7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography - Photography for Beginners

A common question I come across is: why do we choose to shoot in black and white? Digital cameras nowadays are total beasts, picking up every shade of color that ever existed. But the answer to this question is actually quite simple, black and white photography is classic. Black and white photography is a perennial practice in the history of photography, with color technology only spreading its wings later. But you knew that!

There’s plenty of debate when it comes to color vs. black and white. However, for me along with several other photographers it’s a basic concern of aesthetics. The lack of colors in black and white photos allows you to rid unnecessary details from a picture, enabling you to highlight certain elements to the viewer without the potential distractions that color may end up causing. Black and white photography requires you to focus more on light and shape, and you cannot rely on color to save the day.

Portrait photography is a niche in which black and white photography, and it is used to convey a specific mood or emotion in your subject. Similar to any type of photography, there are several factors that you must consider to ensure that your black and white portraits look their best.

1. Think, Breathe, and Live Black and White

For a number of photography enthusiasts, black and white is much more than an artistic option. It’s a state of mind. It is important to conceptualize a photo in black in white before you take it, taking certain steps to make sure that each element of a good black and white photo are in your shot before you click the shutter. Factors like lighting contrast, tonal contrast and unique facial expressions from the subjects are essential factors that are difficult to fix in post-production. You must accurately capture these things in your shot, and it helps if you’re thinking about them before hand.

For those of you who have problems picturing exactly how a shot may appear in black and white, consider adjusting your camera to a monochrome setting. The camera will automatically edit your photos to black and white, and you be able to immediately see how it looks.

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2. Eyes are Everything

The most prominent element of every portrait is the eyes. They are the point of interest that your entire portrait is situated around, especially when it comes to black and white photos. In the absence of color, a monochrome image usually breaks down to graphic patterns and shapes. Eyes are shapes that are universally recognized, and they attract instant attention from your photos’ viewers. Ensure that your subject’s eyes are properly lit, and the focus is well set. You might try adding a light just below their face pointing up towards their eyes, this often makes their eyes pop.

Eyes are the heart and soul of black and white portrait photography.

Eyes are the heart and soul of black and white portrait photography.

3. Highlight Facial Expressions

Similar to the eyes, facial features and expressions serve a significant role in black and white portraiture. Make it your goal to elicit emotions out of your subject. Even small changes in the subject's expression can a massive difference. For example, a cheeky smile, a raised eyebrow, puffed cheeks or even facial wrinkles can all be used to take your black and white portrait to the next level. Think about the all of the small details and try to pull unique expressions out of your subject, you’ll be amazed at how unique some of the shots you capture are.

Having a tough time with it? Try out this exercise. Make a list of objects, activities, or random elements and hand it over to your subject. Capture their reactions to each one of these words. The keywords and phrases you end up picking will determine which expressions you are able to extract from your model. You can elicit things like sadness, anger, passion, love, confusion, loneliness, happiness, etc. The possibilities are endless! For even more varied expressions try using more abstract words and phrases. This activity is also a great ice-breaker if your subject is shy or uncomfortable during a shoot.

Facial expressions convey a mood or an emotion - an important piece to any black and white portait.

Facial expressions convey a mood or an emotion - an important piece to any black and white portait.

4. Lighting Considerations

As far as lighting a monochrome portrait picture is concerned, there are no standard rules you must follow. Pick a harder source of light if you prefer high contrast. If you want a softer or more subtle look, pick a softer or more diffused light source. Try moving your lights around and see how it affects your subject.

To be honest, black and white portrait lighting is all about personal touch. If you're having trouble finding something that works, compile 10 black and white portraits from other photographers that you love. Evaluate them and try to figure out where the light sources are coming from, then give those a shot. It is easier than it sounds 😊

Experiment with lighting, there are no standard rules for lighting when it comes to black and white portraiture.

Experiment with lighting, there are no standard rules for lighting when it comes to black and white portraiture.

5. Play With Contrast

When it comes to black and white portraiture, contrast is incredibly important. The strength of the light source will directly dictate how much contrast you will have in your image. Harder or brighter lighting will yield greater contrast, where softer lighting will yield more gray and flat images that might contain more detail (this is also a great look). If you’re planning to produce high contrast black and white portraits, keep it natural (e.g don’t add too much contrast it in Photoshop or Lightroom). Small tweaks in Lightroom or Photoshop are fine and won’t harm your shots, however, don’t ramp your contrast slider up to maximum. Strive to keep it between +15/-15. Burning and dodging is more effective than the contrast slider when it comes to black and white portrait editing, and it involves adding localized contrast using localized editing tools. Try this out, you can get some amazing effects.

Black and white portraits rely on contrast, but don't overdo it.

Black and white portraits rely on contrast, but don't overdo it.

6. A Bad Image is a Bad Image

Say you’re editing a color shot that isn’t quite living up to your standards. You decide that maybe this shot would look better in black and white. Rethink this! Transforming a bad color photo into black and white is only going to aggravate the flaws that made you doubt the photo in the first place. A bad image is a bad image, regardless of its color scheme or lack thereof.

Don't turn a bad color photo into black and white.

Don't turn a bad color photo into black and white.

7. Sometimes color is better, sometimes it’s not.

Sometimes you’ll come across a subject and you immediately know they should be shot in black and white. Most of the time this isn’t the case, and you’ll have to decide whether color or black and white best suits them. Robust and deep colors definitely make for stunning photographs, yet eliminating color can transform how a subject or scene is perceived altogether. If you really want your viewer to focus on one specific thing in the image, black and white might be a better call. Use your discretion to find which images work better in black and white, and which images work better in color. Can’t decide? Create a color version and a black and white version and ask your friends, this is what I do when I can’t come to a decision.

Some portraits were made to be in black and white, while others are not.

Some portraits were made to be in black and white, while others are not.

Conclusion

Perhaps now you will understand some of the more important topics when it comes to black and white photography. Color is important, but sometimes it is not needed :) Use your creative mind to find what works for you. Who knows, perhaps you have a natural ability for capturing stunning black and white portraits. You won't know until you try!

If you're new to black and white photography, keep in mind that these are guidelines and not rules. In the end, it's all about the results you get, so don't be afraid to try new things and see what you come up with. As long as you keep shooting, I promise you'll get something good :)

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Post a link to one of your favorite black and white photos in the comments below. Let's chat about why they are good!