When it comes to black and white photography in Lightroom there are a number of mistakes that I see photographers make over and over.
Part of the problem is that it takes time to develop an eye for the subtleties of black and white photography. Interestingly, photographers used to make some these mistakes in the darkroom – some things don’t change!
Let’s look at the most common black and white mistakes photographers make so you can avoid them. Don’t feel too bad if you are making any of these errors. Consider it part of the learning process. You’ll learn to avoid these mistakes as your Lightroom skills improve.
Black and white photography mistake 1: Adding too much contrast
The first mistake that I see photographers make in Lightroom with black and white photos is adding too much contrast. It’s understandable why this happens. Black and white photos tend to look flat after a straight grayscale conversion. So you have to add at least a little contrast. But it’s easy to go too far and add too much, losing subtlety and detail in both shadows and highlights.
Here’s an example where I pushed the contrast too far. If you look closely you’ll see that the darkest tones in the photo – the man’s face, his turban, jacket and the door behind him – don’t have much detail.
Here’s the same photo with a more subtle application of contrast. Now you can see good detail in those areas.
Incidentally, photographers used to make this mistake in the darkroom way before Lightroom existed. In fact, I used to do it myself. It wasn’t until I had some conversations with somebody who was a good black and white printer, and saw some examples of his work, that I understood where I was going wrong.
It took me a while to appreciate the subtle tonalities of his prints. At first I thought they were flat. But then I realized his prints were mainly made up of gray tones, with a few pure blacks and pure whites. They were different from the prints dominated by lots of very dark and very light tones that I was producing.
A good example of where this applies is with portraits. It’s easy to over brighten portraits or add too much contrast in order to make the model’s skin white. But the correct tonality for most skin colors is in the range from light gray to dark gray (depending on the color of the model’s skin).
Compare the two portraits below. The first (left) has lots of subtle gray tones. The model’s skin is gray. Her hair is black, and there is separation from the background.
The second (right) has lots more contrast. The model’s face is lighter, and the background is darker. As a result her hair merges with the background and there isn’t much texture in her skin or hair.
Black and white photography mistake 2: Not knowing when to keep Clarity low
The main reason for adding Clarity to black and white photos is that it brings out texture and gives the subject a tactile quality. But it’s easy to add too much and overdo the effect.
A lot depends on the subject. For example, if you have a photo of a highly textured metal surface (such as the one below) then you might be able to push Clarity all the way up to 100 to bring out the textures without overdoing it. In this case, adding lots of Clarity can give the photo more impact.
Imagine a scale with subtlety at one end, and impact at the other. With any subject, it’s up to you to decide whereabouts on the scale you want to position your photo.
Subtle tones <—————————> Lots of drama and impact
For example, with portraits you often want to apply Clarity with a lighter touch, especially if your model is female. It’s conventional with portraits of women to go the other way and apply negative Clarity (via the skin smoothing preset) to retouch their skin, which is what I did with the portrait below
On the other hand portraits of men can be a lot of fun to convert to black and white because you can play around with Clarity to bring out textures in the skin and hair.
For some reason there’s a trend among wedding photographers to apply lots of Clarity to their photos. I get that your priorities are different if you’re developing hundreds or even thousands of photos, as wedding photographers often do, but this practice often brings out people’s wrinkles and skin blemishes and makes women look older than they really are. Avoid it if you can.
Another consideration is that Clarity is often more effective when applied locally rather than to the entire photo.
Black and white photography mistake 3: Over-sharpening
There are a number of problems that can arise if you over-sharpen your photos. The first is that they look kind of unnatural – a photographer will spot that they’ve been over-sharpened, and a non-photographer might think that something’s wrong, but not understand exactly what.
Another problem is that you lose subtle graduations between gray tones. In fact, the tones can pixelate and break apart, and lines (such as horizon lines) can end up looking like a row of pixels rather than a solid straight line.
The best thing to do with Sharpening (in my opinion) is to take the simple approach and leave the sliders at their default settings.
Let’s look at an example. Compare the two photos below. The first (left) was developed with Sharpening at the default settings. For the second (right) I set Sharpening to 150 and Radius to 100. Note that you should never set these sliders so high in real life. I did it to exaggerate the effect of over-sharpening so it’s easy for you to see.
Even so, it may not be immediately obvious at the size these photos are presented. But zoom into 100% and it’s a different story. You can see that over-sharpening has create a halo around the cross and added unwanted texture to the sky and stonework.
Black and white photography mistake 4: Pushing the B&W sliders too far
The sliders in the B&W panel give you control over the tones in your photo. For example, if you have a photo with a blue sky you can move the blues slider left to make it darker.
The problem comes when you move the sliders too far. There are a couple of things to look out for. One is halos around objects (similar to what you get with over-processed HDR images).
If you push the blues slider too far to the left to darken the sky, you’ll get a white halo along the horizon or along the edge of anything that covers the sky in the photo (see the enlargement below). If this happens, the only thing you can do is move the Blue slider to the right until the halo disappears.
There’s not a lot you can do about this – you just have to accept that there’s a limit to what you can do in Lightroom. You might also have to do more work in-camera, such as using a polarizing filter or graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky instead.
This applies to all the color sliders in the B&W panel, not just the Blues slider.
If there’s a common theme to these mistakes is that black and white photography is often subtle. If you get in the habit of using Lightroom’s tools with a light touch it usually results in a better black and white photo.
Don’t forget that it takes time to appreciate this. If you’ve become accustomed to applying lots of Clarity to your photos, for example, or adding lots of contrast, then you may need to recalibrate your eye and learn to appreciate the qualities of black and white photos with a subtler tonality.
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