Digital Darkroom; Black and White with Lightroom and Camera Raw

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves and editing colour with the HSL/Color panels. This week we can take all of these areas and apply them to create a basic Black and White image. If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

If you wish to watch the companion video for this post you can so here.

Editing in black and white in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw is quite simple; on the basic panel just change the treatment mode from colour to black and white in Lightroom and in Adobe Camera Raw go to the HSL panel and click Convert to Grayscale. When you do this some options are greyed out like Vibrance and Saturation. Curves still have three colour channels and in adjusting those like we did a few weeks ago will still change the colours but are translated into a grayscale tone. The HSL/ Color panel will switch automatically to black and white and has the same colour sliders to manipulate.

Black-and-white-pannelUsing The Black and White Panel

When I am editing in black and white I will start with the conversion and then move onto the basic adjustments. I do it this way so I can set the tone of the image before adjusting the light. When you have switched into the Black and White mode, Lightroom and Camera Raw will automatically create a black and white mix. To adjust this mix simply move the sliders or use the targeted adjustment tool directly on the image. While making adjustments keep an eye on halos and artefacts that can be created from pushing the colours too far, this is usually on the edges of objects. A black and white image can usually take a bit more abuse than a colour one and some sliders can be pushed right to the edge.
Making these adjustments is like developing a film to get a general tone. Once the film is developed you need to go to the darkroom and print.

black-and-white-basic-panelThe Basic Panel with Black and White

One of the things to remember about a Black and White image is that there needs to be a point of absolute black and white to stop the image form feeling flat. This can be accomplished in the basic adjustment panel using the white and black slider. You can also use the rest of the sliders to adjust the light tone of the image.

One setting which people don’t seem to play with when editing in Black and White is the White Balance. In adjusting this setting you can get some very different tones in an image. I will usually move the temp and tint sliders separately until I get the brightness in certain areas and even contrast that I desire, if nothing works I will reset it.
There is no guide to say what the colour temp will to an image as each image is different. Generally though adding more warmth will flood yellow and orange tones into a colour image, if your conversion has these tones as bright then the image should brighten in certain areas. If those tones are set to be dark the opposite will happen. The same goes for adding cool tones as well as adjusting tint.

Black-and-white-curvesAdjusting Contrast

The amount of contrast you add is up to you, traditionally faster film would have more contrast than slower films. I usually create a curve in the curve panels increasing the brightness and decreasing the shadows until I have an extreme contrast that works for the image. I then reduce the contrast in the basic panel. Working in this way lets me go to the max (with the curves) and then slowly reduce the effect. Midtone contrast can be adjusted with clarity. Clarity will help give the impression of sharpness and more detail as well as making the image pop; as with everything you don’t want too much of a good thing.
You can also intentionally move the black or white point up and down the y axis limiting the range of tones available and the dynamic range, this has the effect of softening the blacks or whites.

black-and-white-split-toningSplit Toning

When people thing about black and white it doesn’t mean just black and white, you can also add some colour to the image. This can be done with the split toning panel. I will be writing more about this panel in next weeks post.Split toning works by adding a colour to the highlights or the shadows and perhaps both. To select a colour you use the hue slider and to intensify the colour- saturation. The balance sider in the middle sets which tone will be more dominant in the split tone. When choosing colours they need to complement each other, for example blue and yellow or be Analogus colours (colours that are found in nature and sit next to each other on the colour wheel, also known as Tetradic or quadratic). You can also use cool or warm colours to convey a particular feeling. There is no rule that says you have to use two colours sometimes one is enough.
Personally I like subtle split toning where the colour adds depth to the image but doesn’t actually take over the whole image.
Finishing Touches

To finish of a black and white image you use effects panel to add a Vignette and/or grain

black-and-white-effectsA Vignette adds a dark or light tone area around the edge of the image.

Amount – dictates if the vignette is dark or light, as well as the strength. A negative setting is dark and a positive setting is Light.
Midpoint – sets how far the vignette goes into the image.
Roundness – Sets how round or square the vignette will be.
Feather – how smooth the transition will be from the tone of the vignette to the tone of the image.
Highlights – the brightness of highlights in the vignette

I usually go for a softer vignette with a lot of feathering and very round.

Grain is something I don’t usually add to an image, I like clean smooth tones. There are some instances when adding grain can give a nice aesthetic quality.

Amount – is how much grain will be in the image. More grain gives a gritty more grunge feel but can also work quite well if you want to replicate a faster film.
Size – how big the grain is and in turn how prominent it looks.
Roughness– this is a bit like texture.

Grain will always appear more prominent in smooth tones with a lack of detail.

You can also make more local adjustments to really add some pow to an image. These settings I will discuss in a future post.

When to use black and white?

The answer to this question is different for all. For me a good black and white image is one with texture and strong shapes. A Black and White image speaks through the contrast that will be highlighted through its texture and strong shapes help create focused image.

Tips and Ideas

Settings are unique to each image but there are some things you can do;

  • With landscapes darken blues to create black skies that replicate shooting with a red filter. This will help create drama and contrast in the sky.
  • If there are dark and light colours next to each other brighten the lighter colour to create some contrast.
  • Add split toning to add depth to the image and be subtle with its application. Perhaps create a copy of the image before applying split toning so you can look back at both images later and compare the effect.


Next week I will be looking at split toning and how it can be used not just in Black and White images but also with colour photos.

If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

Kryton Snoozing

ISO 800 90mm f/2.8 1/100 Edited in Lightroom with the settings in the post.

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17 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Black and White with Lightroom and Camera Raw

  1. Ben, this is an outstanding post. I have not post-processes B&W with this work flow. Instead, I process for color first and then take it into either Silver Efex or a combination of Color Efex followed by Silvef Efex. But I always feel like I’m cheating and would like to learn to create my own presets. Your tutorial has gone a long way in sending me down that road. Thanks so much!

    • My pleasure Stacy. I don’t like editing editing colour and then black and white because my eyes look at the two images in different way. This would be a good way to create a preset as you can set the tone with the Black and White Pannel and the curves as a preset and then use the basic panel to tweak the picture.

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