A Color Photographer’s Conversion To B&W

Text & Photography by Chuck Place©

I have been a photographer for over 40 years and recently have developed a real interest in black & white photography.

Like all photography, it’s a journey and I am inviting all of you to join me in exploring the medium of black and white.

In order to pre-visualize in black and white, I realized that I need to learn b&w processing. I will be doing most of my black and white conversions in Adobe  Lightroom. It is my primary post-production tool for color images and works quite well in b&w. I also have a b&w plug-in for Lightroom called Silver Efex Pro 2. By now I’m sure there is a newer version of Silver Efex, but I’m using what I have.

I will continue to shoot in RAW and convert the color image. When color is stripped out of an image, b&w photographs are all about shapes, contrast and texture. I especially notice the increased impact of texture and contrast without the “distraction” of color. It’s almost as if you can feel the texture of surfaces.

Sand dunes, Death Valley

In the B & W Panel, I used the Adjustment Point Tool. The warm orange tone of the face of these dunes in Death Valley National Park was selected and lightened.

Along those lines, I first started converting color landscape images. I started with sand dunes, just like pretty much every landscape photographer in the Western U.S. These dune images become quite graphic and even more sensuous in b&w than color.

Although there are several different ways to approach black and white conversion in Adobe Lightroom, I found a 4-step workflow that gives me lots of choices but can be quite simple if I choose to go that way.

First, make a virtual copy of the original color file. Command ‘ is the shortcut or go to Photo in the toolbar at the top of the screen and scroll down to “Create Virtual Copy”. This keeps the original color image visible which will soon become useful in adjusting the luminance of certain areas. Click on the Develop module and under “Basic” on the upper right, click on “Black & White”.  This gives you a basic b&w version of your color original. You can stop right there if you are happy with the results.

Redwood grove

This moody landscape from Redwood National Park easily converted to a b&w image. I increased the contrast a little for texture and lightened the foggy area slightly with the Adjustment Brush. Easy.

My second step is usually to make local adjustments to areas of the image I want lighter or darker using either the Adjustment Brush or the Graduated Filter in the top panel on the right side of the image window. I can also make a more detailed selection by using the B & W Panel, also on the right. Click on the Adjustment Point Tool in the upper left of this panel and drag your cursor across an area of the image that you would like to darken or lighten. The cursor selects the original color of the area and you can use the sliders to change the luminosity of the selected area. https://www.slrlounge.com/understanding-each-section-in-the-hslcolorbw-panel-in-lightroom-4/

Sand dunes, Death Valley

In the B & W Panel, I used the Adjustment Point Tool. The warm orange tone of the face of these dunes was selected and lightened.

The next step I try is a shortcut of sorts. I see how my image looks using one of the Presets located in Lightroom. There are quite a few. I also check out the Presets in Silver Efex Pro. In either case, a preset allows me to get close to how I want the finished image to look. https://nikcollection.dxo.com/silver-efex-pro/

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

One of the B&W Presets in Lightroom was chosen to bring out the texture in these sandstone cliffs in Canyonlands National Park.

Lastly, I’ll fine tune contrast using the Shadow and Highlight sliders in Lightroom’s Basic Panel and dodge and burn specific areas with the Adjustment Brush. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGUKd_FV-y8

It actually takes longer to read this than to perform the 4 steps necessary to produce a successful black and white image. In many ways it reflects the traditional steps of shooting a b&w negative and making a final print. Less messy but very similar.

As I convert existing color images to black and white, I am also getting a feel for what works well in b&w and what doesn’t.

As Ansel Adams commented, “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it”.

I’m working on that twelve inches and pretty soon I may actually start pre-visualizing in black and white. That’s my goal at least.

Check out my upcoming classes this Spring at https://www.chuckplacephotography.com/Workshop&Classes/Classes/