Crafting A Monochrome Image

There are some excellent monochrome plug-ins for Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, but it’s not necessary to use these plug-ins to get great monochrome conversions; you just need the native controls.

While plug-ins like Google’s Nik Silver Efex Pro, ON1 Photo 10, Alien Skin Exposure 7, Tiffen Dfx v4, Macphun Tonality, Topaz B&W Effects, DxO Film Pack and VSCO (for mobile devices) are terrific postproduction tools, if you already have Lightroom and Photoshop, but don’t do a lot of monochrome work, they might be overkill. Depending on your goal and how much time you have, they do make it easier to create certain effects. But before spending cash on a plug-in, if you already have Lightroom (or any other raw-processing program with B&W presets) and Photoshop, you can go pretty far and get excellent results.

We’ll look at Lightroom’s tools here, but Photoshop has the same toolset, just in different locations. Lightroom also has the ability to save and share presets, and while its presets are a great place to start, if you want to create your own custom preset library, start with one of the existing B&W Filter presets and play with the controls in Lightroom’s Develop module, particularly the various settings in the Develop module’s Basic, Tone Curve, Black & White Mix and Camera Calibration’s Profile panels.

In Lightroom, I made seven virtual copies of the full-color original, applying Lightroom’s default settings for black-and-white conversions using Blue, Hi-Contrast Blue, Green, Orange, Red, Hi-Contrast Red and Yellow contrast filters, renaming the virtual copies to keep track (you can’t tell the players without a scorecard). All eight versions were then opened in Photoshop CC 2015.

For this portrait, because of the way the yellow filter interpreted the sky, I started my layer cake with that version as the background layer, but used the red version for my subject’s face and the green version for her shirt collar.

I added the red version as Layer 1, but renamed the layer so I could keep track of what I was doing. The next step was to add a mask to this layer. To make the layers below it invisible, hold down the Alt/Option key to make the layer black. The next step was painting on the mask with a white brush on the areas where I wanted the effect of the red filter to show. You don’t have to use white when painting on a mask, by the way; any shade of neutral gray will do, but the darker the gray, the less the effect of the layer will be. This can be useful when you want to blend the effect with the surrounding area. It’s also worth experimenting with various Layer blend modes and the opacity slider for the layer you’re working on. In this case, I decided the most natural look was using Normal blend mode, but lowered the layer’s opacity to 81%.

For the third layer, the collar area, I chose the green filtered version, created a black mask for it, and then painted over the collar area with a neutral gray brush; the fastest way to do this is to set brightness in the HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) at 50% for each red, green and blue channel at 128. I set the fill to 33% and chose Linear Light as the blending mode.

Looking at the image now, I decided that a small hole in the clouds in the lower-left corner was a bit too obtrusive, so I went back to the red layer and, once again choosing a white brush, painted over it to tone it down. I also wasn’t totally happy with the way my subject’s hair on her left shoulder looked, so staying in the red layer’s mask, I switched the brush to 50% Brightness and painted in the mask over that area and then refined the effect with the brush at 25%.

The only logic behind all of these choices is going by what my eyes told me looked best while I was experimenting. All told, it took only about 10 minutes of work to get the black-and-white version to look the way I visualized it: preserving the girl’s bright energy and happiness, capturing the quality of the late-afternoon light, and translating the soft drama of the sky and clouds behind her.

It’s easy to make monochrome images right inside of Lightroom. You can save your adjustments as a preset and apply it in a single click, and you can share your preset with other Lightroom users. This provides tremendous power for occasional conversion work without needing to master additional plug-ins. 

Ellis Vener is an Atlanta-based commercial photographer. You can visit his website at ellisvener.com.

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