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Lightroom – Monochrome Conversion

Adobe Lightroom 2.x offers a great deal of flexibility and ease when it comes to creating dynamic black and white images. Using a variety of standard tools within Lightroom 2.x allows you to play with color channels, dodge & burn, add vignettes, etc. intuitively. Here’s a basic workflow that I usually follow when I convert my images to monochrome in Lightroom.

One of the keys to a good monochrome image is to select the right photograph to use. There are no hard rules in choosing an image, but it’s best to have an image with good tonality and lots of midtones to work with rather than using a really high-contrast image unless the purpose is intentional high contrast.

Images with ample texture and tones usually make great monochrome images.

We’ll use this image here that my friend, John Garcia, sent me to use as an example.

1) Import image into Lightroom.

2) Switch to the Develop module.

3) Make necessary global changes, as necessary.

With our sample image, I wanted to take away some green cast in the image as there were quite a few trees around the scene when the shot was taken. I then increased the overall brightness of the scene and reduces a tad of contrast just to get a little more tonality to work with.

Adjust White Balance

Adjust Brightness/Contrast

5) Set white and black points.

This is the important part in virtually all monochrome image conversion regardless of software you prefer using. Determining your whites and blacks in an image is critical to the overall look of your image.

Hold the ALT key (Window) or the option key (Mac) and slide the EXPOSURE slider until you see white spots appearing over a pure-black image. This determines how much and where your white areas are in an image. In this example, I chose one of the stone on the ground as my white point.

Set white point

To set your black point, hold the Alt or Option key while sliding the BLACKS slider. Now you have a pure white image and as you increase the blacks, you’ll find sections of your image rendered as pure black. I chose the center post as my pure black point.

Set black point

7) Lift shadows.

Sometimes, adjusting the black point will increase the contrast too much and you’ll lose some shadow details. Here I used the FILL LIGHT slider to lift some of the shadows on the post back but most of the post area is still pure black.

8 ) Adjust colors.

You must be wondering “why are we adjusting colors if we’re creating a monochrome image anyway?”. Well there’s a good reason of doing so as the mixture of colors create different tones of gray when we finally convert it to grayscale. Unlike straight desaturation, which strips all color information, using color channels gives you more control on which area(s) of the image should have more emphasis based on its color information. I want the oxidizing green paint on the staircases to pop a little so I increased the Vibrance and Saturation sliders a little.

9) Convert to grayscale.

Now scroll down to the Color Tuning pane and click GRAYSCALE. Your image is now a black and white image. We’re not done!

10) Adjust Color Channels.

Look below and you’ll see sliders for various colors such as orange, red, yellow, green, etc. You can adjust these sliders to adjust “mix” the original color information. This tool offers much more control than PhotoShop’s Channel Mixer adjustment tool since the Lightroom version allows you to alter cyan, magenta, aqua, yellow, orange, purple in addition to the standard red, green, and blue channels.

For illustration purposes, I dragged the orange slider down to -100, you can instantly see that the orange soil between the rocks turned darker but the rest of the image is unaffected (compare with the color and the grayscale image in the previous step).

To make things more intuitive, you can click on the Direct Adjustment icon and you’ll see a circle with two arrows. Simply drag the cursor up and down in your actual image and Lightroom will determine the color channel that you’re working on. I usually start with sliding each slider up and down +/- 100 to see which slider affects what part of my image, then adjust in small increments afterwards.

11) Adjust Clarity.

The Clarity adjustment tool is like a local contrast adjustment technique where you use a wide-radius unsharp mask in PhotoShop to increase local contrast in midtones only. A very handy tool to extract subtle details in textured images like the one we have now. A little goes a long way, so make sure you zoom in to see if you’ve applied too little or too much.

12) Adjust Curves for contrast.

Next we adjust the overall contrast of the image. Again, Lightroom allows you to use the Direct Adjustment tool so you can adjust specific areas of the image to generate a tone curve.

12) Dodge and Burn (selective exposure adjustment).

We’re doing good so far, but things can still be improved. By using the Adjustment Brush and selecting EXPOSURE, you can increase and decrease exposure on specific areas of the image just like darkroom dodge and burn techniques.

13) Color toning

Once we get the monochrome image that we wanted, we may decide to add a little color toning to the image. Using the Split Toning sliders, you can easily create Sepia, cool, warm, green, etc tones to your images. I usually start with a Saturation setting of 5 and adjust accordingly. I like our image to be a little on the cool side, so I added some light red and greens as my image tones.

14) Sharpen image

While sharpening is best achieved in PhotoShop, Lightroom’s sharpening tools aren’t too shabby either and in my opinion, unless you’re printing a critical image, Lightroom’s sharpening will do the job quite nicely. Just make sure you zoom in so you can scrutinize your sharpening amount.

15) Add vignette

Adding a vignette adds a little drama and subtly shifts the focus of the image to the lighter part of the image. Slide the Lens Correction >> Amount slider to the left for a dark vignette, slide it to the right for a bright vignette.

Here’s our before and after.

Here’s a more colorful original that was converted to monochrome as well.

(Note how the safety helmet colors translate to different shades of gray in the mono image.)

The steps I list above are just the basic steps that I do with my images. Naturally, all of the settings above are optional and customizable to your preference. I have several custom presets made depending on image type, lighting conditions, and other factors which speeds up my workflow. So go ahead and play with the different combos and make your own presets that represents your style of monochrome images :).

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