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The Advanced Guide to Black & White Presets in Lightroom

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Never has there been a greyer subject than black and white (B&W) photography. From the time of the first prints made with a lens and emulsion, there was never a single standard for B&W photography. And this is one of the great aspects of digital photography today; the artist is free to explore how different shades of black and different shades of white work together for the best results.

If you were to search the internet for B&W conversion tools, you would find the results staggering. Versions 1 and 2 of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom only contained but a few presets to transform color digital photos to B&W. With the release of version 3, however, Adobe has taken feedback from end users hungry for more options to the humdrum attempts at B&W conversion previously available and offered over twenty B&W conversion methods by default.

In this article I will take a look at each of these conversion methods. I will explore how they effect four different photos and highlight the positives and negative aspects of trying each method. By evidence of the large amount of conversion options available, there is no singular right or wrong method, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. By the time I am finished, I hope you will be curious about exploring this fun, and timeless, photographic expression.

The Setup

Starting at the start, I selected four unedited photographs. One of a few brightly colored musicians in Morocco, a lion seated in the tall grass of the Serengeti, basecamp drying-out day in Nepal, and a portrait of Ali'i, owner of Ali'i Kula Lavender Farms on Maui, Hawaii.

I will be including a screen shot of how the histogram changes for the first photo from Morocco with every new B&W conversion. This histogram is the most active and a good representation of what is affected. I will also be including a screen shot of the change in sliders in the Develop module. Please note at times the slider screenshot will change in appearance. This is because Lightroom has a B&W feature now that replaces the standard Hue/Saturation/Luminance sliders with a B&W Mix set.

Here is the starting point for the histogram and sliders for the Morocco photo:

And these are the original colour photos, completely unedited:

Finally, here is a complete list of the Lightroom Presets to be used in this tutorial:

The B&W Presets are divided into two groups; Creative and Filter. The first group attempts to impart a particular look, while the second group simulates traditional B&W filters placed over the lens or used while creating a print in a darkroom.

B&W Creative – Antique Grayscale

Jumping right in, the first preset is Antique Grayscale. This preset is intended to reproduce the look of some of the first photographs. While photos shot in the 1800s and early 1900s typically used white paper in the process, the paper would tend to yellow with time. Many photographs from those times do not have this coloring, but it is a common theme and engrained in the popular psyche that old photos have a tinged look.

Lightroom accomplishes this look by first using Black & White Treatment. There are some minor adjustments to the Tone Curve for Lights and Darks. A few colors get a drop in the B&W Mix (Yellow, Green and Aqua) while the rest get a boost, heavy towards Purple, Magenta and Red. The most important change is in the Split Toning. Using this section brings a colorcast over the image and can be separated into Highlights or Shadows. A yellow-tan Hue is selected for the Highlights and a tan for the Shadows. This mixture gives the overall yellowing look.

B&W Creative – Antique Light

This preset is close to the effect of Antique Grayscale with some noticeable changes. First, the temperature is moved to 6800K from the previous 5550K. A big change that will start to warm up the image. Tint is also raised to +63, more towards magenta. Exposure is raised +.70 and Contrast has been dropped, making the image bright. There is no Fill Light and Blacks have been raised +8, noticeable enough to hold the dark tones with the drop in contrast.

The Tone Curve is left mostly unchanged except for a drop in Shadows by -20, evident in the Histogram by an increase in the amount of black clipping. The B&W Mix is close to the same curve but moved to the left an appreciable amount. This creates a whole part shift of the Histogram to the left, as evident when compared with the previous preset. Lastly, the Split Toning is essentially the same in both preset, with a bit more Hue in the Shadows.

This preset lends itself well to the portrait of Ali'i and the Morocco photo, but not as much with the lion as it becomes more smoothed out.

B&W Creative - Creamtone

Creamtone takes an interesting tack. While the temperature is moved far up the scale to 12,500K, the Saturation is dropped to -100. Blacks and Brightness are adjusted up a bit and the Exposure is raised to +.75 to give the image a lighter feel. On the Tone Curve, the Shadows are lowered -14 and all of the Hue, Saturation and Luminance sliders are left intact.

