It’s easy to convert a digital image from color to black-and-white. The challenge is to do it well. Replicating the richness of silver-based black-and-white images is the ultimate goal, and while there are lots of options out there, there’s one ubiquitous photo management and RAW editing tool that’s full of straightforward, but powerful black-and-white tools. It’s Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, and it just may be the ideal one-stop shop for making black-and-white images, whether you’re looking for a beginner’s basic controls or something more robust that caters to the expert.
The first lesson is that there’s a big difference between simply turning an image into grayscale and converting the colors into ideal black-and-white tones. For instance, you could drag the saturation slider (in Lightroom’s Develop module) all the way to the left and, sure enough, you’ll have a black-and-white image. But to make a finer conversion and retain control over the process, you’ll be better served by clicking B&W in the HSL/Color/B&W tab of the Develop module. You’ll instantly see that the image has been converted to black-and-white, but you’ll also see controls for adjusting the black-and-white mix. These sliders are adjusted automatically upon conversion, which is perfect for a beginner who may not yet be comfortable with adjusting tonal values manually. The Auto button at the bottom of the window reflects this automatic setting, and it can always be re-clicked later to return to the baseline conversion.
If you’re looking for a bit of handholding, there are several presets for converting to black-and-white found under the Presets heading on the left side of the screen in the Develop module. The first set is B&W Filter Presets, and these will be especially familiar to film photographers who are used to using color filters on the lens when shooting black-and-white film. A red filter, for instance, lets red light pass through, but blocks blue values. It does the same thing in this preset form, as do the other filters: blue, green, infrared, orange, yellow and two high-contrast versions of red and blue.
If you’re familiar with traditional black-and-white filters, these will make a lot of sense. If not, just imagine that using a filter of a given color will make that color’s complements translate into darker gray tones. That’s why the red and the yellow filters are ideal for darkening blue skies—and are so common in the landscape photographer’s toolkit.
The next set of B&W Filter Presets is a little more general: high contrast, low contrast and variations (called “looks”) numbered one through five. Scrolling through them is a great way to quickly determine what sort of mix is best for a given image and its black-and-white conversion.
Lastly, the B&W Toned Presets offer a bunch of great options for adding subtle colors to black-and-white images—even a few split-toning options, which we’ll discuss later. Whichever preset you use, know that it will be different with every image, so you’re unlikely to discover a one-size-fits-all solution for black-and-white conversions.