The key to gorgeous black and white images often lies in the small details: making sure there is sufficient range of lights and darks, ensuring skin doesn’t look dull, and making sure our subject doesn’t fade into the background.
Paying attention to these details can help us ensure our image has the impact that we want. Believe it or not, color actually matters a lot in black and white conversions.
Here, I cover some little-known but simple Lightroom tricks that will help you polish and perfect your black and white conversions.
1. White balance matters
You may be really surprised to learn that your white balance matters even in black and white photos. That’s right, both your temperature and tint have an effect on how your black and white image will look. You can see it for yourself – open a black and white photo in Lightroom (or ACR in Photoshop) and grab your temperature slider. Slowly drag it all the way to the left, then all the way to the right. See how your image is affected? You can do the same exercise with the tint slider and watch your image change again.
In black and white images, various hues are assigned to a certain lightness or darkness. These values change as we adjust our white balance and the hues in the image change. So, now that we know this super secret trick, you may be wondering if you should correct your white balance before converting your image to black and white? That sounds like a great idea to me. But another way to use this trick is to simply adjust your white balance AFTER you convert your image to black and white. This is what I do, and I simply adjust my white balance sliders until the image looks just right to my eye. Whether you adjust your white balance before or after converting to monochrome, one really important implication of this trick is CONSISTENCY. In other words, if you have a set of images and you want the black and white edits to look consistent, you will probably want to make sure they all have the same temperature and tint values. In this example below, the images are edited exactly the same except for the temperature.
2. Temperature and tint can be adjusted locally as well
Temperature and tint can be adjusted locally as well. It is important to remember that temperature and tint can be adjusted globally in Lightroom (and ACR) as described above but they can also be changed locally as well. You can do this by using any of local adjustments: the adjustment brush, radial filter, or graduated filter. This could be useful in situations when you want to brighten or darken certain hues in certain areas of your photo. You may be thinking you could just brighten the area with an exposure local adjustment, but this gives an entirely different effect. I prefer it because it is more subtle than using exposure adjustments. You should try it on your own images and play around to see for yourself! Here’s an example where I wanted to darken only the center of the daisy, so I applied a radial filter with temp -100 to only the center.
3. The HSL panel becomes the black and white mix panel
With this panel, we can selectively adjust certain hues in our image by altering how light or dark they are. For example, let’s say I want to darken the green grass in my image to make it closer to black. I can simply drag the green slider down to make it darker. Just remember it will affect ALL green in your image. If your skintones look muddy in your black and white conversion and you want to lighten them, try bumping up the orange slider just a little bit. I often use this panel to create subtle improvements in my portraits, such as darkening my background, darkening lips, or lightening skin or eyes. I also use this tip for macro images, as it enables me to very easily lighten and darken the only tones I want. In this example, the image on the top has the BW mix panel turned off and the image on the bottom I turned it back on. Since the rose was striped, I really wanted to increase the local contrast in the petals. I also wanted to brighten the background to make it white so it would be less distracting.
4. Use the target with the black and white mix adjustments
In the black and white mix panel, simply grab the little target icon. Then place on the area on your image that you want to adjust, click and then drag up (to brighten) or down (to darken) until you get it just right. In this example, I knew I wanted to create more contrast between the various areas of the peacock feather. Once I had converted the image to black and white though, I couldn’t even remember which areas of the feather were which color. A quick and easy way to adjust them to my liking was to just use the target icon on the various areas, and brighten and darken them to my liking. In this case, I brightened green, aqua, and blue, and darkened red and yellow. I paid close attention to her eyes and skin to make sure they still looked good after the adjustments.
I know it may seem counter-intuitive to think so much about color when creating black and white conversions, but the colors actually have a huge impact on how the black and white image will look.