The biggest change is again in the Split Toning. This time the Highlights are given a light tan feel with a Saturation of +25 and a Hue of +51. The Shadows are kept at zero. This means the entire picture will be washed with a single color, unlike the Antique preset which allows for different shading in the shadows.

I find this preset pleasing for Ali'i's portrait but again, the increase of Exposure leaves the basecamp photo too washed out. When using this preset it is best to choose an image that is slightly dark. The increased exposure and light colorcast given to the Creamtone selection will aid this preset rather than fight with it. In a moment I will move to other presets better suited for images starting out bright.

B&W Creative - Cyanotype

Cyanotype is an attempt to mimic the long utilized printing process where only two chemicals were used, resulting in quick and easy prints. This process was used most often for aptly named blueprints of the architectural type. While this rendering won't fit every situation well, there are times when its qualities shine.

As expected, the Cyanotype starts out by evening the temperature to 5600K and chooses the B&W Treatment. Brightness and Contrast are moved up a little while the Tone Curve is left virtually untouched. Most of the B&W Mix is adjusted up with Red and Magenta leading the way (+34 and +30 respectively). The Split Toning is where the blue colorcast comes in. A mauve-blue is chosen for the highlights and the Hue is moved to +215, followed closely by the Saturation at +49. Shadows also get a boost with a complimentary light gray color(+216) and slightly less Saturation. These sliders can be adjusted further towards any particular liking when using mainly the Saturation controls.

B&W Creative – High Contrast

It might come as a surprise to find the High Contrast preset is not achieved by increasing the Contrast slider itself. Indeed, Contrast is only adjusted +9. The contrast effect here is created by the increase of Exposure (+1.15) and Blacks (+28). Saturation is dropped to -100 in a simple attempt to render a B&W image. Shadows in the Tone Curve are lowered to -14 and all the other sliders are essentially left untouched.

High Contrast can give a hard feel to color photos. Even a slightly bland colored photo, such as the lion, receives a much needed improvement when the High Contrast preset is used. Ali'i's portrait becomes a bit dark, but this might appeal to some. The basecamp photo comes into starker relief as it was also a bit washed out to start. Some of the details of the Moroccan musicians is lost and this happens when contrast is increased. Choose lighter photos with this preset and a simpler scene, without a lot of small detail.

B&W Creative – Look 1

For lack of a better description, Adobe simply named the next presets Look 1-4. They are different takes on roughly the same process, except the last preset which actually uses the B&W Treatment. All the other Looks gain their B&W perspective by dropping the Saturation to -100.

Starting with Look 1, there is a lot going on with the main sliders as well as in the Tone Curve. Exposure is bumped (+.76) as well as Recovery (+16), Fill Light (+25) and Blacks (+40). Highlights in the Tone Curve nearly top the scale at +92 which will give any bright areas a nearly blown out look (evident in the Morocco photo). Shadows are raised to +33 and this helps photos like Ali'i's portrait which was heavy in shadow. Interestingly, Red Saturation and Orange Saturation are dropped (-7 and -10 respectively) and an ever so slight -1 is given to Orange Luminance.

Before judging the outcome of this preset, it is best to take a look at Look 2 and Look 3 as well. All three of these offer a similar approach and personal preference goes a long way on deciding which preset will be best in which situation.

B&W Creative – Look 2

Look 2 is very similar to Look 1. When selecting between the two, the biggest difference is a change in the overall darkness of the image. Blacks are increased by +56 as compared to +40 and Brightness is dropped to +21 versus +34. Contrast is also dropped a bit but the Tone Curve sliders are left untouched. However, take a look at the Tone Curve itself. The shape is more gentle on the high end. Saturations are left alone and that mysterious -1 of Orange Luminance disappears.

