How to Create Fine Art B&W Photography in Lightroom

by Feb 6, 2023Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How to Create Fine Art B&W Photography in Lightroom

I’m sure you will have seen many examples of fine art black and white photography in the past. The ones where the sky is black, and the buildings are in deep shadow other than for a shaft of light picking out details. If you’ve ever wondered how to create this type of image, or how to do it quickly, then this tutorial is for you.

What this tutorial won’t do is explain the painstaking and complex masking techniques that many fine art photographers use. Instead, I’ll share a much easier method using only Adobe Lightroom. Best of all, you can use this technique with regular images shot during the day.

Here’s the starting image for the tutorial.

starting image before converting to black and white

The first step is to turn the sky black in the image.

Step 1: Turn the Sky Black

To turn the sky to black, we first need to select it using the Lightroom Masking Tools.

With the image open in the Lightroom Develop Module, click the Masking tools icon below the histogram. This will display a list of tools you can use to create selections in the image. Click the Sky option to choose that.

Choosing the Select Sky option in the Masking menu

When you click the Sky option, Lightroom automatically selects the sky in the image. It then opens the Masks panel, adding the sky selection as a new Mask as shown below.

Sky selection in place for the image

The area of red in the image is an overlay showing what’s been selected. When you apply an adjustment to the Mask the red overlay will vanish, allowing you to see the adjustments.

Now that you have selected the sky, move the Exposure slider for the Mask to the far left. This will darken the sky, but it probably won’t turn it completely black. An easy way to fix this problem is by duplicating the Mask you just created.

To duplicate the mask, position your mouse pointer over the mask in the Masks panel. You will then see an icon showing three dots appear to the right side. Click the icon to display a popup menu where you can choose the “Duplicate” option.

Duplicating a Mask in Lightroom to darken the sky

This should now create a duplicate of the first selection, including the Exposure adjustment you applied. If the Exposure adjustment hasn’t been applied, just move the slider to the far left and the sky will turn black.

Step 2: Convert the Image to Black & White

We can now convert the image to black and white using Lightroom. Personally, I like to make the conversion to black and white after turning the sky black. I’ve had times when keeping the image in colour seemed to produce a better selection of the sky.

To convert the image to black and white, click the Edit icon below the Histogram using your mouse pointer. You can see this indicated in the following screenshot.

Converting the image to Black and White in Lightroom

When the editing controls are displayed, click the black and white link to the top right of the Basic panel. This converts the entire image to black and white.

You may also like to adjust the colour response sliders in the B & W panel, although this isn’t essential. These are the adjustments that allow you to control how light or dark a colour is when converted to black and white.

Step 3: Darken the Building

The reason that we are doing this separate to the sky is that we wanted the sky to be black, but we want the building to retain visible detail, albeit very dark.

Selecting the building is easy as it’s the inverse of the Sky selection we’ve been using. An easy way to create the selection is by duplicating and inverting an existing sky mask. As before, move your mouse pointer over the mask in the Masks panel. When you see the three dots appear to the right, click them to display the menu. Then in the popup menu select the “Duplicate and Invert Mask” option.

Duplicating and inverting a mask to select the building

You should now see the duplicated mask in the Masks Panel and a red overlay will appear on the building. Now you can move the Exposure slider to the left to darken the building.

Darkening the building in the black and white image

When darkening the building, you will want to make it very dark so that the histogram for the image is compressed on the far left. If you look at the screenshot above, you can see that the building is extremely dark, but you can still make it out.

Step 4: Adding Light to the Photo

With all the preparation out of the way, we have the fun part of the process. This is where we add light back into the photo using a Radial Gradient selection, although you can also use the Brush tool if you are careful.

To add a new Radial Gradient to the image, select the “Create New Mask” option at the top of the Masks panel. Then in the popup menu click the Radial Gradient option. You can now click on the point in the image where you want to add the gradient. Then whilst holding down the mouse button drag with the mouse.

After drawing the gradient, resize and position it using the controls. You can see an example in the following screenshot.

Adding a and positioning a radial gradient on the image

Once you have the Radial Gradient in place, increase the Exposure slider to lighten the area. This produces an effect that looks like light hitting the building as seen below.

Adding light to the black and white image by increasing the exposure

It can also help the appearance of the light to increase the Contrast and Clarity sliders.

Now you can repeat the process to add further patches of light to the image.

Adding another patch of light to the photo

Here is the finished image showing the different lighting effects, all produced using the lightroom masks.

Finished fine art black and white photo

To see the complete processing of this image, watch the following video.

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You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.

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Adding light in this way works well with black and white photos to create a distinctive fine art look. But it can also work with colour images as I demonstrate in this tutorial to turn day into night.

The techniques in this tutorial require you know the different tools and features of Lightroom Masking. If you feel that you’re not fully up to speed with these, check out my book Mastering Selections and Masks in Lightroom CC. It explains all the tools, how to combine them, and includes several useful full-length examples you can follow.

More Lightroom Tutorials

You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Lightroom Tutorials page.

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