How to Create Powerful Black and White Images using Luminosity Range Masks

Have you ever noticed that simply clicking the Black and White conversion button in Lightroom doesn’t instantly create beautiful Black and White images? Me too…

I often try converting my images into Black and White using Lightroom. There is something timeless about a good Black and White photograph. They have a way of capturing a subject that a colour photo simply can’t. And in a world where heavy saturation, Filters, Presets and HDR are all too common – it’s refreshing to strip away the distraction of colour and produce a beautiful Black and White collection.

In this article, you’ll discover a detailed step by step workflow for creating powerful Black and White images using Lightroom Classic’s new Luminosity Range Masks. But before you get too excited and start calling yourself the next Richard Avedon, let’s take a quick look at what goes into creating a good Black and White image.

They’re Powerful.

Powerful Black and White images are excellent at story telling. Perhaps this is because the simplicity of Black and White helps to reveal your subject in a unique perspective. In some ways, producing a Black and White image can be considered harder to achieve. Because unlike its more colourful counterpart, you can’t just hide behind an eye-catching saturated colour palette and an interesting composition. There’s more to it than that.

Whether it’s in camera or in Lightroom, working with Black and White images is about working with light, texture, shapes, lines, contrast and tonal relationships. It’s the way you’re able to combine these elements, to create presence in your subjects, that makes beautiful Black and White images. This might explain why simply pressing the ‘Black and White’ button in Lightroom often doesn’t cut it.

Fortunately, Lightroom’s new Luminosity Range Mask provides you with a great tool to edit important Black and White elements such as enhancing tonal contrast and creating presence in your Black and White images.

Luminosity Range Masks

When Adobe updated and rebranded Lightroom CC to Lightroom Classic CC they introduced the ability to create Luminosity Range masks with the Radial Filter, Graduated Filter and Adjustment Brush tools.

Lightrooms new Luminosity Range Mask Feature.

If you are wondering “what on earth does that even mean!?” let me explain. When you use the Adjustment Brush, Radial or Graduated Filter, you can now isolate (and target) specific areas of your image by nominating a tonal range. This essentially means that you can make precise adjustments to the tonal relationships of your image – perfect for Black and White photography lovers.


And if you’re still a little unsure about what all this means – here’s that detailed Black and White editing workflow I promised. Demonstrating precisely how to create beautiful Black and White images, using Luminosity Range Masks in Lightroom Classic CC.

Step One: Set Your Camera to RAW

If you’re not shooting in RAW already, then I encourage you to change your camera settings so that you are shooting in RAW. And never change this setting again.

Believe it or not, creating a good Black and White photo in Lightroom Classic CC requires a good colour photo. By shooting in RAW, you ensure that you will capture all of the colour data when taking a shot – data you will need in order to process your Black and White images. If you’re thinking “why is this guy talking about colour in a Black and White workflow?” don’t panic, I’ll explain more in step three.

Ensure your Camera is set to RAW.

Step Two: Import and Virtual Copies

Import your RAW images to your Lightroom Library and use the keyboard shortcut Control + (PC) or Command + (Mac) to create a virtual copy of your image. A virtual copy is effectively a duplicate of your image that doesn’t take up significant storage space on your hard drive.

Virtual Copies can be identified by the curled page symbol in the lower left corner of the thumbnail.

In some scenarios, you may want to create several versions of the same image (i.e. a colour version and a Black and White version). If so, working with virtual copies is a great way to manage these different versions without taking up too much storage space.

Step Three: Crop

Composition is key to any photo, not just Black and White images. So, it’s important to frame your subjects in a way that maintains the viewer’s focus and creates as much interest as possible.

Fortunately, if you didn’t nail your framing and composition in camera, the crop tool allows you to have another go. In the example, you can see that the composition of this image is pretty average. It doesn’t quite work and feels a little awkward. To fix this, you can use the crop tool.

Original colour image with poor composition.

Enter the develop module and press the ‘R’ key on your keyboard to enter the Crop tool. You’ll notice the Crop overlay will appear to give you a preview of your crop. Here you can select your desired Aspect Ratio and rotate your image to suit.

You will find that the Aspect Ratio you use will vary with each photo. It’s a good idea to try a few different versions until you find one that works best.

For the example, the square Aspect Ratio of 1:1, and a little rotation, helps to create a more symmetrical and interesting composition.

Crop tool with 1:1 Aspect Ratio to enhance the composition.

Here’s the cropped image.

Crop tool with 1:1 Aspect Ratio to enhance the composition.

Immediately, the image is starting to look better. At the moment however, it’s still not looking great. It’s a little flat and well… quite boring if I am honest. This is easily fixed with a few basic adjustments which is exactly what we’ll look at in the next step.

Step Four: Basic Adjustments

It’s normal for RAW files to appear a little flat and lifeless. The Basic panel in Lightroom allows you to tweak the tones and presence of your images so that you can inject a little more character and bring your images to life.

