My Digital Black and White Workflow – Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog post, I reviewed my basic digital workflow for processing images in Adobe Lightroom. In Part 2, I will use these same processing tools and apply them to creating my black and white photographs. My goal is to replicate the “previsualization” I felt as I was making the photograph.


#1. The section I always begin within the Lightroom Develop module is Lens Corrections/Profile. For most camera/lens combinations, this information is automatically embedded in the image file and recognized by the Lightroom software after checking the Remove Chromatic Aberration & Enable Profile Corrections.


#2. I then go up to the top of the Develop module and under the Basic section, click on the Black and White tab. Given the original DNG file is a color image, clicking on this doesn’t change or remove the color information from the file, it only changes how the file is displayed. The red, green, blue (RGB) color information is still contained in each pixel. This will become important later in the workflow process.

#3. Starting with the Exposure slider, I begin adjusting the Histogram to keep the pixel values representing everything from white to black within the range that will display detail in them. I then move to the Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Black sliders, making adjustments back and forth between all four of them as I watch not only the Histogram but also what affect it has on the image. Adjusting one will sometimes require another slider to be readjusted. Once I get an image that begins to look acceptable in terms of exposure and containing all the values in the image file, I adjust the Clarity slider. This literally opens up the mid-tones (in this case the man’s clothes), and begins to add “depth” to the image.

#4. Moving to the Detail section, I adjust Sharpening. The only slider I move here is the Amount and I set this to 70 as my default. The Sharpening control doesn’t make up for not focusing correctly or a lens that isn’t as “sharp” as it could be, but rather it creates more contrast between light and dark pixels. This “contrast” gives the appearance of the image being sharper.


#5. Moving to the bottom of the Develop module, I adjust the Dehaze slider to the “+” side, which cuts through the atmospheric haze common in most landscape images. In this image, the adjustment makes the clouds more visible and separates the man from the mountains behind him. Under the Post-Crop Vignetting adjustment, moving the Amount slider to the left begins to darken and add density in the corners of the image.


#6. If there is one adjustment that really helps me realize the image I previsualized, it is up in the Black & White Mix module. As stated earlier, while the image is displayed as black and white, the underlying information contained in each pixel is still color. Adjusting any of those color channels changes the grayscale tone represented by it in the image.

In the past using black and white film, I had the choice to adjust the tones of how colors were represented in the image by placing a color filter over the camera lens while making the exposure. If I wanted the greens in the image to be a lighter shade of gray, I would use a green filter, thereby giving the film more exposure to the green tones. The problem with film was practically speaking, I could only use one filter at a time and I had to choose which filter/adjustment was more important for the image I was trying to create. Digital has changed all of that.

In the image above, I have reduced the blue channel which makes the sky appear darker. Increasing the orange channel lightens up the mountains in the background while also giving more detail in his skin. Reducing green darkens the grass while increasing yellow brightens the light hitting the scene and also adds some contrast. How much to I adjust each channel? It all depends on the image and how I want to make it feel. Usually adjusting one channel has some affect on other channels, so it becomes a matter of first making larger moves with the slider and then fine tuning each until I get to the point where I can “feel” the image become almost 3D as I emphasize the difference between tones.


#7. I finalize the image by moving to the Tone Curve module and fine-tuning the values in the image until I find the point where it feels like I saw it when making the photograph.

Since of all the photographs I capture there are only a small percentage of them I actually “develop” to a final image, I go through this same process with each of them. I don’t create any presets to apply globally to images nor do I use the copy and paste adjustment feature in Lightroom. I use the basic information captured with each image as a starting point for creating a final black and white photograph which best represents how I felt while making it and how I want you, the viewer to feel when viewing it.




One comment

  1. Really informative description of how to tweak for good B & W images. I like the detail yet simplicity of the approach. The images of the Lightroom controls are large enough to be easily read which is unusual in these tutorials. My aged eyes appreciate that very much. A great job of instruction. Keep it up.

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