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Black and White with Photoshop and Lightroom

Welcome to the second part of my series on black & white photography. In the first part of the series we discussed what black & white photography entails and some considerations you should make when thinking about shooting black & white. In this second part we will look at three ways of converting your images within Photoshop and we will also look at the conversion process in Lightroom.

Before we begin I would like to address a few observations I have had on Twitter about my comments on in-camera black & white conversion. My comments may have been overly glib but I stand by them. When taking a black & white photograph in digital we have an amazing creative opportunity to make images that capture a feel, describe a mood and offers limitless options to alter the way you images look to match your creative intentions. Paradoxically these opportunities are only available because the image we are converting are colour and most of the conversion methods used retain that information so you can tweak away to your hearts content to get the result you want/see. If you convert in-camera you are throwing away the essential colour information and your resulting images may be good, but they could be better.

The Black & White Adjustment Layer

So, lecture over, lets start with our first conversion method and this is the most obvious and self explanatory method, the Black & White Adjustment layer and it can be accessed in three ways: via the adjustments panel


from the Layers menu


or via the adjustment layers button at the bottom of the layers panel


whichever method you use you will bring up the black & white conversion panel which looks like this:


Working down from the top the panel offers several options the first of which is the dropdown menu of Photoshop and user created pre-sets. The Photoshop pre-sets offer a range of traditional black & white filters and some others; these offer a good starting point for a conversion if you are looking for a little inspiration but I tend not to use them very often. If you find a conversion formula that you particularly like you can save it as a user pre-set via the fly-out panel, accessed by the downwards pointing arrow in the upper right-hand corner of the panel.

Next down (working left to right) we have the scrubby slider, pointer thingy (I’m sure there is a proper name for this but I don’t know what it is, answers on a postcard…). What this tool does it to darken or lighten selected colours, even though you are working on a monochrome layer, which is slightly more impressive than it sounds. For example, select the tool and move it onto an area of grass (notice the cursor changes to an eyedropper as you move it over your image). Click on the grass, notice the cursor changes to a finger with arrows on either side, and if you move the cursor to the left the grass will get darker and if you move it the right the grass will get lighter; if you look at the adjustments panel you will see which colours have been affected and its surprising which colours were affected as they may not have been the ones you expected. Of course there is a downside as any other areas with the colours that you have changed in them will also be affected to some extent. Also note that you have to click on the tool again to deselect it.

Next to the scrubby thingy is a check box for Tint. Click in this and the box next to it becomes active and you can click in it to change the tint colour. Personally I never tint with this tool and prefer to use other methods on another layer.

The last tool on this line is the Auto button. Click on this for Photoshop to measure the colours in the image and produce a tailor made conversion. These auto conversions tend to be rather flat and grey but may be worth a try to see what they produce.

What we have now are the control sliders for the three primary and three secondary colours which is where the nuts and bolts of the conversion really takes place (when the panel first opens up the sliders are set to default levels, not zero, and when the colour name is double clicked the sliders return to their defaults not zero). As I may have mentioned (or banged on about) black and white photography is about colour and it is the colour sliders that allow us to take charge of the colours and how they are represented in shades of grey. The great thing about this conversion method is its simplicity; want to darken the sky? darken the blues, skin to dark? lighten the reds. Because of this tool’s simplicity I see no reason to go into a lengthy “this is how I changed this photograph” bit as the best way to learn to use it is to use it yourself and one of the other great things about this conversion method is that it is non-destructive and if you go really wrong you can scrap the conversion layer and make another.


The above method is very similar to the black & white conversion in Lightroom, indeed the interface works in an almost identical way although Lightroom has more colour sliders.


To create a black & white photograph in Lightroom press the V key, or enter the Develop module where you can either click on “Black & White” in the Basic panel or click on “B&W” of the title in the “HSL/Color/B&W” panel. If your histogram is visible don’t be frightened that the colour information of the image has disappeared, its still there but Lightroom prefers to show the histogram as shades of grey.