As imagined, this darker rendition of Look 1 is even less well suited for detail work. The basecamp photo is not useable, in my opinion, while the lion picture gains additional strength from this preset. His individual hairs become more evident although his eyes are lost in the dark (easily remidied with the Adjustment Brush). A dark, dank mood comes out of the use of this preset and it is well adapted to harsh scenes; cityscapes, metal work, grunge. As well as images starting out a bit soft and bland. Color and excitement often get lost with this preset.

B&W Creative – Look 3

Look 3 makes a vast departure from the first two Looks. Saturation is still dropped to -100, but a lot of other changes are happening. Exposure is left at 0 while the Temperature moves to 6583 (a strangely accurate number). Tint is +9 compared to -105 in Look 2. Recovery is +53 in order to remove most highlights and this is taken a step further in the Tone Curve by moving Highlights to -10 and Lights to -65. Take a look at the curve itself, everything drops below the standard axis.

Interestingly, Clarity (+63) and Vibrance (+49) make a showing while Fill Light is at +30, helping recover some of the darker areas. Down below is Green Luminance (-4) and Blue Luminance (+7) making slight changes barely, if at all, perceptible to the human eye. I feel the basecamp photo does well with this preset, bringing out a higher contrast in the equipment strewn about. Ali'i and the lion appear quite dark still, their eyes lost to the lack of shadow detail. Looking at the Histogram, the highlights are shifted far to the left and have practically no clipping, while the darks are left to fall off a cliff.

B&W Creative – Look 4

Look 4 is for those looking for a bright B&W rendition. The preset evens the temperature to 5000K and then increases the Brightness to +114, Contrast to +50 and Exposure to +.25. The B&W Treatment is used and Clarity is set at +42, bringing edge detail into sharper relief. The Tone Curve is left as is, with a minor curve from the added use of Recovery (+79) and Fill Light (+15). Most of the B&W Mix is dropped below the initial level, with only Blue (+9) and Purple (+8) remaining above.

I have grown to like the use of this preset very much. You might say it is a personal favorite, but it is still not for every photo. It works well on portraits, especially those with a dark start to them. It pulls a fair amount of contrast out of most pictures but can leave images feeling bleak at times. The added contrast can help add separation between main subjects and backgrounds as is evident in the Morocco photo. In this set, the lion photo is particularly pleasing with this preset.

B&W Creative – Low Contrast

True to its name, B&W Creative – Low Contrast drops Contrast to -12 while increasing Exposure +1.15. Temperature is 4400 with a big change in Tint at -74. This near match in the Tint and Temperature sliders is not without reason. When the Tint slider is moved to one side or the other, the contrast in the photo increases. The same holds true for the Temperature slider, if it is moved to one side or the other, the image darkens with greater contrast. This point is, indeed, a bit of a sweet spot for soft contrast.

The Low Contrast rendering works well with the basecamp photograph, leaving much detail. The lion is a bit soft for my liking, while the Morocco photo is pleasing. This preset can be used well when a photo includes many colors and shades. Monochromistic scenes don't tend to favor well with this preset.

B&W Creative – Selenium Tone

Selenium is a chemical element that can be used in various forms throughout traditional negative developing and photo printing. When used during the print process, it works as an archival agent and tends to remove green tints from various papers, leaving behind a blueish/purple tint. The element in solution baths for printing works on shadows first, then mid-tones and finally highlights depending on how long it was left in the bath.

This effect is reproduces in Lightroom by adding in some Spit Toning, as to be expected. The Highlights gain a slightly lighter treatment than the Shadows (evident in the photo below). Saturation for both adjustments is kept moderate at +32 and +29, but can be raised if desired. The Tone Curve is left alone while the B&W Treatment is used.

B&W Creative – Sepia Tone

Ah Sepia. It is a tone some love and some hate. Lightroom's take on Sepia is to lighten the image through the use of Fill Light (+26) and in the Tone Curve, Lights (+28) and Darks (-17). With the use of B&W Treatment the Mix is very similar to that of the previous Selenium Tone. This time the Split Toning Highlight Hue is +51 and Shadows are +37, both with light Saturation.

