How to Create Dramatic Black-and-White Images

by | 3 years ago

When you shoot a landscape or cityscape using a long exposure with a sky that isn’t remarkable, it’s easy to go black and white to create something spectacular!

Step One: As soon as you get back from your photo shoot, go through all your photos in Lightroom and rate each photo with one star that you think has potential. Now you can download my black and white presets and let’s make magic! You can either click here or visit kelbyone.com/magazine to download the presets.

Step Two: To import the downloaded presets, go to Lightroom, click on the + sign at the top right of the Presets panel, and select Import Presets. Now you can navigate to the presets you downloaded, click Import, and they will appear in a group in your Presets panel. You can Right-click on the name of the group and choose Rename if you wish.

Step Three: Select an image that you want to convert to black and white. I’m starting with this panorama I took of downtown Los Angeles.

Step Four: For our first look, we want to make the image dramatic, so select the BW Linear Circle Darker preset.

Step Five: This already looks pretty cool and dramatic but if you’re using my presets, there are several things you can do to tailor it to your photos. First, make sure that you have only 2% of pure black in your photo by changing the black point. While holding the Option (PC: Alt) key, click-and-drag the Blacks slider. The image will turn mostly white. Drag the slider until you have a few areas of solid black.

Step Six: You can do the same thing with the white point. Just hold the Option (PC: Alt) key while dragging the Whites slider. This time your image will turn mostly black. Drag the slider until you have around 1% or less of pure white in your photo.

Step Seven: Now that’s settled, you can use the three Graduated Filters that are already set up with my preset, or you can create a new one to make the sky more dramatic. Just press M to activate the Graduate Filter tool, and you should see the three pins. Click on a pin to activate it. You can drag the pin to reposition it, click-and-drag on the line that goes through the pin to rotate it, or click-and-drag the bottom or top lines to change the width of the gradient. Adjust the settings of the Graduated Filter for each pin, as needed.

Step Eight: The goal is to darken the top and bottom of the photo to “close” it up and make it more dramatic. After you move the bottom Graduated Filter into position, you can lower its Exposure to help close the frame even more.

Step Nine: Another trick to tailor-make your photo is to use the Radial Filter. There are already several included with the presets; just press Shift-M to switch to the Radial Filter, and you’ll see the pins. As with the Graduated Filters, just play around with each Radial Filter to set the mood as you like. Basically, you’re dodging and burning the photo, which makes the image so much more interesting.

Here’s the before without the Radial Filters and after with the filters. This is what’s going to make your photo shine.

Step 10: For the final touch, you can add some Contrast to make it even more dramatic. Here you can see we really set the mood for this photo. Be sure to experiment with the other presets when editing your photos.

More Examples

Here’s a photo that I took the same day where I’ve applied one of my black-and-white presets. Just by moving around the Radial Filters, I quickly set a dramatic mood. The bigger you make the Radial Filter circle, the less noticeable the effect will be; and it also makes the photo much more interesting.

Tip: Whenever you have the Graduated or Radial Filter active, you’ll see a Show Edit Pins option on the left side of the Toolbar just below your image. Set this to Auto so you can see your pins on the photo when you’re editing the filters; but, when you move your cursor outside the image, the pins will disappear so you can appreciate the photo.

Now the great thing is that you can pick any photo you really like and quickly apply all the edits we covered above: Set the black point to 2% and the white point to 1%, alter the Gradient Filters and Radial Filters as needed, and add some Contrast. Here’s one more example.

You can have lots of fun with presets and play around with dodging and burning to make your photos more dramatic. Black and white for me can be very strong, intense, and dramatic, but it has to be well done with a nice balance of contrast. Have fun shooting!