In this lesson you'll read how to take an image you’ve created in Aurora HDR 2017 and push its details beyond a believable range.

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 2017. 

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.

In today's lesson, we’ll cover how to create stunning, punchy,
highly-detailed HDR photos rendered in black and white.

As well as offer up a couple of interesting alternatives to a traditional black and white implementation. We’ve all done it - taken an HDR photo and pushed it way past the realm of reality. It’s fun to experiment, and sometimes those sliders are just calling out to you! While it is enjoyable, the end result usually is something that few are going to find believable. 

The colors and details can be visually overwhelming, sending the viewer’s senses into automatic overload, and thus these results are pretty polarizing. People generally love them or hate them. There’s little middle ground in that regard.

But if take one of these “overcooked” HDR photos and convert it to black and white you end up with an entirely new and different kind of image. It’s less visually overwhelming and often draws the viewer in. Gone are the cartoonish colors and instead you drive focus on the details in the scene. It’s quite fun and rewarding to create these, so let’s dive in and see what we can come up with!

How to Shoot for B&W HDR?

When you are taking the photos out in the field - and if you happen to be thinking ahead about converting them to black and white - make sure you get enough variance in the light across your RAW files. 

While many photographers just take 3 photos in their brackets, scenes that are getting converted to black and white might require more shots. This is due to the fact that you are wanting to capture a LOT of detail and a very wide range of light, because we are going to really punch up the detail in the final HDR photo.

In the example today, we have a 3 exposure bracket of a sort of grungy urban scene. The 3 photos had enough of a range of light to make them work well here, so we will go with that. Also note that we ticked the box for Alignment because these were shot handheld, using the tips from a previous lesson.

One of the best and most popular subjects for a punchy black and white HDR is either a grungy street scene or a photo of something old and abandoned. There is often a lack of color in both options and since they are generally already in a state of disrepair, the added drama from the processing we are about to do just accentuates it.

Now, there is not a standard formula for what to do to get your photo to its final look. The goal, before converting to black and white, is to drive up the level of contrast and detail and to really bring out the “HDR look” (remember, we are going for a punchy look, not just a standard black and white). So just try out various presets, stack multiple presets, and move some sliders around.

Remember, you are not trying to get the color version to look real. You are trying to make it look unreal, or at least a bit over the top. So try out different settings, move sliders to the right, and experiment. Remember, this is part of the fun.

It’s very flat and lacking in details, but we are going to change that with a generous dose of presets and layers. As you can see in the screenshot below, we added multiple layers to this photo to give it a lot more “edge”. On the base layer we added the Basic Detailed preset, then on each of the next two layers we added more presets (Sleepy Forest, then Landscape Desaturated).

After that, we added one more layer that we called Colors and Details. On that layer we just pushed the Saturation and Clarity up a bit to give it a little more punch. Here is where the photo currently stands after those layers.

This would definitely be classified as an over-the-top HDR implementation. The colors are over-saturated and the level of detail is a bit unreal as well.

Once you have your photo looking pretty much over the top, 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 (we called this layer BW, short for black and white), go into the Color menu, and drag the saturation to zero (all the way left). Instantly, you have a punchy black and white HDR. See how easy that was?

It’s also worth noting here that Skylum 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 Skylum 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!

Here are a couple of comparison screenshots so you can see how far we have come from the original, flat base HDR photo.

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. Here are two examples of that.

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 an example with this photo we’ve been working on.

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? It works great with selective colorization.

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 out 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.

Be sure to share your photos with us in our Facebook group
and tag your images and presets with #aurorahdrlessons

Missed the previous lesson?
Check out the link below:

Lesson 1: The basics of HDR Photography
Lesson 2: Merge the brackets
Lesson 3: Tripods vs Handheld
Lesson 4: Exposure for HDR
Lesson 5: Aurora HDR Presets
Lesson 6: Perfect Location

If you have questions, don't hesitate to email us at [email protected]

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