Monos with Impact using Lightroom

May 28, 2014  •  7 Comments

This will be a step-by-step walkthrough that describes how to convert a landscape photograph into a high impact 'deep mono' image using Adobe Lightroom. As I always state at the end of each blog entry, this may not necessarily be the correct or accepted way of doing things but it's what works for me. I'm always interested in constructive criticism, so if you have any observations or improvements to this process then please feel free to comment. As this is a walk-through, I will not be going into too much depth about each of the steps, but I will be happy to discuss them in further detail in future posts.

I will start with a photograph taken with a Nikon D300 camera fitted with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, which I use for the majority of my shots — it's big and heavy (due to the high quality of the glass) but produces razor sharp images. For this shot, there are no on-camera filters apart from the standard Hoya Pro 1 Protector that I fit to all my lenses (it's cheaper to replace a scratched filter than a scratched lens).

Initial Image

Shutter: 1/100 sec, Aperture: f/5.0, Exposure Bias: -⅔ EV, Exposure Program: Aperture Priority


As you can see, Lightroom's initial rendering of this RAW file looks rather dull and flat so the first job will be to breathe a bit of life into it and bring out the details.

In the Library Module I right-click on the RAW file and select the menu option 'Create Virtual Copy'. As the name suggests, this enables me to work on a copy of the image without making any changes to the original file (If you have read my post on RAW Files, then you may realise that I am just creating a new sidecar file to store the information regarding the edits. An added advantage is that if I don't like the changes, then I can just delete the virtual copy, leaving the original safe and untouched).

Create Virtual Copy


When viewing the virtual copy in the Library Module, it can be identified by the 'fold' in the lower left corner:

Virtual Copy


Now I press the 'D' key to enter the Develop Module. The first job that I need to perform is to correct any distortions that may be caused by the lens, so I select the 'Lens Corrections' panel on the right-hand side of the screen and select the 'Basic' tab and make sure that the 'Enable Profile Corrections' and 'Remove Chromatic Aberration' boxes are checked:

Lens Corrections

Enable Profile Corrections: This option will correct any distortions that are typically apparent when using wide-angle lenses. Lightroom contains a large database of information regarding the mainstream lenses on the market and is smart enough to use the EXIF data from the RAW file to look up the lens that was used to take the shot. It will then automatically apply any corrections that are necessary.

Remove Chromatic Aberration: When using budget lenses, an effect called 'Chromatic Aberration' is sometimes noticeable. This appears as a coloured fringe around the edges of objects, usually around leaves and branches of trees. Although this problem rarely occurs with the Nikkor Pro lenses, I still check this box anyway from force of habit.


Next, I need to look at bringing out some of the detail in the sky. I select the 'Basic' panel and drag the 'Highlights' slider all the way to the left (or just click on the number next to it and type -100). This will reveal any hidden detail in the sky, but sometimes there just isn't any so this will be the point where I delete the virtual copy and move on to find another image to work on. If there is any strong shadow in the image then I will move the 'Shadows' slider to the right to recover any lost detail. In this image there is only a small amount of shadow in the foreground trees so I'll just move the slider up to 20, along with moving the 'Blacks' slider to -8 to correct the slight loss of contrast:

Highlights and Shadows

Highlights and Shadows Sliders


Hmm, that sky adjustment didn't seem to make a great deal of difference, did it? Don't worry, that's expected — all I was trying to do was identify if there was any detail at all. Now that I can see that there is something there (albeit very faint) I just need to extract it. Beneath the Histogram in the right-hand panel there is a tool called 'Graduated Filter'. I will select this and then drag the cursor from the top edge of the image down to the bottom edge, then adjust the sliders as shown:

Sky Gradient

Improved Sky


Okay, that's starting to look better, but it's still a bit flat. This can be fixed by moving the sliders in the 'Presence' tab:


... and change the 'Tone Curve' to 'Medium Contrast':

Tone Curve


That should give enough detail to perform the mono conversion. As a recap, the image has changed from this:

Recap Original this...

Final Colour Version

It may appear over-saturated at this point, but that's fine. Since it is going to be converted to mono, I'm only really interested in the tones, not the colours.


