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How I Edit | Black and White Processing in ACR

Have you ever wanted to watch someone else edit a photo, just to see what they do?  Would you like to compare notes, or just get an honest look at how another photographer edits their work?  Well, today I thought I’d share a bit of my black and white processing tips with you!

First of all, I use Adobe Camera Raw for the majority of my editing.  I finish up in Photoshop CS5, but the bulk of the work is done in ACR.  I just find it easier and less time-consuming.  And I’m not quite comfortable with Lightroom yet, so I stick to what I know!

I selected a backlit image for this tutorial.  The lighting was beautiful, I thought, and I do shoot backlight a lot so it makes up quite a bit of my portfolio.  Here is a screenshot of my workspace in Bridge/Camera Raw.  Ready?  Straight out of camera (SOOC):

See all that red?  Yep.  I blew the highlights.  But that’s okay, I did it for a reason.  I underexposed the girl slightly and exposed for the water/reflection on the ground.  When I composed the image, I envisioned a near-silhouette, so that’s the reason for my choice of settings and exposure.  This image was shot in RAW at ISO 200, f/2.5 and 1/8000 on my Nikon D700 using my 85mm 1/8 lens.  It was taken in late April, around 7pm.

My typical first step is to apply a favorite black and white preset that would keep the contrast high, yet recover the highlights and retain the detail in my shadows too.

But like actions, presets need tweaking too!  I never, ever “set it and forget it” when it comes to presets.  They are simply my starting point for processing an image.  Depending on each image, you will want to push the sliders around: increase the blacks, decrease the exposure, add brightness, etc. to your taste.

Here, we are starting from scratch!

I converted to grayscale and cooled the tones down a bit too, all in the Hue/Saturation tab.

In the Basic tab, I then backed down the exposure, reduced the blacks, increased the highlight recovery, and bumped the fill light as well.

You also want to keep the Temperature and Tint in mind too, when converting.  The amount of blue, red and green present in your image directly impacts your final image.  Below, I pushed the Tint slider toward magenta, and the Temperature slider toward blue.

Next, let’s take a peek at the Tone Curve tab.  I selected Strong Contrast, and pulled my darks down (to the left), my lights and shadows up (to the right).

To finish, you can add a slight, natural-looking vignette to the edges in the FX tab, and give the image a bit more depth.  Vignettes are always a matter of taste, and in my opinion, shouldn’t be terribly noticeable.  They should serve to subtly lead your eye toward the subject of the image.  Not all photographs need a vignette, so use them wisely!

There are still a teeny bit of overexposed highlights in the water, but they are sparse, aren’t near my subject and aren’t distracting.  So I just let them be.

I like to finish in Photoshop, so I change the color setting from Gray Gamma to Adobe RGB or sRGB here too.  I also do a bit of retouching if necessary, patch dark circles or blemishes, that sort of thing.  Just any other adjustment I feel is necessary at this point.  Then I crop and finish my workflow of saving, resizing, batch renaming, etc.

And voila!  The final image… before and after.

Another fantastic technique in ACR is the use of the Adjustment Brush (keyboard shortcut K).  It’s often vital to controlling exposure on specific parts of an image (such as keeping the highlight detail in the water and the shadow detail on the little girl).  It works especially well in backlit situations, where it can sometimes be hard to expose properly for the subject and the background.  😉

And finally… I thought I’d recommend a few black and white presets and actions to get you started.  These are my personal favorites that I’ve used over the years, with exception of a few wonderful actions/presets that are no longer offered, or were shared in workshops, etc.  Enjoy!

What are your go-to black and white actions and presets?  Add them to the comments for our readers, if you’d like to share!

I thought I’d mention also, that I’m excited to be a part of Chic Critique Forum’s Exclusive “Celebrity Secrets Revealed” Webinar on Monday, March 5.  I’ll be teaching you how to shoot in low light!  We had our dress rehearsal last night, and it promises to be pretty amazing!  You can sign up here if you’re interested.  See you there!

About Stacey Woods

Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages. She believes that the small moments are really the biggest ones, that photographs are legacies that we leave to our children, and that authentic love is beautiful. Her online photo journal can be found here.

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  • Christineb

    Thanks so much for sharing Stacy!!! Now if only I had ACR : ) Boo for me, ha. Still working in Elements and there is are some things I want to do that I just can’t figure out how to do. Oh well I will make due. You are too sweet to share, I just love, love your images. I hope you are doing well.

    • Stacey Holbrook Woods

      Ahh, thanks Christine! I know that you can make the same (or similar) adjustments in Lightroom if you want to go that route. It’s a powerful program, but I just haven’t been able to sit down and get perfectly comfortable with it enough to replace ACR with it. 😉 I hope you’re well also!

  • Klo_co123

    Great info. Thanks for posting. Love checking out the Actions and Presets you suggested.

    • Stacey Holbrook Woods

      Thank you! Yes, check them out! Presets a great start, and there are SO many wonderful options out there!

  • Clair Dickson

    What a treat! (AND it’s one of my favorite photos of yours!) Lightbulb moment- converting to b/w while in ACR– I’ve always done it in photoshop! Thanks for generously sharing! Pioneer Woman’s Black and White Beauty action is one of my favorites- especially for babies :)

    • Stacey Holbrook Woods

      Clair, aren’t those lightbulb moments the best?! I’ve heard wonderful things about PW’s actions too!

  • Heather :) :) :)

    this is really great. Thanks for the info. A friend of mine gave me the full Photoshop program before I moved to California. It’s like being a kid in a candy store and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what I can do with it. I think it’s the Adobe PHotoshop CS9? Not sure about that.. Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather :)

    • Stacey Holbrook Woods

      Hi Heather! Yes, PS is a powerful program, and I don’t use the full capability of it myself (and likely never will!). Have fun!