Using Lightroom to convert to black & white has opened up an additional way to influence the look of an image. the method is also available in Photoshop but it appears that it wasn’t recognized until people started using it in Lightroom (I may be wrong about this and thousands of people were already doing it in Photoshop).

So, you are in Lightroom and your conversion is almost there but its not quite working and you’ve moved the sliders around so much you may have worn them out, what else can you do? There are contrast and toning options but these are best left until the conversion is completed so what we need is some more colour sliders to play with. And there are two more sliders and they are found back in the Develop module.


The temperature and tint sliders are just two more colour sliders so why not try them to tweak your image? It may seem counterintuitive to affect the colour balance of your image as you can spend “hours” fretting about getting it “right” but this is a black & white image so the colour balance is irrelevant (if you are worried about losing the colour corrected base image make a virtual copy of it before you start to make the black & white image or remember to take “Snapshots” in the snapshot panel as you go along [Cmd N (Mac) Ctrl N (PC)]). Adjustments to the temperature and/or tint can make a big difference to the final image.

It maybe that this method of changing the colour of the base image wan’t widely used in Photoshop is that people tend to take “finished images into that program and to mess around with the finished colour would be more counterintuitive than affecting it in Lightroom. Even more oddly, it would make more sense to make these sorts of alterations in Photoshop because the are more options to use: Levels, Curves, Vibrance, Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, Photo Filter, Channel Mixer and Selective Colour, these are all adjustment layers that can be used to alter colour and because they are adjustment layers you can alter their opacity, change the blending mode, add a layer mask to target specific area of an image, and, if you don’t like what they do, turn them off or throw them away.


Before I go onto to the final two conversion methods we will be discussing I need to make you aware of a problem that you may encounter when converting images. The problem occurs in Lightroom and Photoshop, although the problem seems to happen at lower levels in Lightroom. If you look at the adjustment layer below you will see that it is quite normal at most levels but the blues have been darkened.


If we than look at the converted photograph we can see that the blues have been darkened to emphasize the sky against the clouds and looking at screen resolution and viewing the whole image there doesn’t appear to be a problem.


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But, if we zoom in closer we can see the problem (hopefully you can see what is happening but this may not be possible due to the size and resolution of the file used)


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As you can, hopefully, see the areas of blue have started to pixelate and form blocks (in larger areas of uniform colour the areas can form pixelated bands). When reproduced at larger sizes these areas become readily apparent and unsightly. There are ways around this problem (using the channel mixer as explained in the following section is one of the methods) but it is always better to avoid the problem in the first place if possible.

The Channel Mixer

This next method is another adjustment layer and is accessed in the same way as the black & white adjustment layer.



The interface for this tool is very similar to that of the black & white tool with a dropdown menu for presets and colour sliders to adjust the conversion. However this conversion tool operates slightly differently.

The first difference is that you have to tell the filter to convert to black & white and you do this by ticking the “Monochrome” check box; doing this will change the output channel to grey. The second, and more significant, difference are the sliders, which represent the three primary colours, and the way they work. At this point you may be thinking that this method maybe slightly more clunky as you have less fine control over colours but I would say that this isn’t the case as the trick that the channel mixer has up its sleeve is that you can’t change the sliders willy-nilly as, like most photography, you have to do a little horse-trading to get the effect you are looking for.

If you have an image open in Photoshop turn on the channel mixer and set the red and green to 0 and the blue to 100, don’t forget to check the monochrome box. Depending on your image this should produce a fairly average looking image. Now move the blue slider towards 0, it will get darker and finally turn totally black. If you then move the slider towards the right the image will get brighter and brighter. The channel mixer’s “kink” is that the totals of all three sliders has to equal (or be very close to) 100% to get a good conversion. You may think that this maybe a bit of a pain but, with a little perseverance, this method can produce some interesting results.

The channel mixer has another trick up its sleeve that isa result of it’s reduced number of sliders. The channel mixer is a great tool to use on photographs of children and women because it is really good at evening out skin tones and reducing blemishes. The photograph below (a quick snap of my youngest daughter) will show how this works. Notice the cheeks are a little rosy and mottled from the cold and she also has the results of a cold evident below her nose (kids!).


