Lightroom Classic has three local adjustment tools – the Graduated filter, Radial filter and Adjustment Brush. Once you get in the habit of using them you’ll see that most black and white photos look better with local adjustments.
Note: Adobe added five new local adjustment tools and a new Masks panel in the Lightroom Classic 11.0 (October 2021) update. The techniques in this article still work, and you can get up to speed with the updates in my article New Local Adjustment Tools in Lightroom Classic.
The best way to demonstrate this is with examples, so I’ve put together several case studies. The ideas here work with older versions of Lightroom like Lightroom 5 and Lightroom 6. In fact, they’ll work in nearly any software. The principles are the same, the only thing that changes is the tools.
Most of the adjustments in these examples are simple and didn’t take long to do. Using local adjustments isn’t complicated and only takes a few minutes once you’re confident with the process. The difference it makes to your photos means it’s worth the extra effort.
Case study 1: Castro de Cabo Blanco, Asturias, Spain
This is a long exposure landscape (I used a neutral density filter to get a shutter speed of 210 seconds). The long exposure gives a soft sea and sky, and I wanted to keep those qualities. I also wanted to add Clarity and Texture to get the best out of the rocks in the foreground. Here’s the photo without local adjustments.
1. I started by applying a Graduated filter to the sky and moving the Contrast slider left to reduce the contrast and soften the sky further. This is the mask created by the Graduated filter.
Then I used the Adjustment Brush to make a mask over the rocks in the foreground.
I increased Texture and Clarity, and moved the Shadows slider right to compensate for the way that increasing Clarity increases contrast. This is the result.
Case study 2: Eoin’s hands
Eoin is a glass blower who I photographed several years ago. While I was making photos of him at work I realized that his hands say a good deal about his work and his character. When we had finished I asked him to show me his hands so I could make a photo showing his tattoos.
I used a wide aperture (f2.8) to defocus the background. I wanted to apply Clarity and Texture to his hands to make them stand out more, and leave the background untouched.
Here’s the mask I made with the Adjustment Brush.
I increased Clarity and Texture (and Shadows a little) to bring out the textures in his skin.
Then I used the Radial Filter to create the mask below, and moved the Exposure slider left to make the edges of the photo darker. This helps makes his hands stand out against the background. This is the mask.
I could have used Post-crop vignetting for this, but using a Radial filter is more precise as the mask shows exactly which part of the photo the local adjustment changes.
Here’s the result.
Case study 3: Cementerio de Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina
I made the photo below in the famous Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires. The photo is a little flat, and I wanted to increase the brightness of the angel statue to make it stand out. This is the photo without local adjustments.
I made a mask covering the statue.
I moved the Highlights slider right to make the statue lighter. Using the Highlights slider works well because it’s a more subtle adjustment than using the Exposure slider. I also increased Texture and Clarity slightly.
I felt the left-side of the photo was too light, so I added a Graduated filter to the left side of the photo. This is the mask.
I moved the Highlights and Exposure sliders left to make this part of the frame darker. I noticed that one part of the building behind the statue was brighter thanks to the way the light was falling on it. So I used the Adjustment Brush to make this mask.
I moved the Highlights and Exposure sliders left to make that part of the building darker. This is the final result.
Case study 4: Local man, India
We stopped off for some chai tea somewhere between towns in Rajasthan, India. There was a small row of shops and behind them, a temple. The man in the photo below offered to pose for us. This is the photo without local adjustments.
I deliberately made the photo a little dark in Lightroom Classic because I wanted a dark background. I knew it would be easy to use a local adjustment to make the man brighter. I used the Adjustment Brush to make a mask.
I increased Exposure to make the man lighter, and Texture and Clarity to help him “pop” from the background. This is the result.
Hopefully these examples help you see how you can use local adjustments to make a big difference to your black and white photos. It isn’t difficult and there are no complex techniques to master. The main skill you need is the ability to look at a photo and see which local adjustments you can make to get the best result.
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