Adjusting your RAW files in Black & White

by Josh Anon

This past weekend, I was presenting at the annual BetterPhoto Conference and had the fortune of sitting in on a session by Lewis Kemper. Now Lewis is a very smart photographer and Photoshop whiz, but unfortunately he uses Lightroom instead of Aperture. However, he presented a quick and easy technique to make an image span the full tonal range, improving how many images (especially from cloudy days) look. It's easy to do in Aperture, too!

Specifically, Lewis pointed out that it's easier to make tonal adjustments to your image in black and white. In fact, if you make your image look good in black and white, it'll most likely look good in color, too (the specific reason that I say "most likely" is a bit too long to cover in this blog post).

What's going on behind the scenes is that our brain's ability to see in black and white is very well developed and very high resolution: we gather a lot of information from luminance. Color vision isn't as robust, many animals even lack color vision, and our color vision is quite low resolution compared to our black and white vision. By switching to black and white when adjusting our image, we're able to ignore color and focus on tweaking what our higher-resolution luminance vision will perceive.

Without further delay, this technique, as you've probably realized, is:

  1. Convert your image to black and white by adding a Monochrome Mixer adjustment to your image, before doing any exposure adjustments. The default monochrome settings are fine for this technique
  2. Watching your histogram, use levels, exposure, brightness, and highlights/shadows to tweak your exposure. Especially for images on an overcast or stormy day, try to make your data span the whole histogram without a huge spike in either the black or white end (although if your subject is black or pure white, you will have a spike that you want to preserve). Use shadow/highlight to keep detail in the midrange.
  3. Uncheck the monochrome adjustment to restore your shot to color



Try making a new version for these adjustments and comparing it to the master. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised!


Edmund Fladung
2007-10-03 08:38:31
this is a great tutorial. really nice info. especially dug the part about b+w vs color resolution in our perception. thank you
Jim N.
2007-10-03 11:58:55
This is very helpful! It's made a difference in my images and perhaps kept me from migrating back to LR due to adjustment tool frustrations in Aperture. Thanks!
Josh Anon
2007-10-03 12:01:37
Glad you all appreciate! We aim to please here :)
2007-10-04 09:16:18
As a black and white photographer I often use the inverse process. I'll make colour adjustments in Aperture before switching to B/W (which I perform using photoshop & alien skin). eg, If someone in the background is wearing a bright red tshirt on an otherwise bluish image I'll turn the red blue. I find it easier here than burn/dodge after conversion.
Josh Anon
2007-10-04 12:51:46
Interesting point, Rob!
2007-10-04 14:21:54
Here's an interesting photo processing technique: convert to b/w, adjust tones, remove b/w filter. It really makes sense because it allows you to focus on the tones and contrast.