Black and White Portraits
“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me, they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” – Robert Frank.
This great photographer has put such a profound and deep meaning into his quote, showing the essence of portrait photography in black and white. Probably, the only thing he failed to mention is how challenging it can be to create black and white portraits and reveal the whole aesthetic of true human nature without those trivial colorful filters.
Indeed, if you wanna do something really extraordinary in the genre of black and white portraits, there are lots of things to consider, especially for a newbie. Which is exactly why we decided to pick up all the trends, insights, and advice from the best black and white portrait photographers and make this complete guide to B&W portrait photos in simple terms.
Enjoy your learning!
The Complete Guide to Black and White Portrait Photography
In the midst of Digital Age full of technical wonders, with fantastic cameras and lenses in hand, why do photographers still take pictures in black and white?Why is a monochrome portrait such an integral part of almost every contemporary photographer’s portfolio?Why are thousands of black and white self-portraits showing up on social networks daily?‘Cause we all love the verity.
The reason for discoloring a photoshoot is mainly the desire to show all the soul and every emotion in a photo. As soon as the colors are off, a viewer starts noticing key details. In black and white photography, people take off their masks.
In turn, the color itself prevents perceptual detachment altogether, it forces to concentrate on shades and color details, overloading our visual center with unnecessary information instead of demonstrating a portrait as a projection of a 3-dimensional form.
Moreover, color has almost no practical value as we can easily distinguish expressions, emotions and recognize people even in deep twilight.
Follow this guide step by step to master the complicated art of black and white portrait photography with ease:
Black and White Portraits: Top Tips that Work
If you are new to black and white photography, remember that all the tips you see in this article are only tips that can help a lot, but they’re not rules. So, if you feel the need not to follow them to get the desired result, just do it without a doubt.
- Think in black and white: if you’re planning to create a monochrome portrait, bear it in mind since the very first minute you start setting the light and camera.
- Never try to give second chance to bad photos by going monochrome. Black and white photoshoot will emphasize all the defects.
- Help your model to uncover their nature, do everything to make them relax.
- Add a spicy detail but don’t overload the composition.
- In black and white portraits, pay attention to wrinkles, freckles, and lips curves rather than the color of skin and hair – learn to distinguish texture and color.
- Catch the reflection of light in the eyes of the model – if you do this, the viewers will also notice it.
- Avoid simple dead poses, add the movements of hands, head, emotions.
- Show the character of the person, not the image.
These are only several basic tips that all top photographers use. Keep reading and you’ll find out the most effective technics and secrets black and white portrait photography.
Making a Portrait Black and White Isn’t Enough
“Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can.” – Yousuf Karsh, Self-Portrait
Considering black and white photography, people often think it’s enough to do some post-processing and apply a black and white filter on any picture they want. Unfortunately, it’s not easy that much.
Creation of black and white portraits aesthetic begins much earlier than a photographer presses the shutter button. First, make sure that all the essentials that can’t be corrected after the picture is taken are in place.
Tonal contrast, lighting, camera settings, position and expression of the model… it’s hardly everything you should check before taking a photo.
After that post-processing comes. And it also doesn’t imply making a portrait black and white only. All the steps of post-processing are described in this article too. Keep reading.
Learn from the best Black and White Portrait Photographers
«Many portrait photographers focused on getting the technical aspects right, and they completely forget about the most important feature of a portrait – who is standing of front of our lens.I’m not saying that your camera and technique aren’t important. But even when you have the best technique in the world, you will not have a good portrait if your subject feels, and looks, uncomfortable. Not him, her self.» – Tomasz Solinski
Today, you’ve got a fantastic opportunity to learn from the world’s best contemporary black and white portraits photographers for free. Most of them share their experience, views, advice, and ideas on their blogs, personal websites, and YouTube channels. Look for talented photographers through websites with collections of great photos like Flickr or ViewBug.
As for the ‘classics’ of the genre, some of them published great books about monochrome portraits and photography in general. You can also take several photoshoots of one author and analyze them.
No matter, how you’re going to do it. Just keep learning. Never stop being a newbie, even if you are a professional.
