Black and White Workflow

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Today’s Question: I do a significant amount of my work in Black and White. Would I work in color until ready for printing….or should I change to B&W first thing?
Or perhaps you would suggest a special sequence of operations best suited for B&W optimization?

Tim’s Answer: In large part the approach I recommend depends on the degree to which you are certain that you want to convert a given image to black and white. In other words, I would first want to know whether you thought a given photo would ever be presented in color at all.

If you’re not sure, of if you want to have a color version of the photo in addition to a black and white version, I recommend applying at least the basic adjustments to the image before working in black and white. This would include basic color correction, adjusting overall brightness and contrast, and other basic adjustments. I then might save this version of the image and create a copy (or a Virtual Copy in the context of Lightroom) for the black and white interpretation.

When you move from adjustments for the color image to a black and white interpretation, be sure you revisit the overall tonal adjustments. In particular, check the values established for black and white in the photo, as the overall tonal distribution may have been changed by your conversion to black and white. And, of course, pay attention to other considerations that will be especially important for a black and white image, such as emphasizing (or toning down) texture and detail in the photo.

If I know for sure that I will only work with a photo as a black and white image, I will bypass all but the very basic adjustments to correct for the initial exposure, so that I can move into the black and white processing more quickly.

Of course, it is important to consider the overall approach you take to workflow for your photos. If you are working in Lightroom, there’s no penalty to diving right in to black and white adjustments for a photo, because Lightroom’s Develop module always applies adjustments non-destructively. However, you may at least want to create a Virtual Copy of any color photo you want to process into a black and white version.

If you’re using Photoshop to process your images, I would apply very basic overall adjustments to the initial capture (such as via Adobe Camera Raw), and then use adjustment layers and perhaps some filters or plug-ins on a duplicate of the Background image layer in order to create the black and white interpretation.

Again, much of your decision about how to organize your image-optimization workflow depends on your sense about a given image and your personal preferences. But the point is to take a thoughtful approach that maximizes your flexibility.