There are most likely as many ways to achieve a beautiful B&W look as there are photographers. Maybe I am exaggerating it a little, but then I am in love with B&W. It is not as if I don’t like colour, oh no. It’s just that I like the “classic” look that much. So today, instead of doing some general article on B&W conversion and trying to cover several different looks, I am going to pick out a photograph and just work on it until it is exactly how I pre-visualized it a second before pressing that shutter. First of all, though, we need a photograph. I think I have just the right one.
Before We Start
Low-contrast photography is not everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. In fact, a lot of people will absolutely hate it, because, well, it’s not really what you’d call the popular choice – many think that low-contrast means lacking in contrast or associate it with flat. Some also believe that the more contrast there is, the better. It is fair to say that low-contrast photographs are nowhere near as eye-catching as the high-contrast B&W photographs you’ve certainly seen before. That does not make them in any way inferior. So if that is your thing, low-contrast images seem somehow under-processed to you and you feel you might get irritated by a different opinion, the best advice I can give you is to skip this article altogether and wait for the next one that will cover a different sort of conversion with a different sort of subject and mood, too.
Also note that the conversion I chose in this case is extremely subtle and the actual difference you are going to see depends immensely on both your taste in B&W photography as well as your monitor calibration. There are so many ways to convert images to B&W, this isn’t even a scratch on the surface, barely a drop of water in the ocean. At that, it is also really very simple and does not involve anything remotely complex. That was the intention. The end result is far from something you would see on the cover of a magazine, but then, not everything should be suitable for that.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the photograph I chose to work on.
There is almost nothing special about this portrait, and that is what I like about it. The simplicity of the elements in the frame, the very fact that there are so few of them. The calm, deep, thoughtful mood of the bride – I don’t think she even noticed I was there that second. The very simple, and even more than that – very beautiful natural light coming from a window just behind my shoulder, and the natural, rapid falloff the deeper you look into the room partly responsible for the said lack of elements. There wasn’t that much space for me to position myself – I am basically sitting on the windowsill – but I am glad I managed to squeeze in in front of her to take this photograph. Even though the dress seemingly should have been on the right side of the frame – something I could not arrange at the time – to balance out the overall composition (two bright elements on the left side and so much negative space on the right), in the end I am happy with it as is. Might not be by the book, but this time perhaps all the better for it. For me, it is a keeper and I can not imagine it in anything else but B&W tonality. But before we get to the result, here is the imagine I am starting with:
The image you see above is almost as it came straight out of camera. It was taken with my trusty Nikon D700, the versatile 50mm f/1.4 lens at f/1.4, ISO 200 and shutter speed of 1/320th of a second. The only changes that I did make before taking the screenshots are the changes that I always start with – lens correction to counter any slight distortion there was as well as quite significant vignetting (something I rarely do, but because of the composition it was not working well for this image), my default sharpening settings (Amount: 75; Radius: 1,3; the rest at their default Lightroom values), and White Balance. And while the portrait might look just about presentable as is, it is not what I saw through the viewfinder.
This is, or at least as close as I managed.
As I’e mentioned before and as you will notice straight away, this is not your regular magazine look – the bride’s skin is not pearl white, her hair is not pitch black and the photograph itself is not super contrasty. In fact, there is no black in the image at all, just very dark grey. And, quite obviously, not everyone will like such a look, it might seem too flat at first, before the eye gets used to it. Right now, I do. I find it… more subtle, with more emphasis not on the luminance, but on the light and how it bathes the subject. In a couple of years I will almost certainly no longer like it, but then that is how growth works.
If you, like me, do like the look, I have some good news for you. It is very easy to achieve and straight away there are two choices. The first one – and the one I choose more often than not – is to use VSCO’s original film pack. Eight times out of ten the Ilford HP5+ preset is exactly what I want (and it’s my favourite B&W film, too) with just one or two minor tweaks. It’s how I see. The second way to do it is manually and whilst it does take a little longer than just selecting a preset, it’s not really what I’d call complex. So how about we start?
A side note: you will also notice I did not do any retouching/airbrushing. Not because I am lazy, mind you. There is a good reason for that, but that is a whole different subject to discuss. Sometime soon, perhaps.
1) Choosing Your Starting Point
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the first steps when converting an image to black and white are exactly the same as they are when working with colour – I try to get the WB right, apply sharpening and see if any optical imperfections need to be fixed. If necessary, I would adjust the Exposure as well, but there is always a good chance that this particular setting will need further adjustment as you go. After that, the basic conversion to B&W needs to be done as a starting point. With Lightroom, you have at least four ways to do it:
- Treatment, Basic Tab – set the Treatment at the top of the Basic Tab on the right-side panel in Develop Module to Black & White;
- Saturation slider, Basic Tab – set Saturation to -100 at the bottom of the Basic Tab;
- Saturation sliders, HSL Tab – set the Saturation of each colour separately in the HSL/Color/B&W Tab;
- B&W, HSL/Color/B&W Tab – select B&W section in the HSL/Color/B&W Tab, which is effectively the same as the first option, choosing Black & White Treatment at the top of the Basic Tab;
Strangely enough, each initial conversion method (bar the first and the last one as they are essentially the same) results in a slightly different look. If you choose B&W as the Treatment (as I did in this case), Lightroom will automatically assign certain values in the B&W Tab based on its analysis of the image. Whether you find those adjustments to your liking or not is very personal and depends on each individual photograph. When working with this particular photograph, either with Lightrooms automatic adjustments or not, the start was already pretty good. In the end, I zeroed all the values and started from scratch:
For someone who is a little bit less picky than I am this is already very close to the final result. But then I am picky, so let’s move on to the next step.
