How To Develop Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom Classic

by Andrew S. Gibson
How To Develop Better Black and White Photos In Lightroom Classic

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Today I’m going to explore some of the techniques you can use to create more powerful black and white photos in Lightroom Classic. Of course, it’s impossible to cover every aspect in a single article, but what I can do is help you master the three tools that make the biggest difference to your black and white conversions.

Why use Lightroom Classic  for developing black and white photos?

The benefit of keeping your workflow within Lightroom Classic is that it saves you a lot of hard drive space (as the only way to send a full-quality photo file to a plugin or to Photoshop is to convert it to a 16 bit TIFF).

Having said that, you may want to use a black and white plugin to develop your photos using tools that aren’t available in Lightroom Classic. For example, my favorites are Exposure X, DxO FilmPack and Topaz B&W Effects 2. But first, it’s a good idea to learn what you can do in Lightroom Classic, so that you can compare it with what plugins do.

The tips in this article will help you do that.

Tip #1: Set a B&W Profile

When you click the B&W button in the Basic panel to tell Lightroom Classic to convert your photo to black and white it automatically applies (in most cases) the Adobe Monochrome Profile (marked below).

Basic Panel Lightroom Classic

But most times you’ll get a better result by opening the Profile Browser (click the four square icon marked above) and selecting one of the 22 B&W Profiles (see below). You may also like to use a Camera Matching black and white Profile.

Profile Browser Lightroom Classic

Spend some time looking at the options to see what works best for your photo. The choice of Profile makes a dramatic difference to the photo’s tonality and contrast, which is why it’s a good idea to apply the Profile first.

Here’s an example. First a color photo that I’m going to convert to black and white.

Train cemetery, Bolivia

This is the result with the Adobe Monochrome Profile applied, and no other adjustments.

Black and white photo

Now, the same photo with the B&W 06 Profile.

Black and white photo

As you can see the sky is much darker and the entire photo has more contrast. The only difference between the two images is the choice of Profile. Yes, you could get a similar effect using the B&W panel sliders. But it’s easier to start by choosing the Profile, then moving onto the B&W panel, if needed.

Tip #2: Learn to use the B&W panel in Lightroom Classic

The B&W panel gives you direct control over the way Lightroom Classic translates colors into gray tones.

B&W panel in Lightroom Classic

When the sliders are zeroed, as in the above screenshot, they have no effect on your photo. But start moving them around, and you’ll see the tones in your photo change. For example, when you move the Orange slider right, anything that’s an orange color in the photo becomes brighter. Move the Orange slider left, and anything orange becomes darker.

Using the photo above again, you can see the difference between setting the Orange slider to -40 and +40 below.

Black and white adjustment in Lightroom Classic
Black and white adjustment in Lightroom Classic

The Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT)

The Orange slider had this effect because the rust in the color photo is orange. But you don’t have to use the sliders. Instead you can use the Targeted Adjustment Tool, which gives you more accurate adjustments.

To use it click on the target icon in the top left corner of the B&W panel.

B&W panel in Lightroom Classic

Move the cursor over the part of the photo that you want to adjust. You’ll see a double triangle icon that indicates the TAT is in use.

Targetted Adjustment Tool in Lightroom Classic

Hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse downwards to make the tones under the cursor darker, or upwards to make them lighter. The TAT samples the colors under the cursor and moves the appropriate sliders. I moved the cursor down to make the tones darker, and Lightroom Classic adjusted the Red and Orange sliders (see screenshot below).

B&W panel in Lightroom Classic

This is more accurate than must moving the Orange slider, and gives a better result by giving a smooth transition between tones.

Here’s what the photo looks like at those settings.

Black and white photo

Tip: You can also click the Auto button to see what settings Lightroom Classic thinks is best for your photo.

Extra tip: The B&W panel is for subtle adjustments. If you move the sliders too far you can get strange effects like pixelation. If you go past +30 or -30 it’s a good idea to zoom into 100% and check that there’s nothing odd going on with the tones.

Tip #3: Elevate your black and white photos with Masks in Lightroom Classic

First, a couple of definitions.

Global adjustments: Any adjustments (to brightness, contrast etc.) that affect the entire image.

Local adjustments: Adjustments that affect only part of the photo.

The idea behind making local adjustments is that you can alter the brightness or contrast of certain areas in the frame to influence where the eye goes. This creates a better photo with a more structured composition. In black and white you can also intensify textures with the Texture and Clarity sliders.

It’s unusual come across a black and white photo that can’t be improved using local adjustments. In Lightroom Classic, you make local adjustments using the Masks panel. If you’re not familiar with the Masks panel, then click the link to learn more about it. The article opens in a new tab/window so you don’t lose your place here.

With the photo above, I went to the Masks panel and created an inverted Select Sky mask to select the body of the old train. The red overlay in the screenshot below shows the masked area.

Masks panel Lightroom Classic

Then I set Clarity all the way to +97 to bring out the beautiful textures in the rusted metal. I used a mask to make sure that the effect was applied to the metal and not the sky.

Below you can see the initial black and white conversion (using the Adobe Monochrome Profile) and the final version after selecting a different Profile, using the B&W panel and applying a local adjustment using the Masks panel. These three steps were all I needed to transform the photo. Of course, in many photos you’ll need to make adjustments in the Basic panel as well. But here I didn’t need to do that thanks to the accurately exposed Raw file.

Black and white photo Lightroom Classic
Black and white photo Lightroom Classic

You can see more examples of masking with black and white photos in my article How to Use Masks Creatively With Black and White Photos.

To sum up, next time you develop a black and white photo in Lightroom Classic, remember these three tips. They’ll help you create better black and white photos much faster than you would using other techniques.

Beautiful Black & White In Lightroom Classic

You can learn more about using Profiles, the B&W panel and the Masks panel to make beautiful black and white photos in Lightroom Classic in my ebook Beautiful Black & White In Lightroom Classic.

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Beautiful Black & White Photos in Lightroom Classic ebook

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Gary February 21, 2024 - 7:36 pm

Very informative and concise article. I’m curious as to why you used the Clarity slider rather than the Texture slider. Also, I have always been wary about boosting Clarity too much, yet you cranked it up to 97%. Thank you.

Andrew S. Gibson February 22, 2024 - 8:36 am

Hi Gary, I prefer the look of the Clarity slider to the Texture slider. Adding Texture tends to make photos look kind of gritty. To my eye anyway, it’s just a matter of opinion. In many cases setting Clarity to +97 would be too much, but in this case it suited the weathered metal, which didn’t have much contrast in the original photo. You can add more Clarity with black and white photos than color ones. Again, it’s subjective and another photographer might prefer less Clarity with this photo.


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