Converting To Black & White In Lightroom Classic

Explore the Profile Browser in Lightroom Classic CC and take a playful approach to black-and-white workflow

Figure 1. A black-and-white image of Montaña de Oro in central California.

Looking at black-and-white imagery means viewing the world around us through a different prism. When color is absent, we are left with the opportunity to experience attributes of a subject or the details of a setting more intimately. Shapes, tones, patterns and textures become the central focus of a photograph, and we’re unburdened by how colors blend, contrast or enhance the experience. Things become simpler, or, as I like to think of it, being biased toward the style: black-and-white is more to the point. Of course, seeing images through this “different prism” is quite another thing than crafting them. When crafting black-and-white files—more specifically, when we are developing RAW files—we need to think about color.

Wait! What? Shouldn’t we just move our Saturation slider to the left to remove the color and be done with it? Well, actually, no, I wouldn’t suggest doing that. It’s certainly a way to do it, but far from the best way. Just removing color greatly limits your ability to stylize your black-and-white images.

Still, converting images to black-and-white with Lightroom Classic CC is not complicated. It’s nothing like Photoshop conversions where we have a handful of techniques to choose from, like using Luminosity Masks, Gradient Maps, adjustment layers or going straight to the Main Menu at the top of the screen and simply selecting Grayscale, to name a few. With Lightroom, it’s pretty straightforward. If you look at the top of the Basic panel in Lightroom Classic CC’s Develop module, you’ll see a couple of options next to Treatment. You can select Color, or you can select Black and White. Simple.

What comes next is the fun part. Now is when we get to decide how we want to deliver the style, look and feel of our black-and-white image to our audience. Do we want a lot of contrast or subtle tones? Do we want bright tones or something more low-key? Interestingly enough, these decisions are best made by thinking about how color is translated into black-and-white.

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Color Filtering

Before digital was ever a thing, photographers would (and still do) use color filters over their lenses when shooting black-and-white film. Yellow filters create one effect, while red filters create another. The magnitude and subtleties of the effect vary with different-color filters or the shades of color in the image. Yellow and orange filters tend to slightly darken blue skies while making greens and warm tones brighter. Red, on the other hand, can be heavier-handed, dramatically darkening blues and typically providing a much higher-contrast look. Color filtration can separate colors, blend colors or amplify colors. It can increase or reduce contrast, and ultimately offer an assortment of creative possibilities.

Obviously, we are in the digital age, so color filters on our lenses aren’t needed anymore. We aren’t exposing black-and-white film. We are instead letting light travel through color filter arrays that sit in front of our digital sensors. Whether we like it or not, whether we care or not, we are capturing color information that needs to be translated into black-and-white during the developing phase of our workflow. Fortunately, there are all sorts of creative benefits to removing color after the shutter is hit as opposed to before.

Figure 2. It’s simple to simulate color filtration just by using White Balance sliders. Here’s a look at an original color image alongside versions with blue, green and red casts.

With a film workflow, we are locked into a specific look once the film is exposed. The negative we create can’t be changed. Sure, we can play with contrast and dodge and burn in the darkroom when making a print, but that’s not nearly the same. Shooting with a color filter (or without) creates a very specific starting point for the analog workflow that can’t be changed. Once a color is rendered as dark or bright, that’s locked in. Playing with exposure, contrast, and dodging and burning only fine-tunes the negative. But it doesn’t change its fundamental characteristics.

With digital, things are different. Color cast can change with a simple white balance setting in an instant (see Figure 2 above). This means that at any time we can simulate an image captured with a red filter, or a green, or a blue, or in any hue we want. With digital, we are locked into nothing and can thus convert images to black-and-white in all sorts of different ways. Being locked into a specific starting point is a thing of the past.

Choosing A Starting Point With The New Profile Browser

Things have changed in Lightroom Classic CC with regard to how we convert our image to black-and-white. Since Lightroom was released in 2007, there has been a panel in the Develop module titled HSL/Color/B&W. This panel offered a few things, but by clicking on B&W, you would convert your image to black-and-white. Well, B&W is gone. Now it is just the HSL/Color panel. Where did the B&W part go? Don’t worry. It’s actually still there, but now it requires an extra step to access it.

As has always been the case in Lightroom, if we look to the top of the Basic panel in the Develop module, we can choose to select Coloror Black & Whitenext to Treatment. So, in order to see B&W at the old HSL/Color/B&W panel location, you have to first click on Black & White next to Treatment. Now, I know we all hate it when software engineers change things around. It messes with our minds and workflows when they move the cheese. But this change makes a bit of sense, as it is also coupled with the addition of something called the Profile Browser.

The addition of the Profile Browser is what triggered this big change. And as a result, the location of profiles was also moved. Prior to this change, profiles were a bit hidden in Camera Calibration panel, which is a panel most photographers don’t even look at in their day-to-day workflow. In fact, most of my Lightroom students had no idea what profiles were when I pointed it out to them. Truth be told, I can go on for days about the value of knowing what profiles are, but in a nutshell, profiles are starting points in RAW file workflow.

RAW files are something we can’t actually see. In order for us to scroll through those low-resolution previews on the back of our cameras or our previews in Lightroom, some processing needs to take place. RAW data needs to be interpolated and a profile applied before we can see some form of an image. While interpolation helps de-mosaic the pixel data coming through the color filter array, the profile defines the characteristics of how the image is processed in terms of hue, contrast, highlights and shadows, and even detail. Of course, these characteristics I speak of are relative. Profiles can come in all sorts of ways, and Canon’s profiles look different than Nikon’s, which look different than Sony’s, which look different than Fuji’s, and on and on. So one of the cool things about the new Profile Browser is that it offers a lot more profiles than before.

