The Black & White HDR


Thanks to Black & White artist and authority Cort Anderson for the inspiration for this article

Most times when people think about HDR they do not think about B & W images. A Google search for HDR Images did not turn up a single B & W image in 10 pages of image results.

Now I guess that is understandable because people do like the color pop that HDR can provide and it has become a staple of “That HDR Look”. But HDRs can make an outstanding Black & White image. Of the 1,000 HDR images in my portfolio 1/3 of them are a B & W conversion.

If you are ALL about detail, B & W will bring that out to its finest. When we loose color it becomes all about Tonality and Textures. I have to say I love Black & White images, HDR or not. There are times an image and color just does not make sense to the mind and images I thought were toss-aways ended up being brilliant B & W images.

So I urge you to give B & W a try on your HDR images.

The B & W HDR

So what is the best method for converting your HDR to B & W? Should I do the conversion before or after I merge the image?

B & W Conversion Methods

There are many different ways to achieve a black & white image

From Pixel editing programs (Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, Gimp etc.)

You can use:

  • Desaturate
  • Convert to Grayscale (just remember to convert back to RGB if you want to use other filters)
  • The Channel Mixer
  • Gradient Maps
  • Photoshop’s new B & W (CS6)

In Lightroom (or ACR) you can convert to Black & White and adjust the tonal balance with 8 different color channel adjustments (yes you adjust B & W with color channels) or use some of the presets built into Lightroom or available from or people/companies.

And finally there are some outstanding B & W conversion Plug-ins such as:

  • Nik Silver Efex Pro
  • Topaz Labs B& W effects
  • onOne Software new Perfect B& W

What’s the best method? 

Without a doubt don’t use desaturate, it loses too much tonality in the image and you end up with a big gray blob. My preferences are: Convert to Grayscale because it converts tones correctly. But I have to say there are times I use the Channel Mixer or Gradient Maps because they just get a certain image right. I even have a slightly new method that I use often that is the subject of a magazine article but I can’t discuss it yet because they have the exclusive rights to the story. (Coming January 2013)

And finally I am impressed with using Lightroom or the Black & White in Photoshop (you can use it in Adobe Camera Raw or inside Photoshop) because they allow for some interesting changes in tonality.

All of these conversions are very straightforward methods. If you want to get conversions that mimic the effects of B & W film you are better off using one of the above software makers plug-in. They all allow you to simulate certain film types and add film grain. They also allow for “Toning” of you images such a sepia and cyanotype. There are also presets for making an image look like an old time photo with borders and plate emulsion looks.

Processing to Black & White before the HDR Merge

Most times I just convert my final color HDR to Black & White. It saves me processing two images separately. I get great results in less time which sometimes is very important to me. I don’t just convert the image though, I will need to go in and do a final Curves adjustment because without color we may need to make some contrast adjustments to get everything in place.

But suppose you want to experiment with preprocessing your images into B & W before the HDR Merge.

A very simple way to do this if you use Lightroom is to make Virtual copies of all your exposures. Simply select all your exposures, right click them and say “Create Virtual Copies”. Virtual copies are great because they don’t take up more disk space since you are still using the same base RAW file; you are just applying another set of instructions (developing) to those RAW files.

Once you have those Virtual copies created, with them selected go into the Develop Module One image will come up and do a straightforward convert to Black & White Which can be done either by Pressing Black & White in the Basic tab or down on the HSL/Color/B&W tab. Don’t get fancy here and try to manipulate each image because we don’t know the final effect that will have in our Merge.

Once you have that image converted, at the bottom of the module, press sync. This will convert all the selected images. With that done, returning to the Library module it’s an easy step to right click again and export those files to your favorite HDR Program

Pre HDR Conversion


Post HDR Conversion

As you can see in these examples, One converted before the HDR Merge, one after; there isn’t a huge difference in the two but it may be something you want to experiment with

If you don’t use Lightroom or Aperture you will need to make a Tiff or Jpeg (I prefer 16 bit Tiffs for HDR) Black & White conversion copy for all your exposures and then bring those into your HDR Program.

One thing I wouldn’t do; If you choose to use one of the dedicated Black & white programs, I wouldn’t use those for a pre-conversion especially if the add film grain or make for a contrasty conversion. Since noise multiples with HDR Merge the final HDR image may not be as pleasing. If you choose to use those I would stick to converting post HDR Processing.

This isn’t an everything and end all on Black & White conversion, rather it’s just an encouragement to try Black & White on your HDR Images. You may be pleasantly surprised how much you like it.

Hope that helps,


Further Resources