One of the original dilemmas in digital photography concerns the creation of black-and-white imagery. In the analog era, many films and papers catered to making black-and-white photographs with nuanced tonal and contrast characteristics. But in the switch to digital, something changed and photographers—now faced with the prospect of converting color image files into black and white—struggled to find black-and-white conversion methods that delivered what those beloved films and papers had.
That struggle is sure to continue without end, but thankfully, with every passing year, there are more great options for converting color images to black and white. These days, when I want to make black-and-white photographs, I do it using Lightroom. Here are three easy and effective methods for using Lightroom to convert color photos into black and white, followed by the crucial feature for fine-tuning the look of each of them.
Treatment: Black & White
In Lightroom’s Develop module, at the top of the Basic panel, you’ll find the simplest and fastest method for converting to black and white. It’s labeled “Treatment” and it allows you to quickly switch from color to black and white (and back, should you so desire) by simply clicking on the Color or Black & White headings. Clicking Black & White here converts the image to grayscale by switching to the Adobe Monochrome image profile. It’s the one-touch conversion that’s the most likely starting place for photographers switching to black and white, and while it may look fine depending on the subject, it’s likely to require further fine-tuning using the Black & White Mix sliders found below the B&W heading a bit farther down in the Develop Module. More on them in a moment.
The next option for converting efficiently to black and white in Lightroom is the Profile Browser, which makes it easy to see the impact of different color profiles on the RAW image file with which you’re working. Not only can you choose from several one-click black-and-white profiles, there are also several color profiles at your disposal too.
To open the Profile Browser, click to the Develop module and look at the top of the Basic panel. Immediately below the Treatment heading is the Profile tab. By default, it shows the color profile the application added on import: Adobe Color. Clicking on the profile name itself reveals a dropdown menu with a handful of other color options, as well as Adobe Monochrome for basic black and white. But clicking on the four-rectangle icon to the right of the profile opens up the Profile Browser. Here, you’ll see thumbnail previews of the different looks, which can be adjusted larger or smaller. You can click All to view all of the available profiles, or Color to view just the color profiles, or B&W to see only black-and-white options.
Then, you can hover the mouse over the profile to see a preview on the image itself, or click to select the profile based on the thumbnails. You’ll also notice an Amount slider atop the Profile Browser, so the strength of a given profile can be dialed back. With black-and-white conversions, it doesn’t let the color show through but rather blends with a neutral default grayscale conversion. So if you like the bold look of the B&W 12 profile but you want it toned down a bit, just adjust it with that Amount slider. For full control and lots of adjustment options, however, you’ll want to use those B&W Mix settings, which I’ll address last, below.
The third option for black-and-white conversions is to use the one-click functionality of Lightroom Presets. Found in the Develop module but this time on the left side of the screen beneath the Navigator window by default. Opening the preview panel, you’ll see headings for Color, Creative and B&W. It’s this last group that we’re obviously interested in. Lightroom includes several presets by default, which can be used to add punch, create low-contrast images, approximate the look of infrared photography or even add subtle color to a black-and-white image via selenium and sepia toning or even split toning.
In any case, hovering the mouse over the name will preview each of the presets. Clicking one of them instantly converts the develop settings according to the preset. Because that’s what the preset is, after all: a Lightroom-specific combination of settings for everything from contrast and color mix to luminosity and shadow values. In this way, presets offer a quicker shortcut to manually dialing in develop settings. And because of the way they work, they can be applied to an image already converted to black and white via the Profile Browser.
It’s because these two conversion methods are fundamentally different. The Profile Browser changes the image profile, while the presets change develop settings—all those sliders found on the right side of the Develop module. Ultimately, though, it’s fine-tuning these adjustments via the black-and-white mix that gives photographers ultimate control over the tones in their images. And the mix can be modified no matter which one of these conversion methods you’ve used.
B&W Mix Controls
Finally, it’s time to dive into the aforementioned B&W mix. The third panel in the Develop module is labeled B&W for modifying the Black & White Mix with color sliders. In color mode, this heading reads HSL/Color for hue, saturation and lightness adjustments along with color balance. But once converted to black and white, the heading changes to B&W and the sliders are used for adjusting tonalities based on the original colors of the image.
For anyone who worked with black-and-white film back in the day, the concept is familiar. Adding a red filter to the taking lens, for instance, blocked most cyan (green and blue) light from entering and therefore rendered those tones—such as skies—darker on film. The same holds true here. Because the color information still exists in the RAW image file, Lightroom is able to modify the grayscale tones selectively based on the color information. In the example here, the red siding can be made lighter or darker based on dragging the red slider in the Black & White Mix.
This tool is what gives Lightroom its immense control in black-and-white conversions. Even if you don’t recall the original colors in the image or how they’ll impact the black-and-white mix, experimentation with the sliders is a quick and effective way to make wholesale changes to the grayscale tones in the scene. Of course, you can always make traditional adjustments to exposure and contrast in order to adjust the look, but it’s these individual color sliders that offer the utmost control for fine-tuning a black-and-white conversion.
It should be noted that there are two additional buttons in the Black & White Mix panel that can be immensely useful. First is the Auto button at the bottom of the panel. Clicking this asks Lightroom to analyze the image and make its best guess as to what will render the most appealing conversion. Like many automatic functions, sometimes it’s nearly perfect and other times it’s way off. But it’s worth a try as a single-click adjustment that can be easily undone.
The other helpful tool in Black & White Mix is represented by a little circle in the top left of the panel. Clicking on it activates the tool to allow you to adjust the black-and-white mix by clicking and dragging (up and down, left and right) on any tone in the photo. Even if you don’t know whether a tone was red or yellow or blue in the original, you can click on any portion of the image and tell Lightroom to adjust all of those original colors accordingly. It’s a really effective way to adjust tones in a powerful way and ensure your black-and-white images have the amount of pop and punch you’re looking for.