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Last month I gave you some reasons why Lightroom Classic is the best application for developing your black and white photos. But it’s fair to say that not every photographer wants to subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Photography Plan. And some photographers prefer working with black and white plugins because they like the results.
So today I’m going to take a look at the main alternatives to Lightroom Classic for black and white photography.
Libraries and Catalogs
We can divide the options into two categories. The first is applications that let you organize your photos as well as develop them.
This is important because you need to organize, view and search your photos as well as develop them. It’s helpful if you can add them to Collections or Albums. The better organized your photos, the more time you’ll have to develop them.
The second category is applications that don’t have a Library or Catalog function, but are good at converting color photos to black and white. This include plugins as well as independent programs.
My aim is to give a brief overview of what each application does and why you might use it. I’ve included links to more in depth articles where they exist.
The black and white Lightroom Classic alternative challenge
Here’s a challenge for you. After you’ve read this article, pick a plugin or application that sounds interesting and download the trial version. Experiment with the tools and features that Lightroom Classic doesn’t have.
Try this exercise: Re-develop some older photos that you’ve already converted to black and white in Lightroom Classic, to see what alternative interpretations you can come up with using the additional tools in your chosen plugin or application. It’s the best way to open your eyes to the creative possibilities that the new software gives you.
Applications with a Library or Catalog function
The main alternatives to Lightroom Classic are Capture One, Exposure, ON1 Photo Raw and Luminar.
Capture One Pro
Capture One has a good reputation for creating good black and white photos. I haven’t used it, so I can’t comment on that. But you can read this article by photographer Martin Bailey, where he explains why and how he moved from using Lightroom Classic to Capture One Pro.
Please note that if your main motivation for avoiding Lightroom Classic is to save money, then Capture One Pro is not the answer. It will cost you more in the long run. But if you’re not bothered about that and you want to use software made for professional photographers, then it’s worth a look.
Out of all the Lightroom Classic alternatives with a library or catalog function Exposure is my favorite. You can use it as a plugin with Lightroom Classic, or as a standalone program. Used by itself it has a Library function that replaces Lightroom Classic’s Library module (although it’s not as advanced).
Exposure is designed to give your digital photos an analog look. It comes with hundreds of black and white and color presets that emulate the look of film and antique processes. A lot of research has gone into replicating the grain structures of all the film types featured in its software.
Don’t let this put you off if you’re not interested in analog effects. Exposure is a great application for developing photos, and its presets give you lots of exciting creative options for developing black and white photos.
Who is Exposure for?
Exposure is for photographers who want to mix the look of analog photography with the speed and convenience of digital. As mentioned it’s a good application if you want to make your photos look like they were shot with film rather than a digital camera.
Exposure is used by a lot of photographers to create effects that you can’t create in Lightroom Classic, or would take a long time in Photoshop. While it seems mainly pitched at portrait, fashion and wedding photographers, you can apply the filters to virtually any type of photo. It’s a lot of fun to use.
Reasons for buying Exposure:
• It lets you emulate the look of black and white film. There are over 200 film presets (plus variations) for applying an analog look to your digital photos.
• Exposure has lots of vintage process presets you can use as a starting point to add interest to your photos. Here’s one of my favorites, the Wet Plate preset.
• Exposure is for color as well as black and white. It has some beautiful color presets and film emulations as well as the black and white ones.
• It lets you add creative borders, light leak effects and scratches to your photos.
• Exposure lets you add sophisticated lens blur effects to your images, emulating the look created by using specialist lenses such as tilt-shifts and Lensbaby optics.
• It has an easy to use batch processing tool that makes processing multiple images very quick and easy.
• Exposure has layers.
You can learn more about Exposure on the official website here.
Learn more: Why I Use Exposure X for Black and White
ON1 Photo Raw
The predecessor to ON1 Photo Raw was an application called the Perfect Photo Suite. It had six modules including one dedicated to black and white called Perfect Black and White. You could also buy Perfect Black and White as a plugin.
Now, in ON1 Photo Raw, there’s no black and white module and the black and white tools have been redistributed into the Effects module. That means that it’s not as good for black and white as Perfect Photo Suite was. But if you’re looking for a standalone program with a Library and no subscription fees then it could be for you.
