Create amazing monochrome masterpieces in Software

Before: Flat tones - The misty weather conditions had potential but in this color image there is little in the way of contrast or depth. (Image credit: Peter Fenech)
(opens in new tab)

After: Instant impact - More than mere desaturation, the monochrome conversion process has added unique contrast to this shot, transforming a drab scene into an intriguing otherworldly image. (Image credit: Peter Fenech)
(opens in new tab)

Staying at home is the perfect opportunity to revisit some of your older photos and re-edit them to see what other potential you can find within them! Mono conversion is a great way to reimagine your shots.

Any successful digital photographer, working at the professional level, understands the importance of bespoke image processing. No two images benefit from identical editing settings and if working with as clearly discrete genres as color and monochrome photography it is even more crucial to identify how and why the processing recipes differ. 

Since we are working without color, correction of white balance is an area we can be less concerned about, but this does not mean that color can be ignored entirely. Depending on those present in the landscape, it will often be necessary to adjust contrast via the HSL panel in Lightroom or Camera Raw and the dedicated Black and White controls in Photoshop. These can also be used for creative effect, to alter the balance of tones based on the distribution of colour values throughout the frame. 

The element which is of paramount importance when processing a monochrome file, after the basic conversion is complete, is the distribution of light and shadow, since these are all we are left with once the color has been stripped. Dodging and burning on a local scale is a powerful method of contouring shape and form within the landscape. 

In a colored scene the viewer’s eye is drawn to both areas of strong color contrast and extremes of brightness. Since the latter takes almost total control in a mono shot, with the exception of varying focus, the process of directing attention is simplified at the processing stage.  

Try this recipe and who knows - you might have a mono masterpiece hiding on your hard drive!   

Convert to monochrome

(Image credit: Future)
(opens in new tab)

In Lightroom simply click on the Black and White Tab in the Treatment panel, which will give a basic mono conversion. In Photoshop consider setting the standard black/white Foreground and Background colors (D) then adding a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer for good default contrast.

Set Blacks and Whites

(Image credit: Future)
(opens in new tab)

If working in RAW add contrast by setting the Black and White points. Hold down option (PC: alt) while dragging and stop just before clipping occurs. Next increase Contrast and adjust the Highlights and Shadows sliders until satisfied. Here we want to keep all tones in range.

Adjust HSL

(Image credit: Future)
(opens in new tab)

Manage the relative balance of each color by using the sliders in the B&W Panel in Lightroom (named HSL/Color when Color Treatment is selected). Move each slider to brighten or darken colors - here lowering Red darkened the path and increasing Yellow brightened the foliage. 

Dodge and burn

(Image credit: Future)
(opens in new tab)

Use either the dedicated Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop or manipulate the highlights and shadows using the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom (K). Subtly brighten highlight areas and darken the shadows to introduce local contrast and better outline the form of subjects.

Customize color theme

(Image credit: Future)
(opens in new tab)

Try working with colour toning to add bias to the shadows and Highlights for a stylised look. Here the Split Toning control was used to slightly warm the highlight areas and add a cool tone to the shadows. This gives a richness to the tonality of the scene.

Add texture

(Image credit: Future)
(opens in new tab)

If your image is destined for print it will pick up some of the texture of the paper, but if the file will be used for screen viewing try adding some fine grain noise or a Pattern Overlay. This will give the landscape a classic filmic quality.

Read more
Best laptops for photo editing (opens in new tab)

The best photo editing software (opens in new tab): image editors for novices through to pros

The best free photo editor in 2020 (opens in new tab): free software that still does a great job

Best recovery software for photos (opens in new tab)

Best password manager (opens in new tab)

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Peter Fenech

As the Editor for  Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) magazine, Peter is a specialist in camera tutorials and creative projects to help you get the most out of your camera, lens, tripod, filters, gimbal, lighting and other imaging equipment.

After cutting his teeth working in retail for camera specialists like Jessops, he has spent 11 years as a photography journalist and freelance writer – and he is a Getty Images-registered photographer, to boot.

No matter what you want to shoot, Peter can help you sharpen your skills and elevate your ability, whether it’s taking portraits, capturing landscapes, shooting architecture, creating macro and still life, photographing action… he can help you learn and improve.