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Learning black & white

Discussion in 'Image Processing' started by flamingfish, Oct 22, 2015.

  1. flamingfish

    flamingfish Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Nov 16, 2012
    I've been playing with converting some images to B&W in Lightroom and (mostly) am ending up images that aren't very interesting. I feel like I'm not getting the whole B&W thing yet. I'd appreciate any recommendations for resources for learning how to do better B&W images, starting with recognizing which images are likely to work in B&W and going through the post-processing. Recommend books, videos, blogs, whatever.

    I know that a lot of folks use software other than LR for B&W conversions. If you think other software is essential, please say so, and recommend whatever you like. However, right now I'm feeling like I should get some grip on what I'm doing before I invest in other programs (although I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at anything good that's free.)

    I'm on a Mac, so I have iPhoto, not that I've looked at it since I got LR. I also have Photoshop Elements 12. I'm not interested in paying for Adobe CC unless someone gives me a really good reason.

    Many thanks! (If this is in the wrong section of the forum, please let me know.)
  2. Janez

    Janez Mu-43 Rookie

    Oct 12, 2015
    Why don't you post some photos. Boring might not be the most accurate description of what you think is lacking your B&W photos. Otherwise I think LR should suffice.
    • Agree Agree x 1
  3. Lcrunyon

    Lcrunyon Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Jun 4, 2014
    This is just my opinion, but I think that some people force b&w when they shouldn't. I'm sure there are many b&w photographers who compose and expose a shot with a particular b&w effect in mind, and it could be really great.

    But if that's not the case, don't overdo b&w filters/processing just for the sake of doing b&w. There needs to be a reason why a b&w version would be better than the original color version. Think of b&w like any other art filter. That's not meant to be a negative comment.

    b&w works best when there is something the photographer wants to emphasize or even isolate by removing the potential distraction of color. Texture, contrast, shadows, some lighting, or mood can be enhanced this way as long as color is extraneous to the effect. Sometimes, though, color actually helps the desired effect, and removing it only diminishes the image. That might be what's happening to your shots. Can't say for sure until we see some examples.
    • Agree Agree x 1
  4. dogs100

    dogs100 Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Nov 12, 2011
    N Devon UK
  5. nzdigital

    nzdigital Mu-43 Regular

    Oct 20, 2010
    New Zealand
    Hi Emily

    For a start - no, other software is not essential. You should be able to do all you need to do to convert to B&W successfully in LR or Elements.

    Again, without seeing some examples, I usually find that when people call their b&w images 'uninteresting' they generally lack contrast and look too 'flat'? Don't be scared to boost the contrast of a black and white image. When I was learning to print in the darkroom (a long time ago now), a teacher of mine would always tell us that a good black and white print should have white whites and black blacks within a good tonal range. I aim for this every time I convert an image to b&w.

    Another great way to get a feel for black and white is to set this mode on your camera and shoot in black and white. Don't know what camera you have, but with most you can see the image in black and white in the viewfinder, so you get to 'see' the world in black and white. Can be a very helpful exercise. If you shoot RAW + Jpeg, you'll still get a colour RAW images if you prefer the colour image later on. Might help?

    Keep experimenting - and share some images that you don't find 'interesting' so we can see what you mean :confused: 
    • Agree Agree x 3
  6. Generationfourth

    Generationfourth Mu-43 Regular

    Sep 11, 2015
    Lynda has a good course on this. One of the biggest take aways was to use B&W when color is too distracting. You kind of have to shoot with black and white in mind.

    View attachment 443489
    Dixie by Alan Galura, on Flickr
    ^Original: I always liked this photo but felt it never conveyed the actual feeling I felt when taking it.

    Subscribe to see EXIF info for this image (if available)

    Dixie wants to play in the snow by Alan Galura, on Flickr
    B&W edit: Subtract the color, make some adjustments, slight blue tone to "chill" the photo and ta-da!

