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Finding Your Black and White in the Digital Age

June 30th, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot  |  2 Comments


What is YOUR black and white?  I truly believe that black and white images are completely subjective.  Personally, I like black and white images that don’t have blocked up shadows; rather, I like to see shadow detail instead of straight black.  I also like a flatter, warmer image with a touch of grain, and I have worked hard to create and to find actions and presets that will help me achieve the black and white look that I want.

My workflow consists of a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.  Most of my work is going to occur in Adobe Lightroom- in fact, many of my images will be processed in Lightroom and nothing else.  Keep in mind that I deliver high- anything from 750 to 1250 images per wedding and 100-250 per portrait session, and I’m only fine-tuning a handful of those in Photoshop.  I want to do most of my work in Lightroom and only finesse the images that I really love in Photoshop.

My first step is to import the photographs into Lightroom.  I have three black and white presets that I have developed (one of the great things about Lightroom is the fact that it is incredibly easy to develop presets that give your raw photos the “look” that you like).  All three of the presets create a black and white with less muddy skin tones, but still a fairly flat black and white since I don’t want to lose all of that shadow detail by adding a lot of black or contrast.  The great thing about Lightroom is that you can mix your black and white to taste in the grayscale mix section of the Develop module- I like my skin tones to be a bit creamier, so I lighten my red and yellow tones (because the skin is made up of red and yellow) while darkening my blues.  My Lightroom black and white presets will give me a file that I am happy to show the client, but one that can be improved upon once I take the file into Photoshop.

Now for the Photoshop bit- I like to create my own actions and play around in Photoshop, but when it comes to black and whites I go with the one of the masters.  I have to admit, I’m a Photoshop action junkie.  I’ve tried almost everything out there because I love and adore Photoshop and I get a kick out of trying new actions.  I discard most of them, but occasionally I will find something that I really like, and I love some of the black and white actions created by  Jeff Ascough.  They are customizable and they add a little punch to my black and white image straight from Lightroom.  (Now would be an important time to mention that ANY action will give you a bad result if your file isn’t properly exposed- garbage in, garbage out.)

Finally, I occasionally run a specialty action to “season” my black and white images.  I like them to be a bit grainier, with a subtle vignette and blurred edges.  I also like a touch of a warm tone, and a more subtle contrast shift.  There are two actions that I really like when it comes to seasoning my black and white images, and both of them come from the Totally Rad Action set (one from the original, the second from the remix set).   The thing I love about these actions is that they are completely customizable.  So many action sets out there flatten your images or make the adjustments to the background layer, leaving you unable to tweak them.  The TRA set is different- the layers are left open, letting you play with the opacity of each layer to come up with a look that is your own.  My favorite is the Old Skool action (the set has several)- I run it and then lower the opacity to anywhere from 20 to 40%, but usually closer to the lower end.  (Keep in mind that I am starting with an image that has already been adjusted with a Jeff Ascough black and white action.)  This gives my images just a touch of grain, vignette, and tone.  The second action that I use to season my black and white images (used less frequently) is the Homestead black and white.  Once again, I change the tone and compression layers and then lower the opacity on the overall effect.  For me, it is important to add just a touch of these actions.  I don’t want my images to scream “TOTALLY RAD OLD SKOOL ACTION” or any action at all; rather, I want the effect to be more subtle than that.



The great thing about Lightroom and Photoshop is that MY black and white may not be YOUR black and white.  Just as you can choose your favorite black and white film, there is no need to be limited by one set way of converting a black and white in the digital age.  These two programs will give you endless options for coming up with your own look, especially if you choose actions and presets that are customizable and will allow you to play in order to find your look.

Post by Maine Wedding Photographer Michelle Turner.

About Michelle Turner

Michelle Turner has written 19 post in this blog.

Michelle is a professional wedding photographer who splits time between Maine and Puerto Vallarta.



  1. Larry Reeves says:

    June 30th, 2010 at 3:30 pm (#)

    This is a great post. I prefer to shoot my black and whites in-camera as jpeg files. I have used the custom settings in the picture style menu to get it how I like it. Sometimes I’ll use post processing to convert to B&W, but shooting it in-camera saves time and helps me feel that it was shot that way on purpose, instead of being an after-thought.

  2. Andrea says:

    July 2nd, 2010 at 7:34 am (#)

    Thanks for educating me on another facet of Lightroom. You can take this a step further by making a true gelatin silver print. There a few labs that do this I have used http://www.digitalsilverimaging.com and the prints are amazing. Clients also don’t mind paying a premium for a real black and white print.

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