HDR for Stunning Black and White Images

 Article by Chris Smith

Once you’ve learned the basics of HDR processing, you’re in position to open up a new world of black and white possibilities. Black and white images made with HDR techniques can be spectacular. I’ll tell you how I decide if I want to convert an image to black and white and I’ll show you exactly how I do it.

Why Black and White HDR’s?

You’ve just processed an amazing HDR image with bold, beautiful colors. Why would you waste that and convert to a monochrome image? In a good color image, the main subject of the image is the color. Picture the double decker busses of London. Those need to be done in color. They are all about red. In a good color image of one of the busses, the subject is the red color. But many photographs are about the lines, curves, and textures of a scene. In these cases, the color can distract from the main subject.

Choosing Images for Black and White

Ask yourself if the colors in your image add to the shot. If not, it may look better in black and white. Do the colors actually distract from the image? If so, try it in black and white. Is your shot about a pattern, lines, or texture, independent of color? By processing in black and white, you deemphasize the color, emphasizing the shapes and patterns in the shot.


I especially like to use black and white with HDR when shooting dimly lit interiors and night shots. These are situations where HDR helps bring out the detail in the scene, but the color can be distracting or downright offensive. In the before image of the firehouse, it would have been difficult to color correct the differences between the tungsten lights out on the street and the fluorescent light inside. And all of the colors distract your eye from the main subject. In black and white, your eye goes to the firetruck and the writing above the door, the two places I want you to view first.

When I’m wondering if a shot will do well as a black and white, I use the “v” key in Lightroom. This gives a quick black and white conversion that will give you an idea if this will work. Whether I think it will work or not, I hit the “v” key again to revert back to color. If I am going to process it as a black and white, I do it outside of Lightroom.

Converting the HDR image to Black and White

To process my HDR images for a black and white image, I start by doing the same RAW editing steps I would for any image including white balance and lens corrections. From here, I send the images to my HDR image editing software. Lately that has been the 32 bit merge plugin from HDR Soft. My goal in the HDR program is to create an image that covers the entire dynamic range but may be somewhat unexciting. I will add contrast later. If I am using HDR software with presets, I do not usually use the black and white presets available. Although sometimes I’ll see that the black and white preview looks good and I’ll convert it after the HDR process. You can convert to black and white in Photoshop, Lightroom, or most any other photo editor, but I prefer to do it in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

In Silver Efex Pro, I begin by looking through the presets. I may look through five or six of them before settling on one. Some of my favorite presets for my HDR images are High Structure, Full Dynamic, Fine Art Process, Wet Rocks, and Full Contrast and Spectrum. Once I choose a preset that I like, I’ll mess with the different colored filters. If you choose the red filter, then everything that was red in your HDR image will be brighter in the black and white image. In some situations, you may find that a colored filter helps to make your subject stand out from the background better than a neutral filter. Usually I run through all of them before choosing the one I like best. I also may tweak the sliders a bit to increase or decrease brightness or structure, but that’s typically all I do in Silver Efex before sending it to Photoshop.

Black Blacks and White Whites

The HDR process often robs your image of contrast, so you need to be sure that you add it back in. Ansel Adams advocated the zone system for black and white images. The premise of the zone system is that you should always have areas of your image that are absolute black, areas that are absolute white, and every shade in between. I use curves adjustments in Photoshop to make sure the areas of my image that are supposed to be black are true black and not dark gray. I use the levels adjustment and its histogram to be sure that my black levels hit the far left of the histogram and the whites hit the right.

Guide the viewer’s eye

When viewing a color image, your eye is guided by color and contrast. When your image has no color, it is critical that you lead the eye with the tonal differences of your image. In the image of the steam engine in the shop, I made sure that the brightest part of the image was the engine itself. But I also used curves adjustments in Photoshop to add some light to the workbench on the right and the boxes on the shelves on the left. I even added light to the rafters. I hope that as you view the image that after you recognize that it’s a steam engine that your eye wanders the scene to see what else you may discover.


By lighting my favorite parts of the image, I’m guiding you through the scene. And this is the power of using HDR for your black and white images. With a single exposure, no-matter how you dodged and burned the image, it would be difficult to retain detail in the shadows while properly exposing for the train engine.

Notice, however, that the lights are blown out and there are areas of shadow that have no detail. I don’t care to show what the ceiling lights look like. There wasn’t anything interesting hanging out in the dark corners of the room. The goal of HDR shouldn’t be to bring out every detail in the scene. The goal is to give you, the artist, the ability to bring out detail where you want it, to tell your story.


One last thing you may want to try after you’ve done the rest of your editing is to add a tint to the image. If you have brought your image back into Lightroom, you can change the white balance of the shot to warm it up or cool it down. In the image taken under the “L” in Chicago, I warmed up my shot after processing it in black and white. In the futuristic shot in the Thompson Center, I did the opposite and shifted the white balance cooler. These last minute adjustments can add that extra something to your shots and give you one more tool to help express your vision of the scene.


Words of Wisdom

When you shoot for black and white, you still want to capture a RAW image. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t preview your images in black and white as you capture them. I wrote a short article about how you can do this at my site, http://outofchicago.com/shooting-in-black-and-white-when-shooting-raw/

So go back to some of your old HDR shots that you liked and try processing them as a black and white. And find some shots that you may have given up on. They may take on a new life in monochrome.