    I would also suggest shooting BW film. It's a fun process that can be done at home and doesn't cost too much. For me it's a little more natural because I learned on B&W film in high school.
  7. GFFPhoto

    GFFPhoto Mu-43 All-Pro

    Feb 24, 2013
    I'm not sure about elements, but LR is pretty limited in what it can do with B&W conversions. Silverfx pro 2 is great and I would reccomend it highly (in fact all of the Nik tools suite is great and I think it's reasonably priced since Google bough them). I would imagine they have a trial period where you can try it first. If you want art quality conversions, it's a great investment. There are also Nik sponsored/created tutorials on the net you can watch which can help you see what it can do.
    • Agree Agree x 1
  8. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    Lightroom has at least 4 ways I know of to convert an image to black and white. You can do any of the following:

    - at the top of the Basic panel there's a heading "Treatment" with "Color" and "Black and White" as choices. Choose "Black and White".

    Alternatively, leave Treatment set to "Color" (the default), and you can convert to black and white by any of the following 3 methods I know:

    - just pull the Saturation slider in the Basic Panel all the way to the left to completely desaturate the image;

    - select "B&W" in the heading of the "HSL/Color/B&W" panel;

    - select "HSL" in the heading of the "HSL/Color/B&W" panel, then select "Saturation" and pull the sliders for all 8 separate colour bands all the way to the left, desaturating all 8 individual bands.

    All of these methods produce slightly different results, and they also give you slightly different options. In some of them the Vibrancy and Saturation sliders in the Basic panel don't work, and in some they do, producing tonal shifts as you adjust them. White balance can have an effect, changing the tonal balance between different colours. Buried down in the Camera Calibration panel are separate saturation sliders for the 3 sensor channels and they can have an effect. And that's all in addition to the fact that you can change the darkness/lightness of a given colour relative to other colours by using the luminance sliders in the HSL panel or the B&W panel if you've chosen that conversion method.

    Martin Evening's "The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book" gives a good account of all of these methods plus information on what controls can make a difference with different conversion methods. That's the best discussion of the different methods you can use in Lightroom that I've come across.

    I'll also pick up on Wayne's comment above about boosting contrast and suggest that you also experiment with boosting Clarity. I rarely use a Clarity setting above 20 with colour but I have been known to push it to 80 or 90 with a black and white conversion. I find that level of Clarity really destructive in a colour image but it can really help with some black and white images and I always end up using higher Clarity settings in black and white than I do in colour.

    You definitely don't have to use other software for black and white, you can do it all in Lightroom, but you have to learn how to achieve a lot of the effects you can achieve in order to get results you like. You can start, however, with the black and white presets that come with Lightroom and then adjust them rather than having to start from scratch with each image. I think all of the presets that come with Lightroom use the "B&W" conversion in the "HSL/Color?B&W" panel method but experimenting with them should give you a feel for what you can achieve and point you towards the areas you want to develop in your own approach.
    • Like Like x 2
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  9. rmcnelly

    rmcnelly Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Aug 21, 2015
    Portsmouth, VA
    I agree that Silver Efex Pro from the Nik software is wonderful for B&W editing.
  10. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman Subscribing Member

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    Its also worth getting to know the dodge and burn tools - many of the classic black and white images involved a lot of work at the printing stage to get the tones just where they were needed

    see this


    Last edited: Oct 22, 2015
    • Like Like x 1
    • Agree Agree x 1
  11. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    Definitely, but with the proviso that you can change how dark or light a particular tone in a black and white conversion is by adjusting the luminance for the original colour. That will work perfectly, without dodging or burning, if the tone you want to adjust only appears in one part of the image, or if you don't mind changing that tone everywhere in the image. If you want to adjust the tone of a given colour in only one part of the image, then you have no choice but to dodge or burn.

    We have a lot more flexibility and options with black and white with digital cameras than we had back in the film days, unless you choose to use a camera like the Leica Monochrome with a monochrome only sensor. Monochrome sensors reduce your flexibility and options considerably, but they do have advantages in other areas.
  12. jeffg53

    jeffg53 Mu-43 Veteran Subscribing Member

    Aug 22, 2012
    Sydney, Australia
    Jeff Grant
    I have been through the same process. I settled on Silver Efex although I mostly default to the default and work from there. I find it a lot easier to work with than any other method. You also need to think of the use of the image as you work. What might look great on a monitor may well look awful as a print. The other thing that really worked for me was to make images that are what I want rather than trying to follow the crowd.
    • Like Like x 1
  13. dancebert

    dancebert Mu-43 Veteran

    Jan 18, 2014
    Hua Hin, Thailand
  14. Replytoken

    Replytoken Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 7, 2012
    Puget Sound

    To add to this, I think that it helps to go back to the film days and learn how different color filters impact the contrast of an image. For example, use of a yellow filter allowed blue skies to pop in B/W images and have greater contrast against the clouds. With even a basic understanding of how filters impacted colors, one can then venture into LR's Develop module and have some understanding of what each of the controls is doing when you start adjusting each of the color channels.

