7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography

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Why would you choose to create black and white photographs in the era of digital cameras that are capable of accurately capturing millions upon millions of colors? Black and white photography seems to be a constant in the history of the medium, with color technology only propagating itself into wide use around halfway between Nicéphore Niépce’s first heliograph and today.

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There’s a lot of debate on both sides of the argument, but for me and many others it’s a simple matter of aesthetics. A good black and white treatment has a way of stripping unneeded information from an image, helping you to emphasize specific elements to your viewer without the distractions color can provide.

Portrait photography is a genre where black and white images can really shine. Like any technique, there are considerations that you should regard that can help to make sure your images have the most impact.

1 – Start with black and white in mind

For many photographers, black and white is more than a creative choice at the post-production stage; it’s a mindset. If you can start the creation of an image knowing that you intend it to be black and white, you can take steps to ensure that all of the elements of a good monochrome image are in place before you press the shutter. Things like contrast in tonality, contrast in lighting, and appropriate expressions from your subjects are all elements that are difficult, if not impossible, to fix after an image is taken.

If you have trouble imagining how an image may look in black and white, try setting your camera to a monochrome setting. While it isn’t recommended to do this for a final image, as long as you shoot in RAW file format, then all of your image’s color data will still be present in the file, and Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw will reset the photo back to color once it’s imported. Doing this will allow you to have an idea of how an image will work in black and white, while still providing the highest amount of versatility in post-production.

2 – The eyes are more important than ever

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The most important part of the majority of portraits are the eyes. They are usually the focal point that the rest of your image is built around. This is especially true with black and white. With the omission of color, a black and white image often breaks down into graphic forms and shapes. Eyes are shapes that everyone recognizes and they draw immediate focus from your viewers. Make sure that your subject’s eyes are well lit, and focus is critical.

3 – Expressions are emphasized

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Like the eyes, other facial features become more prominent in a black and white portrait. You can use this to your advantage by conveying emotion in your images. Even tiny changes in your subject’s expression can make a difference. Things like a raised eyebrow, a twitch at the corner of a mouth, and smile lines under the eyes can all be used to great effect.

Here is an exercise you can do with your portrait subjects to get a mixture of great expressions. Prepare a list of words or phrases and ask them to react to how they feel to each one. The words you choose can be simple descriptors of emotion like: love, sad, joy, angry and melancholy. For more diverse expressions try more abstract words, or funny ones like: cheeseburger, politics, Teletubbies or Hulk smash. As a bonus, this sometimes works extremely well to lighten the mood when you have a subject who’s tense or nervous during a sitting.

4 – Lighting considerations

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When it comes to lighting a black and white portrait image, there are no hard and fast rules. If you like high contrast images with hard gradations in tone, then choose a harder source of light. If you like soft tones and subtler images, then you want a softer light source.

It’s all about personal preference here. If you’re not sure what yours is, try finding the first ten black and white portraits that stand out to you the most and see if you can deconstruct them in terms of lighting.

5 – Add contrast with light

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If you’re going to create high contrast black and white photos, the best advice is to add it with light, not in Photoshop. Small global adjustments are okay and won’t hurt your images, but definitely do not crank the contrast slider to 100. Try to limit it between +15/-15. For local adjustments, use a dodging and burning technique of your choice. The key point in this, and all post-production, is subtlety.

6 – You can’t save a bad image with black and white

If you’re working on an image that you feel isn’t up to scratch and you ask yourself if it will work in black and white, the answer is probably no. A black and white treatment will often emphasize the flaws that made you question the image in the first place, and a bad photo is a bad photo regardless of its color scheme or lack thereof.

7 – Choose black and white in spite of color

Certain subjects scream out to be shot in black and white. Other subjects may not be so obvious. Bright, punchy colors obviously make for vivid color photos, but by removing the color element you can completely change how a subject or scene is perceived. When you want to ensure your viewer is focused on a particular element, color as a graphic element, can become a distraction. Try removing it.

This can be a difficult concept to understand without seeing it, so I have included an example of a color version of one the images above. Ask yourself: How did your perception of the photos change? What did you notice first in each of the images? Do you feel differently or think differently of it when you view it in color than in black and white?

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Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.

If you’re new to black and white photography, do remember that these are guides and not rules. If you need to stray from them to get the result you’re after, do so without hesitation.

Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for earlier ones below and more daily over the next week.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

John McIntire is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram as @johnwhitneyphoto for portraits and @macjw2 for landscapes and travel.

