Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII lens @155mm, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 200.

Nikon D800, 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII lens @155mm, f/10, 1/125s, ISO 200, finished in Lightroom 5

How do you know which images will look good as black white? I think just about any good photograph can be a good black and white. It’s important to understand, however, that black and white doesn’t just mean we remove color from the equation. Some colors are lighter or darker toned, and these inherent tones affect the final black and white image.

Furthermore, ever since the earliest days of photography, different films and mediums have interpreted the colors themselves as a different tonal value. That means that the same red sweater shot with the same light and camera settings on two different brands of black and white film may appear totally different in each image. and to throw one more variable into the mix, a colored glass filter on the front of the lens also changes the interpretation of tones. This last is a powerful tool, and it’s built right into your camera. Shooting black and white with various color filters will help you see immediately how your image could look right on your LCD.

Look in your manual for the Monochrome settings (Canon: Picture Styles; Nikon: Set Picture Control). Don’t just choose Monochrome, however. Go deeper into the menu and find the filter effects. I use the yellow or red filter for portraits, and I may dabble with green for landscapes; I often prefer the red filter for photo walking, as well. The color filter you choose will lighten the tone of that color in your image, and darken it’s opposite (i.e., with a red filter, skin tones become lighter (pimples disappear) and blue skies turn black).

Remember, these are built-in digital filters so you don’t need to attach a glass filter to the front of the lens to get the effects. White balance affects the color of your picture, and it affects the black and white rendition, as well.

ATTENTION: if you shoot RAW, your images will appear black and white on the camera’s LCD but will be color on the computer. Shoot RAW +JPG if you want to keep the black and white images from the camera.

Join Levi on Twitter.

Rob Sylvan and Levi Sim will be doing a Google+ hangout on February 19th at 1pm Eastern (10am Pacific) to discuss how to finish great black and white images using Adobe Lightroom 5 (we’ll also share some organizational gems, so don’t miss it!). You can join the event here, and here are links to Levi and Rob.


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Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. Thanks for the hint about shooting in RAW+jpeg to preserve B&W images. I have never shot in monochrome before. I’ve changed some color photos to monochrome though. I’d like to try shooting in B&W. Is there a difference between shooting in B&W and THEN changing color in photoshop? Is it like shooting in raw as compared to jpeg or can the color be changed to B&W in photoshop if you know what you’re doing? Just curious.

    • Laura, that’s a great question. The camera does a really fine job of making B&W images, and it’s better than many photoshop methods. The color tones don’t separate as they are prone to do when adjusting channels in PS, and there’s another great function the camera does really well. The camera has the highlight/shadow recovery options that apply to jpg (they don’t come out in the RAW images) and those do a terrific job of retaining shadow details in your BW. Nikon calls it Active D Lighting, but I don’t recall what Canon calls it. Of course, it’s not more than Lightroom can do with the RAW image since the camera uses the RAW image to do the recovery.

      Basically, the camera does a really good job…so you might save yourself several steps in post-processing. Try it out and see how it fits your flow.

      In a future post I’ll show how I use Lightroom to make great black and white images.

      • People always told me I was doing it wrong when I was shooting B&W on my D40 using the Monochrome setting and using Yellow and Red filters (and Blue, Orange, Green….).

      • Great thank you! I have a Nikon and am familiar with the Active D Lighting. I’m not a Lightroom person though. I prefer Adobe Bridge. :P

  2. L’ha ribloggato su Raguthi.

  3. So, what’s the “One Easy Tip To Know Which Pictures Make Good Black and Whites”?
    I’m not sure shooting RAW+JPG helps with Lightroom, since LR copies the JPG file, but doesn’t use it as soon as the RAW has been rendered.

  4. Great tips..thanks for sharing!

  5. Eric, The RAW+JPG makes two files, and Lightroom will import them both. If you don’t see the JPGs, you may need to go to Lightroom/Edit>Preferences and check the box that says, “treat jpegs next to RAW files as separate photos.”

    The JPG preview is what you’re seeing disappear when the RAW image renders. I wrote about how to get your RAW image looking almost just like that jpg preview in this post:

    Sorry guys, I didn’t mean to try to be sneaky with the title. I’ll try to be more clear in the future.

  6. Please expand on this tutorial by citing how the same can be accomplished by post processing in applications such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and Pixelmator.

    Many thanks

  7. Great article Levi! One quick and dirty method that I like to use to identify which photos make good black and whites in post is I “select all” in a collection in Lightroom and then hit the “v” key. This changes the entire selection to bws. I can then quickly tell which are good candidates for killer bws. After I’ve selected the candidates, I just select the ones that should be in color and hit “v” again to change them again.


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About Levi Sim

Passion drives Levi to make photographs, teach, and help new friends. He tells people he's a photographer, but he really does more than just make pictures. His professional photography is primarily commercial work for businesses, both small and large, and he really helps show how great it'd be to work with those companies. He excels at photographing people, from two-year-olds to oil field workers to couples married for 60 years, everyone has a good time making pictures with Levi. Besides people and businesses, Levi enjoys all other aspects of photography, and practices landscapes and still life, as well. Other people enjoy photographing everything, and Levi wants to be able to help, so he practices as much as he can to be ready to help. He also runs a local photography club, is a Rotarian, actively helps at church, is a husband, and poppa to a peppy four-year-old girl. Levi writes regularly for and is co-author of books on Adobe Lightroom.