Who can you learn from? Here are some ideas:
- Annie Leibovitz
- Richard Avedon
- Daido Moriyama
- Yousuf Karsh
- Sally Mann
- Antonin Kratochvil
- Diane Arbus
- Angus Mcbean
- Roger Ballen
- Herb Ritts
- Philippe Halsman.
Emotions and Expressions in Black and White Face Portraits
«Making portraits you must remember that first thing is emotion that you need to focus on, and then comes the rest.» – Tomasz Solinski
The most important part of the black and white portrait is the eyes, no matter if your model is a man, a woman, or a child. Usually, the eyes are the focal point around which the entire image is built. This is especially inherent in black and white self-portraits and classic portrait photography in black and white.
Deprived of color, pictures are transformed into graphic forms and outlines. And the eyes are the most recognizable form, something that catches the attention at once. Make sure your model’s eyes are well lit and in focus.
As well as eyes, other facial features become more visible in a black and white portrait too. Take its advantage by adding emotion to the image. Even a slight change in the face of a model makes a huge difference. Play with a raised eyebrow, a twitch of a corner of the mouth, smiling eyes.
Choose dark clothes for your model to make the face and emotions more distinctive and vivid.
- Prepare a list of words or phrases and ask the model to respond and show how they feel when hearing them.
- The words you choose should be simple in describing emotions: love, sadness, pleasure, anger, melancholy.
- For more diverse expressions, try more abstract words, or even funny ones, like cheeseburger, politics, Hulk, etc.
- As a bonus, this technique can make the atmosphere friendlier and relax your model if they feel worried while posing.
Portrait Photography in Black and White: Set Your Camera Right
Before applying filters to make a monochrome portrait, and even before taking the photos, make sure that your camera settings are ready to fully show the aesthetic, uniqueness, and beauty of your model.
- Shoot in RAW
This shooting format is as important in black and white photography as in color. And it’s not only about the quality of the image but also about a variety of post-processing possibilities of RAW photos.
- Shoot in Color
If you can’t shoot in RAW for some reason, never choose the black and white photo in your camera settings. Color pictures have much more information for post-processing.
- Choose Low ISO
Opt for the lowest possible ISO in your camera. The reason is image noise, which is much more noticeable in monochrome portraits.
B&W Portraits and Lighting – Hard Light Experiments
When it comes to lighting in black and white photographs, there are no strict rules. It all depends on your personal preference.
If you are not confident enough, choose ten black and white portraits that you like, and try to analyze them from the point of view of lighting.
To create a high-quality monochrome portrait, you need to comprehend the principles of work with light, construction of certain light schemes, and working with flashes. In addition, you need to pre-submit what should eventually turn out. These are key moments in creating high-quality photos.
Each photographer can come to a positive result through various experiments. So let’s deal with the aspects of the use of a hard light, which allows you to make photos more dramatic and emotional.
With such light, you need to shoot carefully, watching the shadows. The farther the source of hard light, the sharper the shadow.
Here are the lighting options with hard light during a women photoshoot:
1. You can use a single source of hard light to the left of the model. Just a reflector.
2. Place one origin of hard light behind the camera on a tripod and glow it on the model at an angle. The head of the model is lifted so that the lamp shines exactly on the face.
Additional sources may be only required if you need to highlight some individual details or the shadow side of the object for less contrast.
Thus, the technical idea of this style of shooting is not complicated – the minimum of lighting and illumination is the most significant part of the subject, the rest remains in the shadow. Unlike a soft light circuit, only one illuminant origin is used for shooting with hard light.
Not a secret that for each person its lighting approaches. Don’t be afraid to try different brightness schemes, whether it is a street or studio portrait.
High Contrast: How to Take Edgy Black and White Portraits
In the absence of colour, it is especially important to make sure that your black and white pictures have a wide range of tones and strong contrast in order to maintain the viewer’s interest in the frame. Avoid overloading the image with grey. Instead, use light to get brighter elements that will give direction to the look, and darker parts with deep shadows to ensure good contrast.
It has long been known that a contrast photo always looks expressive, gives the “WOW!” effect. The high contrast technique always makes the shot more dramatic. A photo with high contrast is always focused on the details.