2) Tone Curve
What is likely among the most powerful tools in Lightroom or indeed any post-processing software, Tone Curve is where I do the most to achieve the look that I want. In fact, in many cases Tone Curve in conjunction with the HSL/Color/B&W Tabs is all you need for beautiful B&W. The first thing I did with the Tone Curve in this particular instance is switch it to Edit Point Curve mode, as shown in the following screenshot:
This allows free transformation without Lightroom’s aid of keeping the curve smooth. There, I limit the tonal range of the photograph by “cutting off” blacks and whites a little bit. To do that, you just need to drag the extremes of the tone curve that represent the blacks and whites up and down, respectively. What that does is basically turn blacks and whites into either dark or light grey. In this case, I upped the black point to around 13.3% grey and lowered the white point to around 98.8% grey, so that there is no absolute white in the image, and no absolute black, just a wide range of grey tones. Take a look at the changes I’ve made in the Edit Point Curve mode, and how that affects the Histogram:
A side note: to learn more about such Tone Curve adjustment and some of my reasons behind it, read our “That Classic Vintage Look” article where I explain it in a bit more detail.
Not done with the Tone Curve yet. Because I moved the Black Point up a bit to limit the tonal range of the image and omit deep blacks, the rest of the Curve has also lifted slightly, which means the image lost contrast and got a little brighter. To fix that, I left the Edit Point Curve mode and, after some going back and forth, adjusted the Tone Curve sliders like so:
- Highlights: +5
- Lights: +9
- Darks: -28
- Shadows: -15
Overall, the portrait starts to resemble the final look that I want in terms of general level of contrast and tonal range, but not quite in terms of exposure. Overall, I still find it too bright, but there are some very specific areas that I think should be a little more prominent (the bride’s face). A quick double-press of the minus key on the keyboard sets the Exposure to -0.20 and fixes my issue with overall brightness, but the more local adjustment will still require two more steps. For now, here is how the image looks after Tone Curve and Exposure adjustment:
3) HSL/Color/B&W Tab
Before I applied Exposure slider adjustment, overall I found the image to be a little too bright, save for one particular area – the bride’s face, which was more or less how I wanted. After dialing in -0.20 Exposure, the whole image got “darker” as I wanted it to, but so did the bride’s face. With this step, I am going to lighten it up a little again.
This “more local” adjustment, in a somewhat peculiar way, involves working with colour. What I am interested in is the skin tones which consist of a some red, yellow (perhaps most of all) and orange colour. Since the brightness of the bride’s face is almost as I want it, the adjustment is going to be very subtle and done in the B&W section of the HSL/Color/B&W Tab (because of my initial conversion to B&W choice). You can see the changes that I’ve made on the left, it was enough to lighten the bride’s skin just enough. Were I not as happy with some of the other tones in the image, I’d have had to adjust more sliders, but as it is I found nothing distracting enough to be worth toning down and risk potentially compromising the smoothness of tones, which would require further fixing.
4) Radial Filter and Adjustment Brush
Now that the overall contrast, tonality and exposure of the image is how I want it, time to subtly increase the prominence of some of the bride’s facial features by emphasizing the shadows. Two simple ways to achieve that – use either the Radial Filter tool, the Adjustment Brush or both. For me, I thought I’d go with Radial Filter tool alone this time. Because I am going for a low-contrast look, the adjustment is, again, extremely subtle and involves just two settings within the tool – Shadows, which I set to -21 so as to make them slightly darker, and Clarity, which I set to +17 to emphasize the shadows further as well as make her eyelashes somewhat more prominent. I also marked the Invert Mask checkbox so that the changes take place inside the selection and not outside of it.
Applying Clarity has also emphasized what you might call “skin imperfections”, but in this particular case I did not find that objectionable (not to mention that her husband would most likely call them facial features and, as they are part of her, it is also something he almost certainly loves). In any case, I am not a fan of the “plastic look” and the soft window light itself has done enough to smooth her skin.
One last final touch is a little bit of grain to make the image seem more organic. The settings I chose in the Grain section of the Effects Tab are as follows:
- Amount: 14
- Size: 38
- Roughness: 61
And so I am done with the adjustments. Naturally, the settings that I specified, I did not select them at first try – there was a lot more adjustment involved before I settled down with the numbers and choices that you saw described. The best way for me to check whether I liked the progress I was making or not, and whether I liked the final look, was to use Lightroom’s Lights Out mode. With Lights Out, Lightroom allows you to dim or completely turn off all elements of the program except for the image itself for preview purposes (press “L” to go to “Lights Dim” or “Lights Off” modes). I set my Lights Out color to white. This lets me preview the image in a black background when in normal working environment (Lights On) and see how it looks in a white one when I choose the “Lights Dim” or “Lights Off” viewing modes.
A side note: if you are yet unfamiliar with Lights Out viewing mode and would like to set it up, you’ll find the necessary settings in Interface Preferences dialogue which I covered in this article.
I hope you found the article useful. If this sort of B&W conversion is not to your taste, however, don’t be disappointed – perhaps you will find what you’re looking for in our article on high-contrast B&W conversion.