How I make B&W Photos using Lightroom 5

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Using Lightroom to turn a color photo into B&W can be as simple as clicking on the “Black & White” button in the Development module but the results are typically disappointing at best. Years ago, I attended the New England School of Photography where I studied the Zone System developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer. In very simple terms, it’s a process of spot metering the reflective light from both the darkest and lightest parts of an image where detail is desired and using these values to determine the camera’s exposure settings as well as the amount of time the resulting film is developed in the darkroom. In other words, expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. I used a 4×5 large format camera in those days but living in an RV has put an end to my darkroom.

Many of the techniques I used in the darkroom are applicable to post processing in Lightroom, especially when it comes to creating B&W images. Here’s a summary of my workflow:

Before I convert the image to B&W, I go through the standard Lightroom workflow used for all my color images:

  • Crop and straighten.
  • Set highlights/shadows to -100/+100 respectively.
  • Set white/black points.
  • Remove chromatic aberration.
  • Remove spots and any other unwanted elements in your photo.

Now I do the following steps for only those photos that will be converted to B&W:

  • Reduce contrast a lot (-50 or more). This makes the overall photo flat by increasing the mid-tones. We’ll add back in contrast later on by dodging and burning. If this step is omitted, the final B&W image will have too much contrast, making it overly dramatic. By selectively dodging/burning, you’ll have more control over where and how much contrast your final image will contain.
  • Sharpen the photo a lot (+50 or more). Mask the photo (Option-Masking) so areas like the sky are not sharpened (masking will turn the sky dark and this will not be sharpened). This step brings out detail in sections of the photo that are not uniform, i.e. your mid-tones will have more separation.
  • Convert the photo to B&W by clicking on B&W next to HSL/Color/B&W.
  • Adjust the Black & White mixer slide bars to lighten/darken sections of the photo to your taste (e.g. sliding the blue slider will darken/lighten blue sky). Slider settings will be completely different for each photo depending on the colors you start with and the results you want. This steps mimics the use of colored filters commonly used in B&W photography. (I had a set of red, orange and yellow filters for my large format camera.)
  • Burn and dodge: using the masking tool (it’s the tool with the dots surrounding a ball on a stick), paint sections of the photo to be burned/dodged.  You’ll need to create multiple “New” masks for sections of the photo that need to be burned/dodged differently. Be sure to adjust feathering and brush size as needed. Once masked, you can raise or lower exposure to burn or dodge.  You can go back to previous masks by clicking on the grey dots that appear on the image when using this tool. Most of your time will be spent on this step.
  • Add some vignetting to darken the outer edges but don’t overdo it by making the vignetting obvious to the observer.
  • Add some split toning (Shadows only) to warm the image. I like Shadows Hue of 39, Saturation 7. Again, don’t overdo this step otherwise your image will look “old-timey”.
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