There's nothing like a good black and white conversion for adding emotion and mood to a photograph. But if you have a hard time seeing in black and white, it can be difficult to achieve the tonal range and contrast that brings a photograph to life. Muddy conversions and a lack of tonal contrast can be fixed with a couple easy tweaks.
1. Set Up Your Workspace For Success
Before you make a single adjustment to your image, the best (and easiest) trick is to set up your workspace for success. In the Develop module, change the background from Lightroom’s default medium gray to white. It’s almost always the whites in a black and white conversion that make an image feel muddy, and if you give your eye something to compare it to, it’s much easier to get those whites truly white.
In the Develop module, either right- or double-click on the background next to the image, and then click “white.” Easy as can be, and you may find that those muddy whites are a thing of the past.
Lightroom’s default workspace background is gray.
Set up a white workspace by hovering your cursor over the background, then double- or right-click to select “white.”
2. Think Beyond the Contrast Button
If you are trying to get that clean, high contrast, “black-blacks and white-whites” look to your black and white conversion, it can be easy to think that the contrast button will get you there. And it will—but I’ve found there’s a better, more controlled way. Rather than relying on the contrast adjustment to increase the tonal range of your image, make those decisions yourself through more specific adjustments. Manipulate the black, white, shadow, and highlight sliders below the contrast button, as well as the tone curve, and you’ll be able to fine-tune the final look of your conversion in a way that will add greater life to it. You may still want to use the contrast option, but if you learn to see how each individual tonal range adjustment changes the look of your image, you’ll have more control.
Black and white conversion with only contrast applied.
Black and white conversion with each tone adjusted, creating more depth and nuance.
Before (left), with only contrast adjustments, and after (right), with most adjustments made via the individual tones.
And if you aren’t using the tone curve panel yet, please start! It can be intimidating at first, but it's just another way of making those same adjustments to highlights, whites, shadows, and blacks. If you aren’t sure where to start, in the drop-down menu below the tone curve, choose “medium contrast.” This brings up a basic s-curve in the tone curve panel, and from there, just grab a point and pull it up or down gently and see how it affects the look of your image. You can also use the target option in the tone curve panel (upper left tool, shown below), and place it over a tone in the image you want to increase or decrease. You can watch how the tone curve responds, and it’ll show you how each tone translates onto the curve.
3. Use the HSL Panel
In addition to tonal adjustments, making color luminance adjustments in the HSL panel can have a huge impact on the final look of your conversion. In this image, I wanted the stripes in the girl’s sweatshirt to stand out more. Those stripes create texture and dimension to strengthen the black and white conversion. But upon conversion, the purple of her sweatshirt blended in with the white of the stripes. I overcame that by decreasing the purple gray levels and darkening the purple. That’s where understanding how colors behave when they are converted to black and white can give you an edge in your processing.
Before + After: To increase texture in this image, I decreased the purple gray tones so that the girl’s sweatshirt would have more dimension.
Purple gray tone set at -9.
Purple gray tone set at -45.
You can also use this trick to minimize things that you don’t want as obvious. In this image, my daughter is lying on a brown couch with a green blanket on the right side. In the initial conversion, the green blanket converted to a light enough tone that I felt it was distracting. Simply decreasing the green slider in the HSL panel deepened the tones of the blanket so that it blended into the background and was less distracting.
Straight out of camera
Original black and white conversion
Black and white conversion with darkened green-gray tone
Just remember that in Lightroom if you make an adjustment to one color, it affects the tone of anything that same color in the image. You can use this trick to get skin tones creamier and brighter (by increasing the orange, red, and/or yellow adjustment tool) or to lighten blue eyes that go too dark when converted (by increasing the blue).
By using these three steps to achieve a better tonal range in your black and white conversions and thinking about how colors translate to tones, you’ll get the best tonal range out of each edit and your finished photographs will be stronger and tell a deeper, more emotional story . . . regardless of your subject.
Kate Densmore wants to live in a world where women see themselves reflected in the simple beauty of their every day; where they find the confidence to be proud of the life they've built and know that they are, unequivocally, enough. As a sought-after family documentary photographer, workshop instructor, and mentor, she seeks light, emotion, and authenticity in everything she photographs.
When she's not documenting families all over the world or encouraging others to follow their photographic dreams, you can find her spending time with her husband and two young daughters at their national park home (currently the Grand Canyon, Arizona), and dreaming up ways to best illustrate the emotional themes of motherhood, connection, and family in her work.
Kate makes beautiful, emotional photographs of families in their homes (or wherever they're most comfortable). Her eBook, Stories of Home: The Art of Photographing Family, is full of practical, creative, and sound advice for making better photographs, no matter who you photograph.