This preset is a good time to experiment with the Point Curve selection under Tone Curve. Adobe went with a Medium Contrast selection. This is more pleasing than a linear selection which leaves the image with less pop. Ali'i's portrait is very pleasing with this preset, as the increased Fill Light has brought his face out from under the hat. This old style look can work well for some photos, but should not be used on everything.

I can confess to personally becoming enthralled with the preset at one point in time and taking the wanton application of the preset too far. Moderation has worked well for this preset in my experience.

Forging Ahead With Filters

It is time for filters! The intent with Lightroom's use of filtering is to mimic the effect of placing a colored filter over the end of the lens while using black and white film. These filters had a number of functions depending on the scene being shot. To simplify the overall process, remember a black and white photo is a rendition of the color scene on a scale of gray, from black to white. Rarely is the photograph black or white, it is more often than not a wide range of gray.

Any color filter placed on a lens will make the gray rendition of that color become lighter, while the other colors, especially complimentary colors, will become darker on the gray scale. This is important to remember through the next set of filters and when setting up a scene in front of the camera before bringing it into the computer.

B&W Filter – Blue Filter

The Blue Filter starts off by bringing the entire image down to 3771K to bring about a strong blue colorcast. Exposure, Recovery, Fill Light, Blacks, Contrast, Brightness and Contrast are all left to their own devices, with only minor tweaks. The Tone Curve is also not adjusted. The heart of this preset is in the B&W Mix. Notice the Reds, Oranges and Yellows take a nosedive while Blue becomes the champ at +63. Aqua and Purple are also brought up slightly. This completes the effect and the same will be repeated, with other colors, in the latter filters.

This filter gives a strong look to Ali'i's portrait as it darkens the colors most closely found in skin tones of various shades. Because it makes those tones darker, his face is given more contrast as it separates the various small differences in color. The Morocco photo instantly becomes a dark scene due to the large amount of reds in the clothing. This is important to remember when selecting this filter, a portrait shot with a red shirt will be very dark indeed!

B&W Filter – Blue Hi-Contrast Filter

Taking the Blue Filter one step further, Hi-Contrast reaches its goal with a few tweaks. First, Temperature is raised to 4708K and Contrast itself is raised to +41. The big change, though, is in the B&W Mix. The Reds, Oranges and Yellows stay where they were from the previous preset. But Aqua and Purple take sides with Blue and head up to +63 and +44, respectively. Green also makes a move to -56.

This makes for some fairly dark images, unless the only colors represented are from Aqua to Magenta. All of the examples take on a very dark feel and a lot of detail is lost. Increasing Exposure by one stop or more will help bring back the character of the images.

B&W Filter – Green Filter

The Green filter never caught on much in the film days. It had limited applications, but was effective for certain circumstances. For instance, it can be used in scenes with many different shades of green, such as a forest canopy, to help separate the colors. Lightroom shows why this filter has less impact than the others when the B&W Mix is viewed. No colors are brought below the baseline 0 level and most are increased, typically the warmer colors of Red, Orange and Yellow. Along with Green and Aqua, most colors are raised about +38. The Tint is brought closer to green with -28 and Contrast is brought low, to +3.

None of the sample images in particular "pop" with this preset. The Morocco photo receives some good color separation, but all the other images are left a bit dull, in my opinion. Using this filter did show me just how little green was evident in the samples I chose.

B&W Filter - Infrared

The Infrared filter is a boon to those who love this type of photography but aren't a fan of the inherent limit the filter places on cameras. Because the original filters would block out all visible light and only allow infrared light through, which is beyond the human eye's ability to see, focusing and framing with a filter attached were all but impossible. Instead, the scene need be fit set and then a filter attached.