There are still good reasons for using ON1 Photo Raw for black and white:
• It has most of the black and white presets that came in Perfect B&W, including presets that emulate old photographic processes such as 19th century processes such as the Albumen Print and Ambrotype.
• You can combine the black and white conversion tools with the Portrait tools or the Masking Brush to create some interesting and powerful effects.
• It has layers, which you can also use to add interesting effects such as textures.
Who is On1 Photo Raw for?
This software is ideal for the photographer who wants to experiment with black and white photography and take advantage of the other tools that come with the suite. You will only appreciate the power and potential of this software by using it and experimenting with all the tools. But keep in mind that if your main interest is black and white photography you’ll have to dig deep to find the appropriate tools.
You can learn more about ON1 Photo Raw here.
You may remember a few years ago Skylum (then known as MacPhun) released an excellent black and white plugin called Tonality Pro. Tonality Pro was an ambitious attempt to unseat Silver Efex Pro 2 as the king of black and white plugins. It may have succeeded – except for the fact that Skylum has abandoned many of its older programs in order to concentrate on Aurora HDR and Luminar.
The good news is that many of Tonality Pro’s tools for black and white conversions have made their way into Luminar. But just like ON1 Photo Raw you have to dig deep to find them. It helps if you download the free bundle that includes the presets from Tonality Pro from the Skylum website (details here).
Luminar also has a Library function that you can use instead of Lightroom Classic’s Library module. It’s not as fully featured, but it’s a workable alternative if you don’t like Adobe software.
The latest version of Luminar (at the time of writing) is Luminar Neo, which promises to use artificial intelligence to make developing your photos faster.
Who is Luminar for?
Luminar will appeal to photographers who are looking for a powerful Photoshop replacement, or for an alternative to Lightroom Classic.
Reasons for buying Luminar:
• Luminar’s preset system is powerful and has the unique feature of letting you adjust a preset’s opacity.
• It has built-in effects that other applications don’t have that you may find useful, such as the Orton Effect.
• It has good tools for bring out textures, and for applying creative effects like borders.
• It has layers.
You can learn more about Luminar on the official website here.
Black and white Lightroom Classic plugins
Lightroom Classic is great for converting photos to black and white. But it doesn’t do everything. That’s where plugins come in. If you want to emulate black and white film or antique printing processes, add frames, textures or light leak effects, or work with layers, then you’ll need a plugin.
A common theme with black and white plugins is that they contain more ways to emphasize texture than Lightroom Classic. This is important with black and white as texture is a major part of the composition.
Another feature of most of these plugins is that they come with an extensive set of presets that you can use as a starting point for your black and white conversion. Just browsing through the presets and seeing what you can do to your photos will give you plenty of inspiration.
Some presets imitate old printing processes such as cyanotypes and wet plate photography. Others emulate black and white films, some of which are no longer available. Others let you add borders. These are all options that Lightroom Classic doesn’t have.
Silver Efex Pro
Silver Efex Pro is part of the Nik Collection of seven plugins, and has an interesting history.
Originally created by a company called Nik Software, the Nik Collection was bought by Google in 2012. Google decided not to develop it any further and eventually made the plugin suite free.
Then, in 2017, DxO Software acquired the plugin suite. At first work went into updating the plugins to work seamlessly with the latest versions of Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. In 2021 DxO announced the Nik Collection 4, which includes more presets, a new layout for Silver Efex Pro plus a few extra features.
Learn more at the official website here.
Who is Silver Efex Pro for?
Silver Efex Pro is for the professional, or advanced hobbyist photographer, who wants to take black and white processing to the ultimate level. You’ll love this plugin if you’re serious about black and white photography.
Reasons for buying Silver Efex Pro:
• It has more options than Lightroom Classic. There are more ways of adjusting tonal values, toning images, and adding borders. The Structure, Fine Structure, Dynamic Brightness and Soft Contrast sliders in Silver Efex Pro provide a lot of ways to enhance textures in your photos.
• It has a good workflow. The History panel in Silver Efex Pro makes it easy to see where you’ve been and where you are going with your black and white conversion.
• It comes with a number of good presets that help you obtain good black and white conversions right away.
