This is the photo with the adjustment.

A portrait with the matte look created in Lightroom

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.

Creating the matte look with the Tone Curve in Lightroom

It creates a slightly different effect. The previous curve made the midtones and highlights slightly brighter. This one just affects the dark tones.

A portrait with the matte look created in Lightroom

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.

Creating the matte look with the Tone Curve panel in Lightroom

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.

Before and after photos showing the black and white matte look created in Lightroom

It also works with black and white landscape photography.

Before and after black and white landscape photos showing matte look in Lightroom

Learn more: The Lightroom Landscape

Further reading

Read these tutorials to learn more about Lightroom.

Portrait Retouching in Lightroom with Sleeklens Develop Presets

The Single Most Important Setting in the Lightroom Develop Module

How to Emulate Instagram Filters in Lightroom

Create Better B&W Portraits with UltraBlack Lightroom Develop Presets

The next steps

If you’d like to learn more about Lightroom I suggest you sign up to our Introducing Lightroom free email course (see below).

Mastering Lightroom ebooks

You can also learn more about Lightroom with our Mastering Lightroom series of ebooks.

Mastering Lightroom books

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.


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