A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Black and White Photography

July 13 2016

by Philip Northeast

Photographers still use Adobe Lightroom to produce Black and White (B&W) photos despite the emergence of colour technology in the  middle of last century.


Creative considerations contribute to photographer’s desire to forsake colour. There is something about the simplicity of B&W reproduction that brings out details in greater clarity without the distraction of colour. Some subjects are naturally grey and they look insipid and flat with a small amount of colour. In B&W they have a drama from contrast that would look unnatural in colour.

Because B&W stopped being the mainstream prints for normal photography with the ascendance of colour photography and became the realm of the art and enthusiast photographers with easy film processing in home darkrooms people see a B&W photo and see it in a different light. It immediately is something out of the ordinary. Considering its artistic aspects more than a colour photo, not just a second rate snapshot.

Taking away the distraction of colour does not diminish the photograph. Removing the colour opens up other features for the viewer to concentrate on. Rendering the image in B&W  is another technique for photographers to emphasise elements in the scene they consider important.

black and white

Black and white is useful for portraits

When photographers create B&W portraits they strip away the colour and reveal the shape and texture of the face.

Another use is photographing old subjects or giving new subjects an older look. People are accustomed to looking at old photographs so they readily associate age with B&W photos. Old buildings are a popular example as there are probably existing B&W film originals, so creating a modern digital B&W version creates uncertainty about the age of the photograph.

black and white building

The old stone building with slight sepia and grain to help show its age


In film’s dominant era the simpler chemical processes made B&W an attractive technology for home  and small scale professional darkrooms. Ironically the advent of digital photographic technology  makes it easy to produce B&W photographs from colour originals. Photo processing software such as Adobe’s Lightroom has easy to use tools to create and optimise B&W images.

Digital photography works by taking three monochrome images through red, green, and blue coloured filters. This process saves the brightness of red, green, and blue sections of the light into the raw file for processing. In the raw conversion process it is possible to combine the brightness information into a B&W image. Colour JPEGs can be used as the basis for B&W photos. However, as with all processing, the loss of fine detail in JPEGs compared to the raw file limits the scope of adjustments.

The first step is using the Basic panel in Lightroom’s Develop module to adjust the exposure of the original colour photograph.   Although  there is a simple option to render colour images in B & W in the Basic Panel, it offers no special tools for optimising the B & W appearance of the image. Photographers should go to the B&W panel where there are a number adjustable sliders to adjust  the colour channels.

Lightroom references the colour information in the image file and uses it in the B&W mode to alter the brightness of the areas of the image associated with that colour. For example in the photograph of the old wooden fence  we can alter the brightness of the green grass under the fence with the green channel adjuster while the other areas of the image remain the same.

wooden fence in black and white

The weathered wooden fence

If the colour of the area you want to brighten or darken does not exactly match the colour of  a particular slider then there is the Targeted Adjustment tool. This uses a combination of colour sliders to match the tone of the target spot in the image.

lightroom panel

The B & W adjustment panel in Adobe Lightroom

The Targeted adjustment tool is located on the top left corner of the B & W panel. Click on the tool in the panel and the cursor changes to indicate the tool is active. Then move the pointer to the image preview window. Position the tool cursor on the area in the image to adjust and left click and hold then drag up and down to alter brightness at the initial point. Even though you may drag the tool away from initial target spot the target area it does not matter. It is only the start point that Lightroom uses. More than one of the sliders in the B & W adjustment panel may move.

Just remember even though we are talking colour, it is still a B&W image. We are altering the brightness of an area based on its original colour before we created a B & W view.  Because Lightroom is a non-destructive editing process the original colour photograph is still preserved. What is created is the ability to produce a B & W copy. This offers another method of selective editing of an image where we define an area for adjustment by its original colour.

Keyboard Tip

To get a quick comparison of the colour and B & W version use the “Y” key for before and after views. The “Y” key also turns the comparison off when you are finished.

That Old Look

New digital photographs are usually sharp with good contrast. Old prints were either not well made or have deteriorated over time. There are two tools in Adobe Lightroom’s Develop Module  for simulating this look.


This Black and White photograph of parts of a typewriter with sepia tone and grain added in Lightroom helping to show its age.

Split Tone

Old photographs often have a brown tint, known as Sepia. The Split Tone panel adds a colour tone to the image. To give a B & W image the Sepia look using this tool  adds a slight brown tint.

add sepia tone

Split Toning Panel for adding sepia tone to a black and white photograph

To choose the tone press and hold the ALT key on a PC, or the Option key on a Mac, while adjusting the Shadow Hue. This gives a full saturation preview of the colour tone to be added.

After setting the Hue adjust the saturation slider to optimise the added tone in the shadows. If this gives the mid tones too much colour, reduce it with  the balance slider.

Adding Grain 

As photography developed with chemical film one of the challenges was the visibility of the chemical structure in the photograph. This is “grain” and is particularly evident in low light, high ISO films, and small film in compact cameras.


The Effects Panel in Lightroom can add grain to a photograph

In Adobe Lightroom’s Develop module the Effects panel offers tools to simulate the look of old grainy B & W  photographs. As well as the amount  of grain there are sliders to adjust the size and roughness of the grain.

High Quality  B & W

Not all B & W photographs need to be poor quality. There were many memorable photographs taken using B & W film using large format cameras. Adding sepia tone and grain effects is not essential for digitally created B & W photographs, sometimes the highest quality is more suitable.


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