• It emulates black and white film grain. If you are interested in creating images that look like they were taken with film, Silver Efex Pro lets you emulate the grain structure of many commonly used black and white films.
• It has the standard Before and After view. It also has a Split View that I rather like. You can move a red dividing line to see more of one version or the other. You can also zoom in to view the differences in fine detail.
Learn more: A Brief Guide To Silver Efex Pro
B&W Effects 2
B&W Effects 2 is a Lightroom plugin made by Topaz Labs. The main strength of this plugin is its strong collection of presets, many of which emulate old processes. There are over 200 to choose from, and most of them have an interesting look which you don’t get from the presets in the other plugins mentioned here.
As I write this B&W Effects 2 is no longer available to buy from the Topaz website. There’s no replacement, which is a shame as it’s a strong plugin with lots of good features. But I’m writing about it here in case you already have it.
Who is B&W Effects 2 for?
B&W Effects 2 is for photographers who want to take advantage of its extensive preset range as a basis for creative black and white conversions. The Snapshots feature gives you a history function that most of the other plug-ins lack, albeit one that you have to activate yourself by taking Snapshots at important points in the processing stage. B&W Effects 2 is also good at increasing detail in mid-tone areas and bringing out texture, an important part of a good black and white conversion.
Reasons for using B&W Effects 2:
• Lots of presets for emulating old printing processes. Have you ever wanted to try out cyanotype, albumen, van dyke brown, opalotype or platinum printing? The cost and impracticality associated with these processes puts them out of reach of all but dedicated enthusiasts. But B&W Effects 2 has all these and more.
• It uses Adaptive Exposure technology to add mid-tone contrast in a way that can’t be replicated in Lightroom Classic. It works by analyzing the image, breaking it into regions and applying the adjustment to each region individually. The best way to appreciate what this tool can do is to try it out for yourself.
• The Detail and Detail Boost sliders bring out details and texture, completing the work done by the Adaptive Exposure sliders. You’ll be amazed by how much detail and texture you can bring out with these sliders.
All the plugins we’ve looked at so far include some sort of film emulation, but DxO have taken it a step further with their FilmPack plugin. According to their website, DxO FilmPack lets you, “Perfectly reproduce the quality, style, colors, and grain of the most famous analog films.”
Who is DxO FilmPack for?
If you are a famous photographer who started shooting a major project with black and white film, then switched to digital for practical reasons, you might want to use a program like DxO FilmPack to achieve a consistent look across the body of work. Sebastião Salgado did exactly that for his Genesis project.
DxO FilmPack is for photographers who want to process their digital images so that they look as if they were taken on film. But it goes further than that, and offers a variety of creative effects that you will find useful in creating emotive monochrome images.
You can learn more about DxO FilmPack at the official website here.
Reasons for buying DxO FilmPack:
• Lots of film emulation presets, based on an analysis of the films themselves.
• Features shared by most of the plugins listed here – the ability to add borders and textures, toning, light leaks effects and creative blur.
• The creative effects help you emulate the look of vintage black and white photos taken on glass plates or with antique processes.
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There’s no doubt that black and white photographers have never had it so good in terms of both camera equipment, lens choice and software. Lightroom Classic by itself is an excellent choice for converting photos to black and white, and staying within Lightroom Classic gives you advantages in terms of workflow and hard drive space management.
But break free of Lightroom Classic and start using black and white plugs and a whole new world opens to you. All of the plugins listed here have features that will appeal to black and white photographers. The best advice I can give you is to download the trial versions, experiment with the creative tools, check out the dedicated tutorials and videos, and decide for yourself which of these plugins, if any, would be useful to you.
If you only wanted to buy one plugin, and I had to make the choice for you, I would recommend Silver Efex Pro 2 or Exposure. DxO FilmPack is another great contender. If you need an application with a library or catalog, then Exposure would be my choice. But buying software, like buying cameras, is an individual choice, and your opinion may differ. That’s why it’s important to download trials and test to see which apps work best for you.
Black and white plugin for Lightroom Classic gallery
Here are some photos made with the applications and plugins mentioned in this tutorial.
Silver Efex Pro 2
Topaz B&W Effects 2
Alien Skin Exposure
ON1 Photo Raw