    • Like Like x 1
    • Agree Agree x 1
  15. flamingfish

    flamingfish Mu-43 All-Pro Subscribing Member

    Nov 16, 2012
    Thanks, all! Some interesting ideas. I haven't had much time for photography this month, but when things lighten up, I'll play with some of these ideas.

    I think I have been afraid to push the Contrast and Clarity sliders in B&W. Mostly I've been processing the image the way I would for a color image, then using the HSL/B&W option to convert it. I was taught to do it that way in a Lightroom class, but I'm not sure that it's working for me.

    I think B&W can make images look timeless. Color images are too real.
  16. Ricoh

    Ricoh Mu-43 Top Veteran

    Nov 2, 2013
    The starting point, as always, is to get a properly exposed image in the camera, and apart from compositional considerations, the quality of the light is important; B+W photography works well if the captured image contains a good range of tones, including light and shadows.

    Lightroom is more than adequate for B+W treatment and for examples of what can be achieved, search Thomas Leuthard on Flickr or Facebook. Thomas has made it known that he does not enjoy PP'ing and spends no more than 2 minutes on each conversion. If you have a look at his gallery I'm sure you'll agree his work is amazing, even if you're not into street photography.

    As mentioned previously, SEP2 is an excellent B/W processing tool and I'd recommend Jason Odell's book 'The Photographer's Guide to Silver Effex Pro 2'.
  17. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    Push the sliders. You can't hurt anything, LR is non-destructive processing. Yes, you can push them too far but you just back off from that if you go too far and sometimes finding the right point with a slider does happen to require going too far and then backing off until the problems caused disappear and you're at a point just below where the problems appear.

    Plus playing with the sliders shows you what you can and can't accomplish with them and that's an important part of learning how to use a processing program.

    There's nothing wrong with processing for colour and then using the HSL/B&W option for conversion, that's what I think works best most of the time, but revisiting contrast and clarity after the conversion is a good idea because colour contrast plays a significant part in processing a lot of colour images and you lose that type of contrast on conversion.

    Also, if that's the way you want to work, play with the white balance sliders after conversion also because they can make a big difference also with some images, and don't be afraid to push them all the way to either end of the scale just to see what they can do. I always seem to end up somewhere other than the end of the scale but I also find with the white balance sliders that going too far and then backing off is the way to get to the point I want. You're not chasing the correct colour temperature and hue here, you're chasing the best tonal balance. Also, the Auto button in the B&W panel is based on white balance settings so try playing around with white balance to get an overall tonal balance you like and then clicking the B&W Auto button to see if that helps. It's easy to reset the auto result to normal if you don't like it.
    • Like Like x 1
  18. mattia

    mattia Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 3, 2012
    The Netherlands
    Honestly, if I know I'm going to shoot black and white, I will set B&W style in-camera, and sometimes boost the contrast a touch (taste) This gives you a decent preview in the viewfinder of what the result will be. Since I shoot raw, I still have full color available at the editing stage and use whatever B&W tools I'm in the mood for (sometimes simply DxO Optics Pro/LR, sometimes Nik Silver Efex), depending on subject matter.
    • Agree Agree x 1
  19. m4/3boy

    m4/3boy Mu-43 Veteran

    Jul 21, 2013
    LR isn't pretty limited for B&W conversions. It is extremely flexible if you understand what you are doing.

    I use NIK SEP and Topaz B&W software, both of which have unique tools. But I said LR has a lot of methods for converting to B&W which are different from other software, in any case avoid desaturating color to get B&W.
  20. I keep seeing Nik Silver Efex Pro mentioned, but when I search for, everything always says "no longer available". Where would I find it?
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