Black & White Lesson 4: How To Develop Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom

Black & White Lesson 4: How To Develop Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom


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In this lesson we’re going to explore some of the techniques you can use to create more powerful black and white photos in Lightroom. Of course, it’s impossible to cover every aspect in a single lesson, but what we can do is help you master the two techniques that will make the biggest difference to your black and white conversions.

At the end of the lesson we’ve also added links to other articles on our website that will help you learn more about creating black and white photos in Lightroom.

If you missed the first three lessons in our mini black and white photography course you can catch up on them here:


Black & White Lesson 1: How To Appreciate Black And White Photography

Black & White Lesson 2: Two Black And White Photography Tips For Beginners

Black & White Lesson 3: Do You Make These Common Black And White Photography Mistakes?


Why use Lightroom for developing black and white photos?

The benefit of keeping your workflow within Lightroom is that it saves you a lot of hard drive space (as the only way to send a full-quality photo file to a plugin or to Photoshop is to convert it to a 16 bit TIFF).

As mentioned in the earlier lessons you may want to use a black and white plugin to develop your photos using tools that aren’t available in Lightroom. For example, many photographers use Silver Efex Pro 2 because they like its local adjustment tools and Structure sliders. But first, it’s a good idea to learn what you can do in Lightroom, so that you can compare it with what plugins do.

The tips in this lesson will help you do that.

Tip #1: Learn to use the B&W tab in Lightroom

The B&W Panel gives you direct control over the way colors are translated into gray tones by Lightroom.

If you have Lightroom Classic CC 7.3 or newer then the B&W panel appears when you set Treatment to Black & White in the Basic panel.

B&W panel in Lightroom

In older versions of Lightroom it’s part of the HSL / Color / B&W panel.

B&W panel in Lightroom

Let’s take a closer look at what the sliders in the B&W panel are for. You may remember the photo of the old wooden boats from Lesson 2. I used Lightroom to make the boats lighter so that there was more contrast with the background.

This is what the photo looks like with Treatment set to Black & White and all the sliders zeroed. At this setting, Lightroom applies a straight black and white conversion. As you can see, the photo lacks contrast and the boats have a similar gray tone to the background.

Black and white in Lightroom

This is what the photo looks like with some simple adjustments made using the sliders in the B&W panel.

Black and white in Lightroom

Now Lightroom is interpreting the colors differently.

• The orange and yellow paintwork on the boats is light gray rather than mid-gray.

• The grass in the background is dark gray rather than mid-gray.

As you can see, it’s a dramatic difference.

The Targeted Adjustment Tool

I made the adjustments using the Targeted Adjustment Tool. To use it click on the target icon in the top left corner of the B&W panel.

B&W panel in Lightroom

Move the cursor over the part of the photo that you want to adjust. You’ll see a double triangle icon that indicates the TAT is in use.

Black and white in Lightroom

Hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse downwards to make the tones under the cursor darker, or upwards to make them lighter. The relevant sliders in the B&W panel change value as you do so.

In this case I used the Targeted Adjustment Tool twice. Once on the boat’s paintwork, dragging up to make it lighter. Again on the grass in the background, dragging down to make them darker.

Here you can see the difference in the slider settings after making the adjustment.

Lightroom B&W panels

What the Targeted Adjustment Tool does

The Targeted Adjustment Tool analyzes the colors under the cursor and then moves the sliders corresponding to those colors either left to make those tones darker or right to make them lighter. It normally needs to adjust at least two sliders to do it accurately.

You can also move the sliders individually yourself, but bear in mind it’s not as precise as using the Targeted Adjustment Tool.

You can apply this technique to nearly any black and white photo to add tonal contrast and make it more exciting.

Some more things you need to know about the B&W panel:

• Depending on which version of Lightroom you have, it may automatically adjust the Black & White Mix sliders to the settings it thinks will give you the best black and white conversion.

• You can also click the Auto button to see what settings Lightroom thinks is best for your photo.

• Always remember that the sliders always affect the underlying colors in the photo. If may help to see the colors in your photo so you can understand which tones are affected by which sliders. Use the V keyboard shortcut to see the photo in color, and press it again to return to black and white.

• The B&W panel is for subtle adjustments. If you move the sliders too far you’ll get strange effects like pixelation. If go past +30 or -30 you should always zoom into 100% and check that there’s nothing odd going on with the tones.

• If there are people in your photos pay attention to skin tones when adjusting the Red, Orange, or Yellow sliders. Again it’s a good idea to zoom into 100% to double-check everything’s okay.

Tip #2: Elevate your black and white photos with local adjustments in Lightroom

First, a couple of definitions.

Global adjustments: Any adjustments (to brightness, contrast etc.) that affect the entire image.

Local adjustments: Adjustments that affect only part of the photo.

The idea behind making local adjustments is that you can alter the brightness or contrast of certain areas in the frame to influence where the eye goes. This creates a better photo with a more structured composition.

It’s very rare that you’ll come across a black and white photo that can’t be improved using local adjustments. Lets look at a couple of examples so you can see how it works.

Example 1: A black and white portrait

For the first example I’m going to show you the portrait I used in Lesson 2.

Black and white in Lightroom

Here’s what it looks like without any local adjustments. Once again, there’s a dramatic difference between the two versions.

Black and white in Lightroom

Here’s a list of the local adjustments that I made.

• I used the Adjustment Brush to apply skin smoothing to the model’s skin and make the side facing the wall lighter.

• I used the Adjustment Brush to make part of the wall next to the model darker.

• I also used the Adjustment Brush to add Clarity to the sharp part of the wall to bring out the texture.

• I used a Graduated Filter to make the top-left part of the image darker.

Example 2: A black and white landscape photo

The second example is a landscape photo I made in northern Spain. Here’s the version with local adjustments.

Black and white in Lightroom

Here’s the version without local adjustments.

Black and white in Lightroom

Once again, there’s a big difference between the two photos. Here’s a list of the local adjustments I made.

• I used the Adjustment Brush to make the cliffs in the distance lighter and add Clarity to bring out their texture.

• I used a Graduated Filter to make the sky darker.

• I also used another Graduated Filter to make the foreground rocks darker.

In both examples, the local adjustments I made were fairly simple. For each photo I asked myself how I could emphasize interesting textures and enhance the tonal contrast of the photo. The answers to these questions helped me decide what local adjustments to make.

Further reading

Follow these two tips and you’ll see a big improvement in the quality of your black and white conversions. These other black and white tutorials on our website will also help.

How To Use The SuperBlack Presets For Lightroom

How To Create The Black & White Matte Look In Lightroom

How To Create Better Black & White Portraits With UltraBlack Develop Presets

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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