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Creating Black-and-White Images

There are two auto conversion methods for converting your images from color to black and white (one in the Basic panel and another in the HSL/Color/B&W panel), and no matter where you choose to do it from, the results are the same. Now, to me they just look really flat, and I honestly think you can do much better by doing it yourself. We’ll start with my preferred method for most color-to-black-and-white conversions, which lets you build on what you’ve already learned in this chapter.

Step One: In the Library module, find the photo you want to convert to black and white, and first make a virtual copy of it by going under the Photo menu and choosing Create Virtual Copy, as shown here (the only reason you do this is so when you’re done, you can compare your do-it-yourself method with Lightroom’s auto-conversion method side by side. By the way, once you learn to do the conversion yourself, I doubt you’ll ever want to use the auto method again). Press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to deselect the virtual copy, and then go down to the Filmstrip and click on the original photo.

Step Two: Now press D to jump to the Develop module and, in the right side Panels area, scroll down to the HSL/Color/B&W panel, then click directly on B&W on the far right of the panel header (as shown here). This applies an automatic conversion from color to black and white, but sadly it usually gives you the flat-looking B&W conversion you see here (consider this your “before” photo). The idea here is that you adjust the B&W auto con version by moving the color sliders. The thing that makes this so tricky, though, is that your photo isn’t color anymore. Go ahead and move the sliders all you want, and you’ll see how little they do by themselves. By the way, if you toggle the panel on/off button (circled here in red), you can see how bad this black-and-white would have looked if Lightroom had done the auto conversion for you without using the default conversion settings.

Step Three: Now, press the Right Arrow key on your keyboard to switch to that virtual copy you made, and I’ll show you my preferred do-it-yourself method. Go to the Basic panel (at the top of the right side Panels area), and in the Treatment section at the top, click on Black & White, and you get another flat-looking image (but that’s about to change). Most photographers want to create a really rich, high-contrast B&W image, so the first thing to do is make sure we’ve gotten all we can out of the highlights in the photo, so drag the Whites slider over to the right until the moment the “white triangle of death” (in the upper-right corner of the histogram) appears, then stop. Next, drag the Highlights slider just a tiny bit to the left until that white triangle turns dark gray again. Now you know you’ve gotten the maximum amount of highlights without clipping any of them away.

Step Four: Next, drag the Blacks slider over to the left a little until the photo doesn’t look so flat and washed out, and then increase the Contrast quite a bit. Now, there are those who believe that you should never let any part of your photo turn solid black, even if it’s a non-essential, low-detail area like a shadow under a rock. I’m not one of those people. I want the entire photo to have “pop” to it, and in my years of creating B&W prints, I’ve found that your average person reacts much more positively to photos with high-contrast conversions than to the flatter conversions that retain 100% detail in the shadows. If you get a chance, try both versions, show your friends, and see which one they choose. Once you increase the Contrast, his suit is going to be a little too dark, so increase the Shadows until you get some detail back. Overall, the photo seemed a little too bright, so I also decreased the Exposure a little.

Step Five: We’re going for a high-contrast black and white, so we can add even more contrast by clicking-and-dragging the Clarity slider quite a bit to the right (here I dragged to +49), which gives the midtones much more contrast and makes the overall photo have more punch and crispness.

TIP: Finding Out Which Shots Make Great B&W Images Go to a collection, press Command-A (PC: Ctrl-A) to select all of the photos, then press the letter V to temporarily convert them all to black and white, and now you can see which ones (if any) would make great B&W images. Press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to Deselect all the photos. When you see a great B&W candidate, click on it, then press P to flag it as a Pick. When you’re done, select all of the photos again and press V to return them to full color. Now all the photos that you think would make great B&W images are tagged with a Picks flag. Pretty handy.

Step Six: The final step is to add some sharpening. Since this is a portrait, the easiest thing to do is to go over to the left side Panels area, and in the Presets panel, under the Lightroom General Presets, choose Sharpen – Faces (as shown here) to apply a nice amount of sharpening for portraits. By the way, if that’s not enough sharpening, try the next preset down (which is really for landscape shots, and is called Sharpen – Scenic, but it’s worth trying). So that’s it. It’s not that much different from adjusting a color photo, is it? Now, I didn’t want to tell you this earlier, because I wanted you to learn this technique, but there’s a built-in preset that pretty much does all this for you. Click on the Reset button at the bottom right to reset your photo to the original color image, then go to the Presets panel, and under Lightroom B&W Presets, click on B&W Look 5. Don’t hate the playa. Hate the game.

Step Seven: Okay, we’re done with our conversion, but there’s one other thing you’ll want to know about, and that’s how to tweak an individual area of your B&W photo. For example, let’s say you wanted his suit to be brighter. You’d just go to the B&W panel again, click on the TAT (Targeted Adjustment tool—shown circled here), then click it on the part of his suit you want to be lighter, and drag straight upward. Even though the photo is now a black and white, it knows which underlying colors make up that area, and it moves the sliders for you to brighten that area (as shown here). The next time you need to brighten or darken (you’d drag down instead) a particular area, try using the TAT and let it do the work for you.

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