Note: If you have a non-digital type lens, take a look at the rangefinder on the top. This is the focus distance of the lens. Now take a look around. Do you see a little red line or diamond? This is the focus mark for infrared photography. After a scene was set according to visible light, the focus point had to be moved to this red mark to create correct infrared photos. This mark is absent from most lenses intended for digital use.

To mimic the infrared photo, Lightroom blasts the Yellow and Green B&W Mix to +100 each. Tint is dropped to -150 and Recovery is moved to +100. Some dramatic moves, and indeed, the most dramatic of the bunch so far. Brightness and Contrast are raised slightly and a Medium Contrast is used on the Point Curve. Because of the push for Yellow and Green, the grass and lion are just about blown out and the tent in the basecamp scene is beyond recovery. Ali'i's portrait is well balanced and the musicians are better separated from the background in the Morocco photo.

B&W Filter – Infrared Film Grain

This filter is not much different than the standard Infrared Filter. In fact, the slider settings are identical, except for one new set of adjustments near the bottom of the Lightroom screen. Lightroom allows for the addition of Grain, which can have some solid effects with black and white photos. There are sliders for Amount, Size and Roughness. These adjustments can be a lot of fun to play with on various photos.

B&W Filter – Orange Filter

The Orange Filter preset is one of the most practical for portrait photography. It helps soften skin blemishes and can also be used to slightly darken skies and foliage. Looking at the Histogram, there is a noticeable shift to the left and a bit of clipping will occur in the darker areas. A Strong Contrast Point Curve is used as well as an increase of +41 to Contrast itself. This moves the Histogram to the left, while some attempts to counteract, Darks +17 and Shadows +25, are employed. Only Green and Aqua are taken below the zero level in the B&W mix. The rest of the colors receive a boost, especially Orange (+40) and Yellow (+40).

The filter has a pleasing effect on Ali'i's portrait but the musicians get a bit lost in the background again, unlike with the infrared filter.

B&W Filter – Red Filter

The Red Filter can add a lot of contrast to photos and is a favorite with anyone shooting wide open landscapes as it strengthens the greens and blues. It can produce a nearly black sky from an ordinary blue sky. This preset doesn't do much to the image. Brightness is brought up to +66 and the Tone Curve is left alone, favoring a Medium Contrast.

In the B&W Mix, Reds are raised to +50 as expected and Orange (+38) and Yellow (+36) are close behind. Magenta (-40) and Purple (-30) are removed while Blue and Green are left alone. The result with Ali'i's portrait is to lighten the background foliage and lighten his hat. This filter should be considered when selecting outfits or backdrops for a portrait shoot as it can give some strong contrast to the subjects. I find the level of contrast and solid punch in the basecamp photo to be pleasing. Most of the colors receive nice separation. The lion is a solid rendition without being overly moody with heavy contrast. Let's see if this holds true in the next preset which specifically introduces contrast to this filter.

B&W Filter – Red Hi-Contrast Filter

The only change between Red Filter and Red Hi-Contrast Filter is the application of a Strong Contrast setting to the Point Curve of the Tone Curve. All the other sliders remain in place. This helps the preset not become overbearing in any of the photo examples. It can be a pleasing preset even on photos with a bit too much brightness.

B&W Filter – Yellow Filter

The first thing I noticed when using the Yellow Filter was how lighter the reds became. This is evident in the Morocco photo as well as the basecamp image. Indeed, Red, in the B&W Mix, receives a +63 boost while Yellow itself is only +33. Aqua (-38) and Blue (-17) are taken out of the picture but the rest of the mix remains higher than normal. A Strong Contrast Point Curve is used along with Contrast of +41.

I find this filter works well with the lion photo. The heightened contrast is just enough to add to the photo and bring his fur into strong relief. The portrait also works well with this filter and it is easy to see why it has become a favorite of many photographers.

Summing Up!

The 21 different filters and creative effects in Lightroom 3.0 offer the novice and professional alike a wide range of options. They are a great jumping off point for your own creativity to take flight!

I hope you've found this guide useful, and will feel confident about choosing the right Black and White filter next time you decide to apply one to your images.

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