How to Edit Black and White Photos

convert a photo to black and white.

Editing black and white photos requires intuition and patience. With the help of a few black and white editing tricks, you’ll find it easy to draw attention to your work.

Whether you want to create a subtle or dramatic effect in your photos, these tips will help you make the most of your black and white editing sessions.

Choose the Right Editing Software

Before we dive into post processing, let’s look at a few popular editing programs and plug-ins. Every digital photographer needs a program that suits their individual needs. If you’re new to black and white photography, make sure to familiarise yourself with a few programs. 

Some of these are general editing programs. Others were made specifically for black and white photographers, so they may have a wider variety of tools to choose from. 

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to picking an editor. Most of these companies offer a free trial, so you’re free to experiment with different options before investing in anything.

Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop icons on laptop screen.

Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop 

Lightroom and Photoshop offer all kinds of tools that you can use to enhance colour and black and white photos. In Lightroom, you can use sliders and adjustment brushes to make any kind of photo stand out.

In Photoshop, you have an even greater selection of editing tools that are perfect for conceptual work, retouching, and more. With the help of a single adjustment layer, you can convert your photos to black and white and make them look professional. 

Adobe Camera RAW

Adobe Camera RAW processes RAW images. If you primarily shoot RAW, you’ll find it easy to convert and edit your photographs using this tool.

While it’s not suitable for black and white photographers only, it can be a great program for anyone who frequently needs to convert and edit their RAW files. 

Nik Silver Efex

Created by DxO, Nik Silver Efex is a plug-in for black and white photographers who want to have full control over their work. This is a convenient option for anyone who already has Photoshop and Lightroom. You can edit your photos directly in these programs.

The plug-in has adjustments like Dynamic Brightness, Amplify Blacks, and Structure. If you’re looking for an immersive editing experience, this plug-in may be a good option for you. 

Exposure X7

Exposure X7 is available as a standalone editor and a Photoshop or Lightroom plug-in. Like the first two programs, it’s made for photographers of all kinds and offers a selection of black and white photography tools.

This program is known for its unique editing effects and filters. You can create artistic blur and texture to give your black and white photos a stylistic look.

How to Edit Black and White Photos

This article will teach you how to edit black and white images in Adobe Lightroom Classic, but you can use any program that you like. Most programs having similar editing tools, so you can easily follow along.

If you want to improve your black and white photography skills, make sure to check out our Black and White Photography Course. It’s a budget-friendly online class for anyone who has a busy schedule. Within a month, you’ll learn how to take stunning B&W photos of anything that catches your eye!

Once you’ve uploaded your photos, click on the Develop module to start editing your photographs.

basic editing module in lightroom.

Convert to Black and White

Black and white conversion is necessary if you’re working with color images. You can approach this in 4 ways:

  • Use a saturation slider. Drag the saturation all the way to -100. Take note that this will give you very limited editing options later. If you just want to convert your photos to black and white and make a few simple adjustments, you can use this method. 
  • Click on Black & White, which is located next to Color at the top of the Basic panel. This will give you more editing options later on.
  • Click on Color, located next to Profile in the Basic Panel, and select Monochrome. 
  • Use black and white filters. In Photoshop CC, these filters are called actions. In Lightroom, they’re called presets. Filters are an easy way to convert images to black and white and give them a stylistic look.
B&W adjustment sliders in Adobe Lightroom Classic.

Use Adjustment Sliders

If you use the saturation slider to convert your photos to black and white, you might notice that something is missing. Without any adjustments, a black and white image may look bland and uninteresting compared to its color version.

You can easily fix this by editing black and white tones with the help of adjustment sliders. These sliders are a crucial part of the black and white editing process. In Lightroom, you can find these colour sliders under a panel called B&W. (This panel will not be visible if you drag the Saturation slider to -100.)

black and white editing example of ladybug sitting on a leaf.

If you drag the sliders to the left, you’ll darken specific colours in your black and white images. If you drag them to the right, you’ll lighten the colours that correspond to the sliders you adjust. This is an effective way to create more contrast, deepen shadows, and improve the overall look of your photos.

Let’s say you have a black and white photo of a ladybug sitting on a green leaf. You can create contrast by dragging the Red slider to the left and the Green slider to the right. This will darken the ladybug and brighten the leaf. You can also try it the other way around to lighten the ladybug and darken the leaf. It’s up to your style as a photographer.

basic adjustment sliders to improve black and white photos.

Create Contrast

After enhancing your black and white image, go to the Basic panel. The tools in this panel will help you fine tune your image.

To make your black and white photo pop, it’s important to create contrast. You can do this by dragging the contrast slider to the right. If you do this subtly, you’ll get interesting results.

You can also increase contrast by brightening highlights and darkening shadows. Alternatively, you can use the Tone Curve tool – located right under the Basic panel – to fine tune your image.

dehaze tool.

