B&W conversion in Lightroom

I recently received many questions from forum members on GetDPI and in private messages regarding my techniques in B&W conversion. So many that I got pretty overwhelmed. Then Amin Sabet asked me to write about it and post it on SeriousCompacts.com.

At first, I have been using many applications for image editing like Adobe Photoshop, Lightzone, and Apple Aperture, but I really love the ease of use and file handling in Adobe Lightroom. The handled methods in Lightroom can be used for any given photographs in Lightroom. Not only RAW files, but also jpegs (though with some restrictions because less bits per channel).


I have a total B&W working procedure from the photograph making to the post processing. I set up my camera in RAW mode and select the B&W setting. In my case, the Ricoh GX100 will save a B&W jpeg and an unprocessed RAW file. I import the RAW files in Adobe Lightroom with a B&W preset.

For me, I want contrast, dark shadows, textures, and dynamic skies in my B&W photographs. And the great thing is that you don’t even need to have huge dynamic range from a DSLR to achieve this.

When you are familiar with Adobe Lightroom you know that this application has a few modules. I will mainly restrict myself to the Develop module for processing my photographs. This tutorial is not about output, like slideshows, printing, and web publishing. And I am not going to describe how to import the photographs into Lightroom, or how to add keywords. It is only about how I convert my photographs.

OK, now hold on and wait. Don’t just press the “Grayscale” in the Treatment section of the Develop module. I never use that. We are going to do it differently. We want to make full use of all the sliders if necessary, but when you grayscale your photograph you will get less sliders to adjust your photograph. And, most importantly, you will much easier and earlier end up with a noisier photograph.

In the right pane of the Develop module we scroll down to the HSL panel (Hue/Saturation/Luminance). Make sure you select Saturation and drag all color channel sliders to the left at -100. We basically now did the same thing as the grayscale conversion, but we can still use the Luminance sliders for finer tonal adjustments.

We stop for a short moment now. The great thing about Lightroom is that you can save presets. And that is what we are going to do now instead of continuously dragging eight sliders to the left for each photograph. Make sure the left pane is visible and go to the Presets.

Hover your mouse over the “plus” sign Create preset and click on it. A new window will open to create a new develop preset. We name it “desaturate colors”. Select a folder to store your new preset, like the User Presets for instance. You will see a lot of check boxes, but you will only need to select Treatment (Color) and Color Adjustments. When finished doing that press the Create button and you are ready. Whenever you think a photograph works better in B&W select this preset and your photograph will be desaturated. But you can also use this preset when importing all your photographs for a total B&W working procedure.

It is time to continue and explore more options in Lightroom for further adjustments of our B&W photographs. We applied the desaturate colors preset and now select Luminance in the HSL panel. Press on the little circle, called the Target adjustment tool. We are going to use this tool to either brighten or darken a particular color in our photograph.

For instance when you want to darken the sky move the Target adjustment tool to the sky, hold down the left mouse button and drag your mouse towards you (downwards). You will notice that the sky will get darker and when you look at the blue luminance channel the slider will have been moved to the left. When you want to brighten a particular color, like green grass, select a green area in the photograph, hold down the left mouse button again and move the mouse up away from you. This panel of Lightroom helps me to get the tonalities and contrast in my photographs. You can do the same thing in Adobe ACR in combination with Photoshop (Elements), but the Target adjustment tool makes it so easy. Most definitely the most important thing in Lightroom for me personally. You can make more extreme conversion with the Grayscale conversion, but you can preserve richer tonalities and more gradations with the desaturate method.

At this moment I look to the histogram to see any clipping in the highlight and shadows. I personally don’t mind shadow clipping, but I will often try to avoid as much highlight clipping as possible. I use the Recovery slider to gain some highlights back. For this photograph I will also use some Fill Light to lighten up some of the darker areas in the foreground.

If you would like you can still change the overall look and appearances of your photograph by cooling or warming your photograph with the Temperature slider. And that works pretty well at times too with the Tint slider. At this point we have come as far as the photograph below.

We are going to push even a bit further. It is useless to adjust the hue sliders in the Hue panel, but when you go down to the Camera Calibration panel you will some additional sliders for the three primary colors (red, green and blue).

You could for instance darken the sky even further while setting a higher value for the saturation of Blue Primary while dragging the Blue Hue slider to the left.

We didn’t even touch the Tone Curve yet, but the photograph already appears so much more contrasty. It is not a local adjustment method with dodging and burning, but it is a great way to make some color appear stronger and add more contrast. Now we can go the Tone Curve for some additional contrast adjustment. For this particular photograph I add a bit more contrast to the shadows. Again you can use the Target adjustment tool for adding more or less contrast.

I hope this is off any use for you. To see more B&W photographs by me view them here. I will be writing more articles about Lightroom and B&W conversion techniques. I will write an article about creating more presets that look like the Channel Mixer settings in Photoshop to recreate the look of TRI-X or other B&W films. And I will write about using virtual copies in Lightroom with selective adjustments to prepare a sort of high dynamic range photograph and blend them together in Photoshop with masks.