Making Black & Whites in Lightroom

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom gives digital photographers the ability to make terrific black & white images from digital images captured in color. In fact I think the latest round of this software (and also Adobe Camera Raw's recent updates) gives photographers the ability to make more interesting B&W images than could be made with film.

I should start by saying that I was a die-hard film user well in to the digital age. Additionally, in my role as Photo Editor I didn't actually learn much about photoshop and the potential for working with digital images, so once I began shooting on my own after bailing out of newspapers I had a huge learning curve to tackle. All my history up until, oh, 2004 was with film, and any of you who remember the disaster-that-was-Panalure can stipulate that about any time you wanted to turn a nice color image into a B&W print you were pretty much sacrificing a lot of tonality and hoping that the content alone carried the image (which, it could be argued, it should in any case). For those of us who were shooting transparencies — or "slides," as we used to call them — the thought of throwing away all that nicely saturated Fujichrome hue was a painful choice reluctantly made.

Now I have probably 400 rolls of film chilling in my basement, silently marching toward their "best by" dates, because I've become convinced that I can get exceptional quality from digital capture, both in color and B&W. And Lightroom makes it easy and quick. Watch my ebay listings for that film.

Here are a few reasons why I think Lightroom is so neat for doing this. Let me start with a very fun shoot I had with Kirsten & Henry, a great couple whose wedding I shot some weeks after doing this engagement portrait session. H&K like to hang out on his boat in the Chesapeake Bay most of their weekend days when the weather is warm, and we spent about two hours zipping around at about 20-30 knots on relatively calm waters. Going the extra mile, Kirsten bought a white cocktail dress that could pass for a wedding gown and Henry put on a nice dark suit (and his favorite watch) to give it a bit of a "James Bond" movie look.

Shooting with a Fuji S5, this shot takes advantage of the camera's ability to shoot at very high shutter speeds when coupled with Nikon SB-800 speedlights. I wanted a dark sky on an otherwise very bright day, so these photos are shot at 1/3200th of a second at f/4.5. One SB-800, acting as the "master" flash, is handheld off-camera with a ttl cord, and the other is clamped to the boat and was in "remote" mode. Both flashes were gelled with CTO (might have been 1/2 gels, I don't remember) to warm up the couple compared to the rest of the image. Since I'm underexposing the ambient at ISO 100 I had the flashes set to make the couple brighter than the surrounding scene.

Now, I think this looks mucho fantastico (technical photo term there) in color, although it is desaturated quite a bit on this post. But this image does give me a chance to show the potential for making nice B&W images in Lightroom. Taking this same image in to the Develop Module, I clicked on the "grayscale" option. In my preferences I have the "apply auto tone adjustments" option deselected, because normally I don't like the way Lightroom applies their auto adjustments, but in this first case I've decided to manually click the "Auto-Adjust" button under the greyscale sliders. It does a fine job on this image, though it seems to take a bit of drama out of the scene.

One fact I didn't know until very recently is that Lightroom picks the grayscale values based on the White Balance, so as a starting point in grayscale conversion you can adjust both the temperature and tint to get your image in to the ballpark. In the color version, and this first B&W, my white balance was around 5000 degrees with the tint at -6.

Another reason I don't rely on the auto settings is that you can do some really interesting things once you decide to take matters in to your own hands. Those sliders let you make adjustments that you could never do in the darkroom and until recently couldn't do in Photoshop either, or at least without a lot of work.

In the photo below I've been able to brighten their skin tones by increasing the luminosity of the Orange color range (drag the slider to the right into positive territory) and darkening the sky by reducing the luminosity of the blue and green range. The beauty of being able to do this with an RGB digital image as opposed to an image captured on B&W film is that you're working with the luminosity of different colors that may superficially look to be about the same brightness in B&W. That is, their faces and the sky are pretty close, tonally, in B&W before you start making any changes. So if I wanted to lighten their faces in a traditional curves or levels adjustment in Photoshop, I'd also be lightening the sky and anything else that was close to that brightness range (unless I had selected them first, which would be a pain in the boat.) Using the sliders in Lightroom, skin tones that fall in to the Orange range don't get adjusted in the same way as the blue sky tones. Check it out:

Sweet! But Lightroom lets you do some tricks that are even more dramatic, if you can fool the program in to thinking it's working with a color image. How do you do that? Go in to the HSL panel and pull all the Saturation sliders to the far left so they all read "-100." This opens up a whole world of options.

In this way, you can still adjust the luminosity of the various color ranges, but you can also use the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in the top pane of the Develop tools to boost the intensity of some of the color ranges. And you can go in to the Camera Calibration pane to adjust the Red, Green and Blue Hue and Saturation for even more dramatic results. In this last photo I've made adjustments in all those areas, and I've also cranked down the white balance to 2000 degrees and moved the tint slider to -145.

Toss in the ability to tack on your standard Exposure, Fill, Black and Highlight Recovery adjustments as well as Curves, and you can do some really interesting things with your images.

Are these options producing "better" black and whites than what film gave us? That's not for me to say. But Adobe has given us some very powerful tools to make "interesting" monochrome images that were pretty hard to produce before. I spent years in the darkroom getting developer stains on my shirts, but I never got to where I could make a print like Edward Weston. Now, working digitally with Lightroom and the other tools at my disposal, I am able to produce some mighty satisfying images.

You can see my favorite images from this shoot here.

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