Differentiate Between Texture, Clarity, and Dehaze

The texture, clarity, and dehaze tools can help you improve your black and white photos within seconds. While they serve the same purpose, they have their own unique characteristics.

  • Texture – This will boost the contrast of details in your photos. Unlike the sharpening slider in the Details panel, it won’t create noise in your black and white photos. It will create a sharp 3D effect. 
  • Clarity – The clarity slider is in charge of enhancing mid-tones only. As a result, you’ll be able to create a balanced and sharp look in photographs that lack depth. 
  • Dehaze – This tool is perfect for photos that lack deep shadows. In black and white landscape photography, this can be a result of fog, haze, or smoke. If your photos have a foggy look, drag the dehaze slider to the right.

All of these effects will work if you drag the sliders to the right. If you drag them to the left, you’ll get the opposite effect. 

If you want to create a soft black and white photography look in your work, try dragging the clarity or texture slider to the left. To create a foggy look in your images, drag the dehaze slider to the left. 

adjustment brush tool.

Use a Brush to Make Selective Edits

What if you just want to make your main subject stand out? What if you want the model’s eyes to look sharper without affecting any other part of your photo? If you want to make a specific area of your black and white photo stand out, use the masking tool.

In the Develop module, right above the Basic panel, you’ll find a selection of 5 icons. Click on the last icon – a circle surrounded by dotted lines. Click on Brush.

Adjust the brush’s size using the sliders at the top of the panel. Set Feather to 100. This will create a soft edge around your brush that will make your selective edits look natural.

using the masking tool in Lightroom.

Adjust the slider(s) that you’d like to use in your image. If you want bright highlights in certain areas of your photo, drag the highlights slider to the right. If you want to sharpen your model’s eyes, you can pick between the clarity and texture sliders.

Then, brush over the areas that you’d like to change. If the effect is too strong, adjust the sliders again. When you’re done, click on the circular icon again to close the brush panel.

color grading tool.

Create an Atmosphere Using Colours

Once you’re happy with all the changes you’ve made, you can move on to creating a specific atmosphere in your image. You can experiment with colour effects or add grain to your photos.

This step is optional, but it can help you develop your own unique style as a black and white photographer. 

Scroll down to the Colour Grading panel. In this section, you can add colours to the mid-tones, shadows, and highlights of your photo. Drag the circle in the middle of the colour wheel to any colour. The farther you get from the centre of the circle, the more intense the colour effect. 

If you’re going for a subtle look, a hint of colour will be more than enough to create a pleasant black and white balance. In most cases, colour grading black and white photos result in vintage-looking images. This is an interesting effect, but it might not be suitable for every kind of style.

Common Black and White Photography Editing Mistakes

If you edit a black and white image for too long, you might go overboard. Over processing is a very common mistake in black and white photography editing. 

If you avoid the following mistakes, you’ll be able to have a stress-free editing experience and create stunning black and white images every time. 

laptop showing Lightroom Classic display.

Editing JPEG Files

This is a mistake that you need to avoid during the shooting process. JPEG files are compressed, so they’re not as dynamic when it comes to editing. 

RAW files, on the other hand, are larger and uncompressed. You’ll have more creative options and flexibility when you edit them.

If shooting RAW isn’t an option, don’t worry too much about it. When you have the chance to upgrade your equipment, make sure that there is an option to shoot RAW. You’ll notice a significant difference in your editing sessions when you have the chance to edit uncompressed black and white photos!

Here is an article related to the differences in Raw and Jpeg file formats.

editing contrast in Lightroom.

Too Much Contrast

Every black and white photograph requires a different amount of editing. If you have a set of dull black and white photos with lots of neutral grey areas, you might be tempted to drag the contrast slider all the way to the right. In most cases, doing that isn’t going to result in flattering images.

There are many ways to increase contrast in Lightroom. You can create beautiful black and white highlights using the highlights and whites sliders. You can create dark, pure black shadows with the help of the shadows and blacks sliders.

If used carefully, each of these adjustment tools will help you make your whole image look visually appealing. 

changing clarity and texture.

Too Much Clarity or Texture

As mentioned earlier in this article, clarity and texture are useful tools that can help you make a simple black and white photo stand out. If you don’t want to apply them to specific areas of your image, make sure to use them carefully. If you slowly drag the sliders to the right, you might not notice how unnatural your black and white shot looks.

When it comes to any editing tool, it’s good to develop a habit of going back and forth to make sure that your edits aren’t too dramatic. (Unless that’s the look you’re going for!) Drag the slider back to 0 if something doesn’t look right. If the original photo looks better, go back and make subtler edits. 

black and white photo of animal.

Conclusion

Black and white photo editing doesn’t need to be challenging or time-consuming.

To make your black and white photographs stand out, emphasise different tones in your photos and experiment with different adjustment sliders. The more you do this, the easier it will be to create black and white masterpieces that you’re proud to share with others. 

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