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Creating Your High-Contrast Black and White Look
Getting a consistent look from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom can be a bit tricky. Unless you’re 100% sure where you want to go with an image before you start—and who ever is?—you’ll spend a lot of time playing with sliders.
What I like to do instead is work from high quality presets. With a good preset you can quickly get an image to a strong starting place and work from there. Presets work using Lightroom’s tools so everything is completely tweak-able.
Some of the best presets are produced by Lookfilter, and in this tutorial I use one of their filters to quickly create a high-contrast black and white conversion. Doing this from scratch in Lightroom or Photoshop would have taken me far longer to reach the same quality results.
Lookfilter has three major packs of presets: Limited Editions Volume 1, Black and White Volume 1 and Vintage Volume 1. The Black and White, and Vintage packs are available together in the Complete Collection. There are 12 presets in the Limited Editions, 20 the Black and White, and 20 in the Vintage.
There are great presets in every pack but for this tutorial I’m just going to focus in on the Black and White presets.
Working From a Lookfilter Preset
The image I’m working on is from a shoot with one of my favourite models, Ali Clarke. It was made in an alley at night, and lit by a street lamp. This scenario created some problems: the image is underexposed and is much too orange.
Step 1: Assess the Image and Previsualise
Think about the picture you are working on. What does it need? What do you want to add emphasis to in the image, and what do you remove emphasis from? What would you like the final image to communicate?
Though it has some issues, this picture still lends itself well to a dramatic, high-contrast look. The night setting is a good starting point: the light is was already moody and very contrasty. Ali's look is full of drama too. I'd like to emphasise these things.
The exposure is dark, but fixable. At this level of underexposure I won’t be able to pull too much detail out of the shadows, but that's alright. The important part of the picture is intact: Ali's face. The colour situation is less good. There is very little I can do, even with a RAW image, to neutralise the strong colour cast on her skin.
Step 2: Basic Corrections
Before applying a preset, crop the image if desired and apply any lens corrections.
Step 3: Previews
Once you've made your basic corrections, hover your cursor over the installed presets. In the Navigator panel you will see a preview of what the image will look like with each preset applied.
I considered all the presets—many of them would have worked well—before settling on Number 6. I like the level of contrast and also the slight sepia toning. I hadn’t had any plans to tone the image but working with presets allows for some great moments of serendipity like this.
Step 4: Apply the Preset
Click the preset to apply it to the image.
With the preset applied the image looks great. While I could tweak the exposure or contrast I don’t feel there’s any need to. The only thing left to do is to fix some of the local problems with the image.
Step 5: Local Adjustments
Working from the Lookfilter preset, we get a great starting point with a single click.
There are only three things left that I want to fix with our example image. First, Ali’s eyes are too dark and covered in shadows. Second, I want to keep the detail in her jumper. Third, there are a few small blemishes that need to retouched out.
For her eyes, I used Lightroom’s brush tool three times. First on her eyes and the surrounding area, then just on her eyes before finally focussing on her irises. For the eyes and surrounding area I used a brush that increased shadow recovery by 100% and exposure by around half a stop. For the irises I increased exposure by approximately a quarter of a stop and added in some clarity.
For the jumper, I used the brush tool again and increased the exposure by a tenth of a stop and clarity by around a third.
Finally, I used the healing tool to paint away the few small blemishes.
The Final Image
With the local adjustments done we’re left with a great final image. The preset is doing 90% of the work. The local adjustments just push it over the edge. With a more neutral in-camera image they might not even be needed!
If you’re interested in using the preset I used in this tutorial, or any of Lookfilter’s other presets, you can download them from their website. If you’re more of a Photoshop fan, you're covered too: Lookfilter also makes Photoshop actions that can create the same effects.