How to Use Lightroom: Seven Hidden Features and Tips for Black and White Points
Lightroom offers multiple ways to do many tasks. Some are obvious and others are hidden. Some sliders have theoretical “proper” settings, and all can be adjusted to taste. This article offers a deep dive into the whites and blacks sliders, with insights on common guidelines and some hidden features within Lightroom. With an investment of just a few minutes of your time, these insights can help you become more confident and comfortable as you use Lightroom.
Purpose for Black and White Points
Setting proper white and black points adds contrast to an image while managing clipping. In some images, low contrast is appropriate, but in many cases, it is desirable to have pixels that range from solid black to solid white.
Clipping happens when a pixel tries to exceed solid white or solid black. No detail can be seen where clipped pixels are next to one another, so it is important to actively manage clipping while shooting and post processing.
A commonly accepted guideline is to have only a few solid white pixels and a few more that are solid black. There are numerous ways to accomplish this, as described below.
Before addressing the whites and blacks sliders, make selections for the sliders above them. The settings for white balance, exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows will influence the proper white and black points.
The quickest way to set proper white and black points is simply to click on “Auto Tone” in the basics panel. The “Auto Tone” button launches adjustments to all six tone sliders: exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks. The suitability of the exposure slider setting is rather controversial, and often will require manual intervention. In many cases, though, the white and black points set with “Auto Tone” are good enough, and the highlights and shadow points are good starting points, even if the exposure slider needs tweaking.
If you decide to reset a slider to neutral, just double click on the slider name. To reset all six of the tone sliders, double click on the title “Tone”. These tricks work throughout Lightroom.
Lightroom offers another automatic way to set values for the whites and blacks sliders individually. Simply hold shift and double click on the word “Whites”. Lightroom will automatically move the slider to the point at which only a few pixels are solid white. Hold shift and double click “Blacks,” and Lightroom will automatically move the slider to a point at which a few more pixels are solid black.
Press “J” on the keyboard to turn on clipping warnings. Solid white pixels will be shown as bright red, and solid black pixels will be shown as bright blue. Adjust the whites and blacks sliders to taste. Then press “J” again to turn off the warnings. The clipping warnings can also be activated by clicking on the triangles in the upper corner of the histogram. Click on the left triangle for blacks and the right triangle for whites.
Press J to activate clipping warnings, then adjust sliders to taste.
Lightroom offers masked views that reveal exactly what is happening as the whites and blacks sliders are moved. To activate the mask, simply hold down “Alt” (Windows) or “Opt” (Mac ) while dragging on the whites or blacks sliders.
Holding “Alt” or “Opt” while dragging on the whites slider will reveal a black mask. Clipped pixels will appear as white or colored pixels. Sliding to the right will reveal more clipped pixels, sliding left will show fewer.
Top: Whites clipping mask. Bottom: Blacks clipping mask.
Activate the whites clipping mask by holding Alt (Windows) or Opt (Mac) while dragging the whites slider.
A colored pixel indicates that clipping is occurring in some, but not all three of the color channels in the RGB color space. The masks will reveal red pixels where the red channel is being clipped. Likewise for green and blue. Magenta, cyan, and yellow indicate that two channels are being clipped. Magenta pixels indicate clipping in the red and blue channels, cyan indicates green and blue clipping, and yellow indicates red and green channel clipping. A solid white pixel indicates clipping in all three color channels. (Those familiar with color theory will recognize those combinations correspond the results achieved in additive color blending.)
The blacks slider works similarly, showing a white mask on which solid black pixels will appear in black.
Changes to the sliders in the basics panel will be reflected in the histogram. But the histogram can also be used to control the sliders. Simply hover over the center of the histogram and the exposure slider will become highlighted and active. Click and drag in the center of the histogram to control the exposure slider from within the histogram itself. To the left and right of this central area in the histogram are the shadows and highlight areas, and to the far left and right are blacks and whites. Just click and drag in any part of the histogram to make adjustments.
Click and drag within the histogram to move the exposure, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks sliders.
If working in the histogram feels too data-centric for a visual art, sliders can also be adjusted with the target adjustment tool (TAT). The TAT is akin to a magic wand, letting you fine tune the image without taking your eyes off the photo or even thinking of the slider terms.
To launch the target adjustment tool for tone, press Ctrl+Atl+Shift+T or Windows or Cmd+Opt+Shift+T for Mac, or click on the icon in the upper left of the tone curve panel. The TAT icon looks like a bullseye target. Move it to the area you would like to adjust. Then click and drag up to make it brighter or click and drag down to make it darker. All the pixels in the image with similar luminosity will be impacted accordingly, so be sure to watch the image as a whole as you make adjustments to a particular area.
Use the target adjustment tool to modify the exposure directly within the image.
Technically speaking, the target adjustment doesn’t specifically set the white or black point. It controls highlights, lights, darks, and shadows as defined in the tone curve panel. Use of TATs is a great skill to have though, as there are more TATs in the HSL panel. They are accessed with similar keyboard shortcuts, just replacing the T with H for hue, S for saturation, and L for luminance (e.g., Ctrl+Atl+Shift+L or Windows or Cmd+Opt+Shift+L for Mac).
Finally, scrubby sliders can make every slider interaction just a little bit easier. It is widely known that a slider can be changed by typing a number into the box to the right of each slider, or by clicking on the slider handle and dragging it left or right. There’s a third, lesser known option in between, called the scrubby slider. Just hover over the value box and instead of clicking in it to enter a number, click and drag to the left or right. The slider handle will move just as if it had been clicked on. Granted it only takes a second to mouse over to a slider handle, but it is even faster and easier to move between the boxes neatly aligned in a column.
If the whites were severely overexposed at the time of capture, they may not be recoverable in post. Therefore, when shooting, watch the bright areas and ensure they aren’t overexposed. Many pro cameras offer highlight clipping warnings known as blinkies or zebras; see your camera menus or manuals for details. Overly dark areas can be brightened in post at the risk of adding noise. When faced with a scene that has both very bright and very dark areas, consider bracketing at the time of shooting. Those frames can then be merged into a single image using Lightroom’s HDR functionality.