Black and white photographs have a high tonal contrast when using this method. It makes the photo more edgy and intense in perception. You can get the effect of a contrast image as follows:
- strong lighting. If this is a studio, use powerful light sources, if it is a street, shoot at midday, the brightest sun is at your service.
- change the snapshot in post-processing. Darker places are made blacker, whites – are lighter.
- adjust the parameters in the camera. Of course, do not scroll the contrast slider to 100. Try to limit it to + 15 / -15. For local adjustments, use lightening and darkening of your choice.
The key point in high-contrast pictures is the aesthetic aspect.
B&W Portrait Photography Composition: Keep It Simple
The composition is much more important in monochrome photographs, and all the flaws are more visible than in color photos. First of all, determine what exactly you want to emphasize in the picture. In accordance with this, choose the means to achieve expressiveness. For example, highlight the wrinkles on the old face, with the help of sharpness and contrast you can make the picture more dramatic. On the contrary, to strengthen women’s qualities, to soften them – with the help of lightening of some areas.
Due to the fact that color combinations are not taken into account when building a shoot, a black and white photo benefits more from a simple and “transparent” composition. In turn, software filters that simulate color filters can be embedded in your camera.
A black and white photography of people will be more successful if you use these tips:
Play with the composition: Take a picture of your model in the centre of the frame, not in the centre, according to the rule of thirds, so that there is a lot of empty space in the frame, etc.
Keep it simple: Regular breaks will help you and your model to relax before taking a picture, and new ideas for posing will come naturally.
Do not forget to experiment: Try to shoot in profile, or on top. You can still keep the portrait very simple by experimenting with “wild” shooting points and compositions.
Photograph portraits all the time: if you see a good expression, shoot it.
Lord Snowdon, a great portrait photographer, said: “It is not good to say“ Freeze ”at the moment of real life.”
Texture: Is Black and White Portrait Photography Better than Color?
Ted Grant, a Canadian photojournalist, said: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”
Portrait photography in black and white allows you to focus on the geometry, contrast and texture of the object.
The color and tonal transitions attract more attention in color photography, pulling it away from the shape, relief and texture of the subject. In black and white photography, on the contrary, it comes to the fore. When making a photo, look exactly at the texture and imagine what it will be in black and white.
Undoubtedly, not every photo can be black and white, as well as not every photo can be in color. No, of course, you are free to do anything with your pictures, but the basic laws of photography still exist.
If you are going to create a spectacular black and white shot, you should remember that a monochrome portrait requires the photographer to build a correct, beautiful illumination and shade, to understand how the light works and how to use it.
The texture of the fabric looks win-win in black and white photo. It becomes even more prominent and gives the frame additional dynamics. Choose contrasting fabrics for your model – then the portrait will be rich and deep. Usually, working with fabrics is very interesting for the model, and this is important for the process of shooting.
You can also play on the contrast. If the woman whose portrait you are photographing has smooth skin, you can place her on a rough background to emphasize the difference in texture.
Post Processing to Black and White Portrait Photography
Post processing can be completely different. Someone aspires to sepia and filters, someone likes a pure black and white version. It depends entirely on your taste preferences.
In order for the final result to be aesthetic it is necessary to go through several stages of digital photo processing:
1. Converting a RAW file
At this stage, we will use the RAW-converter, giving preference to the program that gives the most detailed and clean image, without paying special attention to color reproduction. It is important to note that the subsequent black and white processing imposes very strict requirements on the quality of conversion at the pixel level.
2. Adjust chromatic sensitivity
The second stage – the most important from the point of view of aesthetics of black and white photography in general – is the actual translation into black and white photography.
At the same time, we will manually set the output brightness factor for each of the primary colors. This operation can be performed in several ways. For example, use the Black & White filter.
3. Local correction of brightness and contrast
It is advisable to do this operation on a separate layer and to show the mask in the right places: on the eyes, eyebrows, lips, hair curls.
4. General correction of brightness and contrast
At this stage, photos can be given a finished look, making a general correction of brightness and contrast. By tradition, you can use curves for this.
In turn, a great idea would be to shoot a black and white self-portrait. So, you can not only express your feelings and uniqueness but also practice in post-processing photos.
Have never shot faces in black and white? Now you know everything about the genre, so just give it a try!