For a lot of photographers, converting from color is a simple, one-step process: They click the Lightroom “Black & White” button or the switch to grayscale in Photoshop. Simple and easy, done and done. But this doesn’t always produce the best results.
Sometimes one-click black-and-white conversions are simple and effective, but other times they’re just simple—leaving little to be desired, particularly when it comes to contrast. It’s awfully easy for a bland black-and-white conversion to leave an image drab when it was vibrant in color. This is because of the way imaging applications convert colors into grayscale. After all, the software has to decide with every individual color value which of several hundred gray tones is most appropriate. If it chooses poorly, you’re left with a muddy, low-contrast image. To fix this, you have to do a little bit of fine-tuning of the way the colors in the image are assigned to their new gray values. My favorite place to do this is in Lightroom, where along with adjustments to contrast, curves and clarity, I use the Black & White Mix controls in the Develop module to add pizzazz to my pictures. Here’s how.
Step one is to convert a RAW image from color to black and white in Lightroom by simply choosing the Black & White Treatment from the top of the Basic panel in the Develop module. That one click hides the color from the image, showing you just black and white and shades of gray.
From here, the black-and-white mix is adjusted farther down the Develop module under the B&W heading. Here, you’ll see the Black & White Mix panel, which displays eight different color sliders–one each for red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta. Click and drag one of these sliders to the right and you’ll lighten up the gray tones corresponding to that particular color in the original image file.
For instance, in a shot of a red rose, dragging the red slider to the right will lighten the gray tones that make up most of the rose petals, while dragging it to the left will darken them. For human faces and skin, the red and orange sliders will adjust lips, freckles and skin coloring, while the yellow slider is especially good for lightening or darkening blonde hair. You can see how adjusting a given color’s slider will add contrast to the black-and-white image by altering the way the conversions from color to black and white are handled.
Better yet are two additional tools found in that same Black & White Mix panel. At the bottom of the frame is a little oblong button containing the word Auto. Click it and Lightroom will make an automatic adjustment to the black-and-white conversion based on what it thinks will result in the most pleasing overall contrast.
My favorite way to adjust the Black & White Mix, however, is with the Targeted Adjustment Tool–the little bullseye-style circle in the top left of the Black & White Mix panel. Clicking once on this tool will activate it and then clicking and dragging on any tone in the image will adjust the black-and-white mix, as indicated by the corresponding slider’s movement right before your eyes. So even if you don’t know what color a particular gray tone corresponds to, you can simply click and drag on that tone in the image–dragging up to make it lighter or down to make it darker. It’s super simple and intuitive, and a great way to make targeted adjustments to the overall contrast of a black-and-white image.