It’s common for RAW files to appear flat straight out of the camera.

Black and White images love light, texture and contrast. Sadly, the example image severely lacks all of those things. To fix this, you can adjust your tonal sliders to enhance the overall contrast, which will give your image a little more pop.

For this image, the following tonal adjustments work well:

  • Exposure +0.65
  • Contrast +47
  • Highlights -76
  • Shadows – 54
  • Whites +23
  • Blacks -6
Increasing the Exposure and adjusting the Shadows and Highlights creates more contrast.

In addition to the tonal sliders, you can also adjust the Presence sliders to enhance the texture and look of your image. Here you can see that adjusting the Clarity (+52) and Vibrance (+18) sliders helps to create more texture in the building.

Increasing the Clarity slider helps to bring out more texture in the building.

It’s worth noting that the values used in this example will not work for every image. It’s important to try several adjustments and variations with your sliders until you find a balance you are happy with.

Step Five: Remove Distractions

Your eyes are typically drawn to the brightest and most ‘contrast-y’ areas of an image. This is why it is important to remove anything in your image that could cause a distraction for the viewer. In the example, you can see the reflection of what appears to be a street light in the window. You’ll probably also notice that this bright highlight is the first thing your eyes are drawn towards. Thankfully, removing this distraction is easy to do with Lightroom’s spot removal tool.

Press the letter ‘Q’ on your keyboard to select the spot removal tool. It’s now simply a case of painting over the distraction and Lightroom will do its best to replace the area that you painted with data from another area of the image.

Spot removal tool.

Here you can see that your eyes now freely move up the building instead of focusing in on the window reflection.

Distraction removed

Let’s take a second to review the progress so far. With just a few adjustments to the composition and exposure, the image is looking a lot stronger. It now provides a really good base for our Black and White conversion.

Original Image (Left) vs Current Progress (Right).

Step Six: Black and White Conversion

With the overall composition and exposure of your image in place, it’s now time to convert it into Black and White. Scroll down to the “HSL/Colour/ B&W” panel and click the “B&W” tab.

This will do two things. First, it will instantly convert your image into Black and White. And second, it will display the Black and White channel mixer.

Use the B&W Channel Mixer to convert your images to Black and White.

The Black and White Channel Mixer allows you to adjust the lightness and darkness values based on the image’s colour information. It’s precisely this reason why it’s a good idea to shoot in RAW and spend a little time creating a good base for your Black and White conversions.

As you adjust these Channel Mixer sliders, Lightroom will lighten or darken all the areas where that colour exists. For example, if you darken the Blue slider, all the areas that contain the colour Blue will be darkened.

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It’s a good idea to use these sliders to create tonal contrast in your Black and White images. You can also use them to help separate your subject from your background.

In this case, the example image doesn’t contain many colours other than Blue and Aqua. Darkening the Aqua channel and increasing the lightness of the Blue channel helps to create a little more tonal contrast in the building.

Black and White Conversion using the B&W Mixer.

You’d be forgiven if you thought this was the extent to which Lightroom is able to edit Black and White images. In most Black and White workflows, this is where a little dodging, burning and sharpening will be applied to finish. But this isn’t most Black and White workflows. We’re going deeper.

Up until now, we have worked on the overall exposure and composition. We have removed distractions and enhanced the texture and contrast. Overall, the Black and White image is looking pretty good.

To take your Black and White images to the next level, you have to think about where you want the viewer to focus. What is it that you want them to see?

Creating presence in your subjects is a fantastic way to control the viewer’s eye. It’s also excellent at creating a sense of depth in your Black and White images. Sadly, there isn’t a ‘create presence and depth’ button in Lightroom. However, the new Luminosity Range Mask tool comes very close.

Luminosity Range Mask tool.

Step Seven: Manipulating Light to Create Presence with Luminosity Range Masks

Creating presence and depth in your Black and White images is all about manipulating the tonal relationships within your subject. Essentially, this is about adjusting the light and dark areas of your image to create selective contrast and control your viewer’s eye – much like dodging and burning.

However, unlike traditional dodging and burning, this step is not about applying all the adjustments in one go. It’s about isolating a specific area and gradually building up the tonal contrast, texture and light using Luminosity Range masks to target specific tonal values in your images.

Here’s precisely how to do it.

Pick an area of your image that you want to create more presence and draw attention towards.

In the example image, we will aim to create more presence, texture and selective contrast towards the centre of the building to draw the viewer’s focus in and up the length of the building.

Vision and Editing notes.

Select either the Adjustment Brush, Radial or Graduated Filter and check the “Show selected mask overlay” box. With this setting turned on, you will be able to see the exact areas that you will be targeting with your Luminosity Range Mask.

Graduated Filter selected and Mask Overlay turned on.

