quick and snappy black & white

posted in tutorials at November 13, 2009

I love black and white images. Let me rephrase that: I love crisp, punchy black and white images.

When photographers ask me to look at their websites, the first thing I usually notice is that many photographers have dull, flat black and whites that look lifeless.

I’ve tried just about every method of b&w conversion there is: convert to lab mode, using the channel mixer tool, applying a gradient map, third party actions, etc.

Given this plethora of choices, I just follow Occam’s Razor: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.  Loosely paraphrased: the simplest strategy tends to be the best one.

In this case, my preferred method happens to be the quickest and – to my eyes – the best. I convert my b&w images exclusively in Lightroom, just by hitting the “Grayscale” button. I haven’t found any method, no matter how complicated, that gives me better results than this one.

Let’s look at a sample image from a recent wedding:

Step 1: make sure you click on the boxes on the upper left and right corners of your histogram. These will display areas of absolute black and white on your images. Absolute black will show up as blue shading, and absolute white will show up as red shading.

Step 2: Hit the “Grayscale” button. This converts the image to b&w. This is just the first step. Sometimes the images look pretty good right here, but usually to my eye they look a little flat.

Step 3: To punch up the image and add contrast, I start by moving the “blacks” slider to the right. I do this until the areas that I think should be completely black turn to blue on my screen in the “develop” module. When I see dull b&w conversions, much of the problem is usually due to lack of true blacks. I may need to also move the exposure slider a bit to the right as well. This is what the image looks like in the develop module of Lightroom. Sometimes if I really need it I’ll also move the “contrast” slider a bit to the right, but usually just using the blacks and exposure sliders does the job.

That’s it, here’s the final result – a snappy b&w conversion in about 10 seconds. Try it and let me know how it goes.



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  • Joe

    Great tip, thanks (March 23, 2011 | 05:16pm)

  • Jack

    Another great post! Just wanted to mention a useful shortcut: you can hit the J key in the develop module and it'll show the absolutely blacks and whites as blue and red areas respectively (and J again to hide them). (July 01, 2011 | 10:09pm)