Black and white HDR photos

When you think of HDR, you probably think of big, bold colors.  These two things just go together so well.  HDR can really make a huge impact on the colors in your shot.  That is both the benefit and the challenge with HDR - you have to be careful or else your colors will become really overdone and go way past the boundaries of reality (unless that is your goal with the photo, of course!). 

But did you know that HDR done in black and white is equally beautiful?  It is!  Although color gets most of the attention, you can also take a very colorful HDR photo and convert it to black and white.   It’s both quick and easy to convert a really stunning HDR photo to black and white in Aurora HDR.  In fact, you can even push the sliders much further to the right, increasing the details and contrast way past what looks good in color, and then convert it to black and white and end up with a very dynamic and compelling image.    

So next up we’ll cover how to create stunning HDR photos rendered in black and white, as well as offer up a couple of interesting alternatives to a traditional black and white implementation.

When you take an HDR photo and convert it to black and white you end up with an entirely new and different kind of image.  It’s less visually overwhelming, due to the lack of color, and it often draws the viewer in.  Gone are the cartoonish colors and instead you drive focus on the details in the scene.  

Now, there is not a standard formula for what to do to get your photo to its final look.  The goal is to experiment and see what catches your eye.  So just try out various presets, stack multiple presets, and move some sliders around.  I often find several different black and white versions of a single photo that I think ALL look great.

How to convert to black and white in Aurora

Once you have your photo looking the way you want it, it’s time to convert to black and white.  As you can imagine, this is pretty simple to do in Aurora.  All you have to do is open up a new layer (I often name this layer BW, short for black and white), go into the Color menu, and drag the saturation to zero (all the way to the left).   Instantly, you have a black and white HDR.  See how easy that was?

Quick note: Macphun makes a wonderful black and white conversion software product known as Tonality.  It’s part of their Creative Kit, or you can buy it as a standalone product.  Like all Macphun products, it’s very impressive in terms of its capabilities.  So if you really get into both HDR and black and white, using Aurora and then Tonality is a great combination for you!

Click here to visit the Tonality page on Macphun's website and download a trial copy!  You can also read my review of Tonality here.  Lastly, below is a quick video I did showing Tonality.

In this video, I give a tour of Tonality by Macphun, which I use to convert my photos to black and white, and in this case create a vintage London photo from an otherwise dull shot. Join me!

Shifting tones in a black and white HDR

Now there is another thing you can do with the image, and that has to do with shifting the tones.  Once you have converted to black and white, you can also play around with the Temperature and Tint sliders in the Color menu.  This can result in taking the photo more towards a cooler look (sort of a cyanotype) or a warmer look (giving it more of a sepia look).  Again, it’s down to experimentation and finding something that satisfies your eye.  

If you are interested in a wide range of options with your black and white photos, once again I recommend that you download the free trial of Tonality.  It just has SO MUCH capability that you will literally NEVER run out of creative options, and since it is designed specifically for black and white, you can get more mileage out of it for black and white than you can with Aurora HDR.

Creating selective color in your HDR photo

And since we are feeling a little creative now, here’s another idea to experiment with.  If perhaps your original photo had something with a nice pop of color, why not do a little selective colorization on it?  When you are in the BW layer, just mask in the color wherever you want it, and get an entirely different sort of photo.

Here’s a video I created showing how I use selective color in Aurora HDR:

In this video, I demonstrate how to create selective colorization in an image with Aurora HDR Pro using multiple layers and masks. If you want to test out Aurora for yourself, you can download a free copy here: If you decide to buy it, use coupon code JIMNIX to save 10%.

Using selective color can really make for an interesting photo.  It’s punchy and edgy but has a nice pop of red that really draws your eye to it.  It’s hard NOT to look at red, isn’t it?  That color always works great with selective colorization.

Below are a couple of examples of HDR photos that I converted to black and white, and then applied a little selective colorization to each photo.  The London photo was actually converted in Tonality after being HDR'd in Aurora, whereas the photo of the Liberty Bar was done exclusively in Aurora HDR (including the conversion to black and white).  

As you can tell from the photo, the Liberty Bar image was done in an "extreme HDR" fashion before converting to black and white.  Grungy scenes often work well with an extreme HDR implementation, once they are converted to black and white.  It would look terrible and horribly unreal if it was a full color image, but to my eyes the black and white works well with a scene like this one, even when pushing the sliders to the extremes.

It’s pretty incredible what you can do with a simple black & white conversion. There’s really no wrong or right way when working with black & white for HDR. It’s all a matter of experimentation and figuring out the workflow that works best for your image.  Bring out the details first (ignoring the color & saturation), then work on the brightness levels if you need to.  Don’t worry about the over-saturation of color when you are in the thick of adding layers, because it will be eliminated from the image at the end. 

See how fun and interesting HDR can be?  When you add in textures or convert to black and white, you can really start to get some very interesting and original creations!

On the next page we will discuss a REALLY cool feature of Aurora HDR - luminosity masks!  

Let's dive into luminosity masking, Jim!