Admittedly, profiles are technical, and it’s challenging to wrap one’s head around how these “starting points” work in a few sentences. So just know this: Profiles are a developmental starting point, and considering the profile before we develop our images gives us an advantage as we choose our stylistic paths.

What’s also new with the Profile Browser is how we preview and select our profiles. The selection process is now akin to selecting photo filters on Instagram, Facebook or other smartphone apps. It’s actually quite intuitive. Figure 3 below illustrates that if you click on the small grid-looking icon atop the Basic panel, it will open the Profile Browser, revealing sets of profiles such as Favorites, Adobe Raw, Artistic, B&W and others. To preview the different profiles, simply move your mouse over the different options, and the look of your image will change before you select or click on a choice.

lightroom classic black-and-white controls in the Basic panel

Figure 3. By clicking on the small grid icon in the profile section of the Basic panel, you active the Profile Browser, which offers a thumbnail view of potential black and white profiles, among others.

I, for one, am thrilled they moved profiles out of their obscure location. Ultimately, these “starting points” have become more varied; they have been placed at the top of all of our tools, forcing us to consider them first, and they offer a whole new array of stylistic pathways for us to walk down. For black-and-white conversion, we previously only had one black-and-white profile to choose from, whereas now we have 17 options with the potential to have the list grow and grow over time. Notice also in Figure 3 that I’ve added a few of my favorite black-and-white profiles, simulating the look of black-and-white color filtering. There are B&W Blue Filter, B&W Red Filter, B&W Yellow Filter, B&W Green Filter and B&W Orange Filter. Color filtration has finally been brought to the forefront of black-and-white conversions with the new Profile Browser. Exciting!

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B&W Panel

While the Profile Browser provides us a good start, the B&W panel allows us to fine-tune our stylistic paths with precision. The first thing to notice when opening this panel is that even though our image has been converted to black-and-white, we are left with a decent set of color sliders to play with. This is due to the simple fact that the color information captured with our raw data is still there and can still be interpreted in all sorts of ways.

Approach one is an obvious one. You can grab a slider and move it back and forth to see a specific tone brighten or darken and decide if it’s working or not. But here’s another approach: in the upper left corner of the panel, you’ll see a small circle, as shown in Figure 4 below. That circle is called the TAT (Targeted Adjustment Tool) and allows for a bit more control. If you click on it, your cursor will turn into a cross hair. Simply click on a specific tone of your image while moving your mouse up or down to either brighten or darken that tone.

lightroom classic black-and-white targeted adjustment tool

Figure 4. The TAT (Targeted Adjustment Tool) can be found in the upper left corner of the B&W panel.

The TAT allows you to interact directly with the tones of your image. And by tones, I mean the color information rooted in your raw data. Why this approach allows for more control is because more often than not, colors in our images aren’t just red, green or blue. Colors come in all sorts of combinations and shades. There are blue-greens and red-oranges and violet-magentas and all sorts of transitional colors. Notice the adjustment I’ve done in Figure 5. By taking my TAT and clicking on the blue sky while dragging down in the image, I’ve moved the Blue and the Aqua sliders to the left simultaneously. It’s much more effective than moving one slider around at a time and guessing at what the color combinations in our images are.

Figure 5. The TAT allows you to interact with the colors of your image directly, giving you more control over color combinations instead of individual color channels. In this image, I’ve clicked and dragged my mouse down on the sky to darken both the Blue and Aqua channels simultaneously.

White Balance Sliders

As previously stated, digital gives us the opportunity to create color casts by way of quick white balance alterations. If you’re playing with profiles and fine-tuning with the B&W panel and are still not finding a style that’s working for your image, here’s another trick to consider: play with your White Balance sliders. And I do mean play.

After you convert your images to black-and-white, visit your White Balance sliders atop the Basic panel instead of the B&W panel. Move your temperature back and forth and your Tint slider back and forth to see what effects they create. Doing such a thing with a color photo would be some kind of blasphemy, as previously shown in Figure 2, but in Figure 6 you can see what a deep red cast can do compared to a blue cast compared to a red or green cast when converting to black-and-white. This approach is admittedly more playful than formulaic, but it provides an opportunity to experiment with color in a totally different way with your black-and-white conversions.

Figure 6. Here are examples of what black-and-white conversions look like after creating red- and blue-like color casts.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

What always fascinates me about digital photography is how much everything we do today is still so deeply rooted in techniques practiced decades and decades ago. With all our new technology, all our procedures with computers and software and RAW file workflow, we are forced to think about how color is converted in the same way Ansel Adams did, or Edward Weston or Paul Caponigro.

For those who have command over their craft, black-and-white conversion has never been just about putting black-and-white film in the camera. It’s about knowing how colors translate when converted, and using filters to fine-tune that expression.

Today we do the same, but because we have so much tech at our fingertips, our approach can be much more spontaneous than systematic. We have the benefit of instant feedback with digital, and we aren’t locked into a certain look as we would be if we were shooting film. We are free to play with our new Profile Browser by trying on red and blue and green and yellow and orange filters in an instant. We can fine tune-specific tones in the B&W panel and create whole new looks by frolicking with White Balance sliders. Indeed, playing with color is the best approach to creating just the right look with your black-and-white images.

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Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.
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