Intuitive B&W Conversions

Intuitive B&W Conversions

Try this simple step-by-step process for making beautiful monochrome images
Text And Photography By Michael Clark

A local gaucho with his horse, who happened upon the 2010 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race and stopped to check out the action on the island of Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.


1 ) The image as it was worked up in Lightroom 3, with the black-and-white settings dialed in via the Black&White and Basic dialogs in the Develop module.

Black-and-white photography seems to be more popular than ever in this digital era. And in my opinion, it has never been easier to make a professional-caliber black-and-white conversion, especially with the new, easy-to-use tools. I happen to use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and in this article, I’ll show you my step-by-step process with it.

Lightroom has a before and after mode that, along with the individual Black&White Mix sliders, allows you to see which colors each Black&White slider correlates to, giving specific control of each color channel and the resulting gray-scale toning of that color. To convert an image to black-and-white, click on the Black&White option at the top of the right Develop module in the Basic dialog box. Once you select Black&White, the Black&White Mixer dialog appears in the HSL/Color/B&W section, third down from the top. The Mixer shows up with Auto adjustments already made, but you can adjust the sliders individually to dial in the image. To access the before and after mode, click on the “X|Y” icon in the toolbar, which is the second icon from the left.

2 ) Before and after mode in the Develop module. This is just one of the four ways you can set up the before and after mode, which is a fantastic feature for converting images to black-and-white.

Also, don’t forget that you can adjust your exposure, curves, contrast and the amount of vignetting in the other dialog panels. In addition, the Targeted Adjustment tool allows you to adjust the tones directly on the image itself by clicking on that section and moving your mouse up or down. Just click on the icon consisting of concentric circles (it looks like a small target) located in the upper-left corner of the Black&White panel to grab the Targeted Adjustment tool. It’s a super-slick method for working directly on the image and one of the incredibly intuitive features in Lightroom. As you move your mouse up or down, the sliders also will move in the Black&White panel, as well.

To start off, I normally create a Virtual Copy of my image before converting to black-and-white so that I have both a color and a grayscale version of the image. Having both a color and black-and-white version helps me to see if the image works better in color or in black-and-white. Normally, I won’t know until I do the conversion and look at them both, side by side.

3 ) Before and after mode zoomed into the gaucho’s face to fine-tune the black-and-white conversion. To maximize detail and contrast on his face, Clark used the Clarity slider and localized adjustments.

For an example, let’s look at this image of a gaucho photographed during the 2010 Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race in southern Chile. Because it was overcast and stormy for much of the race, many of the images from that assignment lent themselves to black-and-white. In this image, the sky was pretty much blown out before I got started, so in black-and-white, I just let it go and cranked up the contrast. As usual, I used the before and after mode to adjust the Black&White sliders. For this image, there were a large variety of colors and hues that allowed me to accurately convert the image as I wanted it to look in black-and-white. And using the multiple views available in the before and after mode, I could concentrate on key parts of the image.

4 ) Clark finished the image in Photoshop by doing a bit of retouching on the hat and face, as well as adding some brightness and contrast and adjusting the Levels.

In my workflow, with both color and black-and-white images, I find that to effectively finalize an image I need to continue the postproduction in Adobe Photoshop once I export images out of Lightroom. I export images from Lightroom as 16-bit ProPhoto RGB color files at 300 ppi. Then in Photoshop, I can convert the files to grayscale, set the black and the white points in the image, make the final Levels adjustments and perfect the contrast with either the Curves dialog or with the Brightness/Contrast tool. And if an image needs it, I can extend the exposure latitude by masking and compositing different pieces of the image together. For this image of Francisco, all the image needed in Photoshop was a Levels adjustment, some precise cloning on the hat and a brightness/contrast adjustment.

Most images will be improved if there’s a part of the image that’s pure white and another part that has some pure black. Many of the images I choose to convert to black-and-white are images that in color have little contrast. Perhaps they were shot in the fog or on an overcast day. In either case, converting them to black-and-white allows me to really crank up the contrast and fashion the image in a way that may look a little strange in color, but works well in black-and-white.

Adventure-sports photographer Michael Clark is based in Santa Fe, N.M. This article is an excerpt from his comprehensive digital workflow e-book Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: A Professional Photographer’s Workflow, available at

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