Create your initial selection by either clicking and dragging with your Graduated/Radial Filter or painting into your image using the Adjustment Brush. As you apply your Filter or brush, you will notice the Red mask overlay will appear. This red overlay highlights the areas of your image that your adjustment will affect.

The red overlay highlights the area that will be targeted with your adjustment.

Scroll down to the “Range Mask” setting and select “Luminance”. This will make the “Range” and “Smoothness” sliders appear. Much like your histogram, the range slider represents the Shadows (left), Mid-tones (center) and Highlights (right).

Luminosity Range Bar.

You can now adjust the range bar handles to refine your selection and target a specific tonal range of your image. As you adjust the range, the Red mask overlay will update to show you precisely which areas will be targeted.

In the example, you can see how adjusting the range of the Graduated Filter has refined the selection to only target the shadows on the left side of the building. This allows you to apply subtle adjustments and build up the effect.

Adjusted the Luminosity Range Bar to target only the shadows.

When you are happy with your selection you can uncheck the “Show selected mask overlay” box to remove the red overlay. Now you can adjust the exposure slider to lighten or darken your selection.

In this scenario, adjusting the Exposure slider to -2.00 darkens the left side of the building and helps to push your focus towards the middle of the building.

Exposure set to -2.00 to darken only shadows.

Here’s a side by side comparison of the example image prior to the Luminosity Range Mask adjustment.

Before (Left) and After (Right) Luminosity Mask Range Mask adjustment.

The adjustment is very subtle. So subtle in fact that you might be thinking ‘I can’t see much of a difference!?’ to which I would absolutely agree. But remember, Luminosity Range masks are not about making every single adjustment in one go. It’s about carefully and gradually building up the effect.

Take a look at how powerful this technique is when you repeat the exact same steps I outlined above, creating several Luminosity Range Masks to target different areas of your image.

Several Luminosity Range masks were created to subtly target the shadows on the left side of the building. This helped to enhance the shape of the building and give it a three-dimensional feel.

Luminosity Range Masks used on left side of building to enhance the building shape.

This time around an Adjustment Brush and Luminosity Range Mask were applied to the left side of the building to target the highlights. A small increase to the Exposure was applied to help draw your attention upwards.

A Luminosity Range Mask was created to target the highlights.

Two more Luminosity Range Masks were applied to the right side of the building. This time targeting the highlights in the glass to build up contrast and draw your attention in and upwards.

Luminosity Range masks created with the Adjustment Brush were set to isolate the highlights in the windows.

A single Luminosity Range Mask was created using the Adjustment Brush to isolate the window frames. A slight decrease to the Exposure slider helped to create presence in the building.

To increase the presence of the building a Luminosity Range Mask was created to darken the window frames.

To finish, a simple Graduated Filter decreased the exposure and highlights in the sky and helps to push your focus into the middle of the frame.

A Graduated Filter was applied to darken the sky.

Let’s look at a final comparison of our image as it progressed through the workflow.

Here’s what our image looked like when we started.

Original Image.

Here’s what our image looked like after we applied a crop, basic adjustments and converted it to Black and White.

Cropped, processed in the Basic Panel and Converted to Black and White.

Finally, here’s our final Black and White image processed with several Luminosity Range Masks in Lightroom Classic CC.

Final Image created with Luminosity Range Masks.

As you can see, using several Luminosity Range Masks has helped to gradually build up the effect and create a powerful Black and White image.

Recap

Let’s spend a few seconds recapping everything we have discussed.

  1. Black and White images are powerful. They uncover a unique perspective of your subject through a combination of light, texture, shapes, lines, contrast and tonal relationships.
  2. Shoot your Black and White images in RAW to capture all of the colour information.
  3. Use Virtual copies to manage your Black and White images.
  4. Crop your images to improve your composition (if required).
  5. Use the Basic panel to get the foundations of your image looking as good as it can prior to converting it to Black and White.
  6. Convert to Black and White using the B&W Channel Mixer.
  7. Use Luminosity Range Masks to manipulate light and gradually build depth and presence into your Black and White images.

Manipulating light in your Black and White images is a process, it’s not an exact science. I know we all chase instant results and techniques that speed up our workflows. But every so often, it can be refreshing to change your perspective and spend a little time creating a powerful Black and White image.

I hope this workflow gets you thinking about how you visualise your Black and White photos in the future. Creating powerful Black and White images is a great skill to develop, so try not to rely entirely on Presets. Instead, try experimenting with the Luminosity Range Masks to create your own style that combines light, depth, presence and tonal contrast. Sure, it takes a little longer then clicking a Preset, but it’s way more fun that way.

Will Palfrey

William Palfrey is a designer and photographer living in Perth, Australia. He teaches beginner and aspiring photographers how to craft beautiful images and develop a unique style using Lightroom and Photoshop. Follow his photography insights over at psitsfun.com or enroll in his new Lightroom and Photoshop courses for free. Ps. It’s Fun!

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