Black and White Workflow

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Today’s Question: Say I have an original colour RAW file that I really like but also know it will look good in black and white. So I want to make a virtual copy in Lightroom. Do I then make the adjustments I want in Lightroom to the colour file and then sync those changes to the black and white virtual copy as a starting point? Or would it be best to approach the straight black and white virtual copy with a fresh adjustment palette, as I would undoubtedly be looking for a different feel to the black and white version?

Tim’s Quick Answer: When you create a virtual copy in Lightroom, the adjustments already applied to the master image will also be applied to the new virtual copy. I recommend applying any corrective adjustments (such as noise reduction, chromatic aberration removal, blemish cleanup, etc.) to the original image before creating the virtual copy. You might also prefer to apply overall tonal and color adjustments, but it is important to keep in mind that these adjustments may need to be fine-tuned in the black and white version of the photo.

More Detail: When you convert a color image to black and white, there will be some changes in the overall appearance beyond the obvious loss of color information. Specifically, you may find that overall exposure and contrast need to be refined after converting a photo to black and white. This is due to the differences between color information based on individual channels and the underlying luminance information in the image.

If you won’t be presenting a color version of the image at all, then there’s no significant benefit to applying adjustments to the color image, or to creating a virtual copy in the first place. If you only want a black and white version of the photo, you could simply apply your adjustments directly to the original capture in Lightroom.

However, if you prefer to have both a color and a black and white version of the photo, then a virtual copy is called for. As stated above, my recommendation is to apply corrective adjustments first, so you don’t need to duplicate those adjustments for both the original image and the virtual copy.

Perhaps most important, however, is that you be sure to revisit all of the tonal adjustments for the black and white version of the image, as those adjustments are very likely to differ from those that were applied to the color image. I prefer to adjust the luminance values for each individual color in the B&W section of the right panel in the Develop module as a first step in working with the black and white version of the image.

However, I will then revisit the tonal adjustments in the Basic section to optimize the overall appearance of the image. I will also, of course, review all of the other various adjustment options as I finalize my black and white interpretation of the photo.