How I Edit Monochrome Portraits

How I Edit Monochrome Portraits

In this quick guide, I'm going to demonstrate how I edited a particular set of portraits for a magazine. Taken as part of the Face of London Runway 2019 contest, these black and white images were shot in studio and processed with a combination of Lightroom and Photoshop.

I shot the images in color, so the model had relatively dramatic makeup. The makeup artist used shades of pink that look strange on a male model in color, but really make his features pop in black and white.

The brief for this project was to keep everything as natural as possible, and just to tidy the images up a bit. It was about showcasing the model themselves, and their potential. For this reason, I didn't remove fine lines on the face, change the shape of any part of the face, hair, or body, or so on. What I did do was to remove temporary blemishes, smooth down some areas, and use dodging and burning to bring the image to a level I wanted it to be.

Step One: Lightroom Preset

The first level of the edit was to take the color image and convert it into a dramatic monochrome image. I did this using a Lightroom preset, which I then tweaked in order to suit the individual image. This was actually a series of ten, although I am only demonstrating one here. The models had different skin and hair colors, as well as subtle differences in the lighting, so it was important to make each edit customized for the image. Using the standard preset as a starting point meant there was a certain amount of consistency across the set. I prefer only make simple changes like these in Lightroom, so the rest of the work was done in Photoshop.

Stage Two: Removal of Blemishes


This model had pretty good skin to begin with. As I wanted to preserve as much as possible and just take away blemishes which might be temporary, I didn't have a lot to do. You can see that the most part of the attention was on the cheek area, where there were some stray hairs and blemishes to clean up. This was all done with the heal tool set to content aware. It would also have been possible to get the same result with the patch or clone tools.

I could have smoothed the skin on the cheek down a little more, but I decided to do this in the next stage.

Step Three: Dodge and Burn

The dodge and burn tools are some of my favorite options for Photoshop editing. They work like magic for color shots too, but in monochrome you have even less to worry about because you won't get color distortion as a side-effect.

I use a soft brush, and always work at a low opacity brush as well — always under 50% and often less than 25%. I adjust this as I go, watching carefully the effect on the screen to see if it is too dramatic or not strong enough.

I dodged the area under the eyes to reduce bags, the hair to make it stand out more, and the background to give it more texture. I also evened out the texture on the cheek somewhat by carefully working at a much lower opacity. I dodged the full eye but then also burned the iris to ensure a good level of contrast. I would often usually burn the eyebrows, too, but in this case it didn't seem necessary.

Step Four: Checking


My favorite part of any edit is going back to the original and comparing all the work I've done. In this close-up, you can see that there has been a significant level of difference in the blemishes and shadows on the skin. There is a little bit of cloning visible in the area of the cheek, but as the image was not destined to be seen at this level of close-up, it was good enough for the intended use. If I had been expecting to see it as a larger print, I would have spent further time on the edits, but this was all that was necessary for the brief.

Some of the last tweaks that I did make after reviewing the image were to heal out the blood vessels in the eyes and soften some of the deeper pores. The idea was not to give the model the appearance of perfect skin, but to give an accurate — but kind — depiction. This was the reasoning behind leaving fine lines intact, only softening the loose hairs between the brows rather than completely removing them, and leaving the appearance of pores on the cheek.

Another edit I would normally have made would be to dial down the glare on the cheek, nose, and chin — but for this project, the shine gave a kind of sweaty, intense feel that went along with the drama of the monochrome.

Final Image

Here's another comparison of the final version of the image alongside the original. It's important to say that I don't think this is the only way you could or should edit monochrome portraits. Before I edit (or shoot), I always think carefully about the brief and what is needed for this particular project. Who is the intended audience of the image? How will it be shown? What level of retouching is expected? Could the subject (or client) be offended by certain types of editing? This could go both ways: some might feel offended if you were to edit out a real part of their face such as a scar or beauty spot, while others could complain if you don't make them look "perfect"!

I would call this example a medium-level edit. I've gone further than just doing a simple color correction and calling it done, but I also haven't gone anywhere near as far as would be expected on a commercial or beauty project.

What are your preferred Photoshop tools? Or do you stick to Lightroom as much as possible instead? Share your best monochrome editing tips in the comments.

Rhiannon D'Averc's picture

Rhiannon is a copywriter, photographer, author, and fashion magazine Chief Editor based in London. She focuses on fashion stories and portraiture, with the occasional dash of motorsports and landscape photography thrown in for good measure.

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I came here for the comments lmao XD

Thanks for the article...personally I think B/W conversions look better in COP..

That said I'm not sure this edit benefits at all from the conversion...and the eyes look a little over the top.

Curious? Why didn't you use a monochrome image sensor? I realize your camera was probably a Bayer Color sensor(2-Green, 1-Red, 1 Blue Pixel grouping). I doubt it was stacked photodiodes such as in a Foveon image sensor. Although the Foveon sensor would have required much less post processing for a monochrome image.

What would be really interesting is forming an image in monochrome from a Linear Imaging Sensor!

Good job on the final image!

Was this how to, or how not to?

Like for the question but is just a subjective solution: " I edited a particular set of portraits for a magazine."

Great comment, I think you said it all. In my opinion it’s a poorly conceived image from the get go, irrespective of the processing. The real question is why did the author consider this a strong enough portrait to form the basis of an article?

Rhiannon D'Averc Definitely not bashing, but learning (I've never actually shot a portrait in studio) and have a question: You mentioned that "the brief for this project was to keep everything as natural as possible." Why use such dramatic makeup on the cheeks? In B&W, it seems to really accentuate - and even change the shape of - the cheek bone structure. Of course the most important question is, was the model happy with the image?

It almost looks solarized...

I think if you convert to bw, you'll definitely need to do more skin cleanup as far as smoothing the transitions. Contrasty bw is often used to help define the problem areas when retouching. For this example, one of the areas is the cheek. There's big sections of dark and light areas. It makes it look messy. I would have dodged and burned to smooth out.

Are you really happy with that result?

I suppose if the end result is a quasi-Warhol-ish effect, that's a home-run...

I do not consider myself a B&W expert, but I have done my fair share. I'd like to ask:

Since you did the portrait in studio, would it not have been easier to use a more contrasty lighting instead of "creating" contrast in post-prod? If I know the portrait will be in B&W, I try to set the lighting accordingly.

Also, I do not know which preset you used, but many B&W presets contain a lot of clarity, which enhances skin defaults, so would it not be easier to smooth skin and do other touch-ups before applying the preset?

I take it back. Please go back to the bag reviews.

Bad Contouring ... whoever did the makeup

White in the eyes is too white in B&W .. scary - same edit. Not my taste.


This is going to be harsh sorry, but this not done well..

This is not a portrait that should be converted to black and white. Looks infinitely better in color. But I think the problem is that is was shot for color, not shot for black and white. The idea to convert came later.