There are numerous ways to convert to monochrome, from a simple de-saturation that just discards the colour information but results in a flat image, through to using a specialised third-party filter package that gives total control over the conversion process. I usually use Nik Silver Efex Pro for my conversions, but in order to keep things simple I will convert this image just using Lightroom controls. I will cover Nik Filters in a later blog.

On the 'Basic' panel, I click on the 'Black & White' tab to perform a standard mono conversion:

Black and White Tab

...then drop down to the "HSL / Color / B&W' panel in order to adjust the sliders to give a bit of depth:

B&W Adjustments


This should provide a baseline conversion:

Baseline Mono Conversion


This is where the real fun begins. In order to make the image 'pop' I need to apply Dodging and Burning. Dodging is the process of emphasising the highlights whereas Burning performs the opposite task of darkening specific areas. The process is a little bit like 'painting by numbers' in that you take your Dodge brush and paint over the areas that you want to highlight. Then switch to the Burn brush and paint over the areas that you want to darken.

I select the 'Adjustment Brush' tool then click on the drop-down arrow next to the 'Effect' option:

Adjustment Brush Effect

From the drop-down list I select the 'Dodge (Lighten)' option:

Dodge (Lighten)


This will reset all sliders to zero apart from the 'Exposure' slider which is set to 0.25. In order to add a little sizzle to my pop, I usually push the 'Clarity' slider up to around 20 or 24:

Dodge Settings


At the bottom of this panel there are options to control the interaction with the brush. I usually start off with the following settings but may adjust them as I go (Tip: you can easily change the size of the brush while you are using it by using the '[' and ']' keys on your keyboard):

Brush Size


It is often easier to zoom in to 1:1 when performing these operations. When the Dodging is complete, I click the 'Done' button in the lower-right corner, then repeat the operation with the 'Burn' brush. Note that there is no need to adjust the 'Clarity' slider with the 'Burn' brush. For simple images this process can be completed in a few minutes, but for more complex landscapes I often spend up to an hour on this 'fine tuning' phase.

I unfortunately suffer from a strange form of OCD, which means that no matter how hard I try, I cannot stop myself from applying a Vignette to all of my images as the very last step:


Once complete, the image should have transformed from this:

Final Initial Recap this...

Final Conversion



This was a very quick introduction to a deep mono conversion of a landscape photograph. In future posts I intend to focus in more detail on some of the techniques used here. If you have any questions or requests for more detailed posts, please leave a comment and I will try to address them.



Standard Caveat

The content of this blog entry, as with all my blog entries, is my own personal opinion. I don't profess to be the fount of all knowledge on any particular subject; I'm just a guy with a camera and a computer, and around forty years experience taking photographs, both film and digital. I am still experimenting and learning, and I've done more things the wrong way than the right way, and from this I have learned what works and what doesn't. To quote Albert Einsten, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new." There may be a great many blogs, books or magazines that take a different view to my own and that's how it should be. There is never any single, definitive way of doing things, but what I write about here is what works for me. If it works for you too, then that's great!

Disclosure: In order to pay for the hosting and upkeep of this site, I have taken the liberty of including links to the Amazon site for any items that might be of interest. Please feel free to ignore them or to just click through to find out further information in a new browser window. However, if you do decide to make a purchase via the link then Amazon will kindly reward me with vast riches beyond my wildest dreams (I wish!), which will enable me to fund my increasingly expensive hobby.


Fantastic tutorial Alan. Looking forward to the detail techniques. Many thanks.
Thank you for your excellent tutorial! You have pursuaded me to look through my photo archives and do some B&W conversions.
Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and I so look forward to the photographs you post. Please keep them coming.
Archie McCafferty(non-registered)
Great detailed explanation for fellow photographers to attempt to mimic your work technique Alan.

I'm waiting for you to share some knowledge on how you would process using CS instead.

I applaud your openness and willingness to share your method, as a lot of other photographers hang on to "their" method as if it were something to take to the grave with them!

Cheers again,
Thank you, thank you Alan for sharing a great step by step process into your magic kingdom! This information is wonderfully helpful and I will be working on some of photos to duplicate this. Again, thank you and I look forward to keeping up with your blog. Enjoy your day, Cheryl
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