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White/caucasian skin tones reside in the red channel, not the blue and green but blue and green do occur in blemishes etc.. So if we look at the image with an average conversion (Red 40, Green 40, Blue 20) we can see the blotchiness in the skin.


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Now if we change the conversion to Red 120, Green -10, Blue -10 see what happens.


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The blotchiness has virtually disappeared as has the snail-trail under the nose without any retouching.

So, although this adjustment appears simple it is quite a honed conversion tool that, with practice, can create great black & white photographs and is definitely one you should try out on portraits of children and women.


The third, and final method we will be discussing in this tutorial resides in the little known colour space called LAB. The LAB mode works slightly differently from RGB, instead having one channel for each three colours the LAB mode has an L channel that holds the luminosity data of the image and A&B channels that hold the colour information. If we look at an image of the channels we will see what this looks like.


The A&B channels have no use for us here but the L channel is a black & white image that is very useful.

To make use of this channel we have to go through a few steps

Firstly select Image (in the main menu bar)- Mode – Lab Color.

If you have more than one layer in you image Photoshop will ask “Changing modes will discard and adjustment layer; change mode anyway?” Select OK and Photoshop will discard the adjustment layers and convert. If you select “flatten” the adjustment layers will be applied before the image is converted to LAB.

Select the channel panel and right click on the B channel, select Delete Channel. Notice the other two layers name’s change to Alpha 1 & Alpha 2. Right click on Alpha 2 (previously the A channel) and select Delete Channel.

We now have a black & white image but to be able to apply any adjustment layers we need to convert it back to RGB. To do this go to Image – Mode – Grayscale. Then Image – Mode – RGB. And you can now apply adjustments again

After all of those steps we now have an image that looks very similar to that produced in the channel mixer set with a bias towards the red channel. Lets look at results from both methods, firstly the LAB conversion.


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and now the channel mixer set at red 100, green 0, blue 0


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If we take a closer look at the skin and lip area we will notice some subtle differences, firstly the channel mixer


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And now the LAB conversion. Notice this version has retained more of the underlying skin tones and texture and the lip colour is slightly different.


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So why would you use one method above the other? Well the LAB conversion is slightly more refined and retains some nuances of the underlying image however you do have to convert to LAB mode and discard all of your RGB data, so the method is destructive. Whereas the channel mixer does lose some of the nuances but you don’t have to change colour mode and it is an adjustment layer and is, therefore, non-destructive. You pays your money, you makes your choice. Personally if I am going to use this style of conversion I will try both methods out (the history palette is designed for this sort of thing) to see which one works best, and then use the channel mixer.

So there we have it, three (four if you count Lightroom) methods for you try out over the next month and produce some really great black & white photographs. Next month we will be looking at toning, contrast, dodging & burning and many other ways of further enhancing your creative vision.

About Richard Hales (35 Articles)
Richard’s first foray into was photography was as an apprentice photographer for Oxford University over 20 years ago. From there Richard went on to study photography at University somehow gaining a BA & MA, he still is rather confused how he managed to do this. After University and an unfinished (and un-started) PhD Richard “retired” from photography for a few years to pursue a career in wine and, oddly, scrap metal before returning to photography and setting up a wedding and portrait photography business in Worcestershire. As well as running his photography business Richard is currently working on a bread & jam making book. He is the average height for a Nut.

4 Comments on Black and White with Photoshop and Lightroom

  1. Jim Stearns // 01/03/2011 at 2:17 am //

    Thanks Richard, great article. I’ve used this method and it works very well.

    I’m currently using the Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. Both does a very good job but the Pro 2 is a lot faster. – Jim

  2. Thanks your comments Jim. We will be coming to Silerefex after we have done toning etc. In the next tutorial. I really like silverefextoo, it is great piece of software but a tad expensive.

  3. Minxie Photography // 20/03/2012 at 4:31 pm //

    Can you please explain/show how to do a traditional vintage “3D” image in Lightroom? As in, start with a black & white image then add the blue & red colors with the 3D style effect?

  4. Richard Hales is awesome.I truly appreciate this article post. Really Great.

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