  • Archie Macintosh

    Good summary. It’s a matter of how the photograph looks, not how the things depicted appear in the real world. The photograph is a different thing from the objects.

    Yes, things have colour; but for the photographer the question is what job is the colour doing in the picture? In many photographs, the colour isn’t actually making any contribution, and – what’s worse – it may even just distract the viewer’s attention from the things that do make the picture work – form, shape, texture, pattern and composition.

  • And, for the love of whatever deity you follow, don’t do that overdone thing where you leave part of the shot in colour. Every amateur does it.

  • John McIntire

    Thank you Archie and thank you for adding those points. I agree.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Blake. I don’t like to use that technique in my work either; however, I do make an exception when a client specifically asks for it. Some people do like it and in that event it’s my job to make them as happy as possible.

  • themeron

    Great tips!
    In fact in the second image I saw the eyes first and in the last one image, I saw the pink hair first!
    But imagine you the afghan girl by Steve McCurry in black and white?
    I love here! Congratulations from Brazil.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f9fe21cd582da37bd9dca18ad39370d9c7965954eccd8bf515a227ba293b01e9.jpg

  • John McIntire

    Thank you. You’re right, I can’t imagine that photo as anything other than colour. But Steve McCurry does do a lot of work in black and white and it’s as good as you’d expect from him!

    http://stevemccurry.com/blog/life-black-and-white

  • themeron

    Thanks for your reply! You’re right too! I love his work in b&w. HS from Brazil.

  • Hi dear, Great tips!
    In fact in the second image I saw the eyes first and in the last one image.
    http://www.iran-furniture.com
    I saw the pink hair first!

  • JvW

    If I had to choose the most important tip, I’d choose numbers one through seven. To me, that means it’s a good article. But I agree, I’ve don’t think I’ve ever seen a good ‘rescued by converting to B/W’ photo.
    My favourite portrait photographer, the Ansel Adams of portraits, is Yousuf Karsh. Like Adams a bit overdone at times but fantastic really special.

  • John McIntire

    Thank you, I’m glad you liked it.

    I’ve never heard of Yousuf Karsh and after a bit of research I’m finding it hard to believe I haven’t. His portraits are incredible! Thank you for mentioning him.

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  • Sudhakar Madhavan
  • Great article…question: How do you minimize the gray colors? I have tried several techniques from lighting to post process, but can’t seem to be happy with the end result. I love black and white (with very little gray). Advice appreciated!

  • John McIntire

    Thanks Marvin. The easiest way is to start with a high contrast scene from the off. An easy way to check is to look at your histogram and look for high peaks towards the left and right with a big dip representing the mid-tones.

    If that’s not possible, you can try to do your conversion in Photoshop with a Gradient Map adjustment layer. Use one for the initial conversion, then create a second one and adjust the sliders until your greys are where you want them. Use the layer mask on the second layer to paint back in the shadow and highlight detail that that second layer will have obliterated.

    Hope that helps!

  • John McIntire

    Thanks Sudhakar! What a great subject! Nice one.

  • Color filters can help but it’s not a silver bullet. But try taking a picture of a building against a solid blue sky during midday with a yellow filter (or apply a yellow filter in post processing).

    It will darken the blue significantly for a much sharper contrast in the look of the image. Depending on the colors in the image you can use filters to increase contrast.

  • Len Phillips

    These are some of the best portraits i have seen promoted for some time … Actually some very nice classical posing and very professional lighting .. wow … what a change from the stuff photographers these days seem to be producing and trying to sell at ridiculous prices . yes retired after 44 years of it so now it is cruise control and enjoy the fruits of the hard work ..

  • Mary Rose

    Hello, regarding the black and white article and images, really. You mean you could not stretch to include the original black and white — which is the real black and white. The white of the paper and the dark zones the film is capable of. Yes, film. Lots of photographers have gone back to film, or never left, for doing B&W. Without any explanation, I could tell the images were digital. There is no comparison between film and digital in B&W, and to those who will immediately argue that digital is the same or better, I would say, you haven’t used film, or used it properly. end of story.
    Mary Rose

  • Thx…this is where I am at after your suggestions on the gradient map…thoughts?

  • John McIntire

    Hi Marvin, the conversion looks good from my end. Nice deep blacks and bright whites. I guess what really matters is does it work to your taste?

  • John McIntire

    Thank you Len. Very much appreciated!

  • Yes, I like it much better than just the Camera Raw adjustments I usually make. I will definitely keep your other suggestions in mind next b/white opportunity. Thank you again!!

  • John McIntire

    Hi Mary, as a voracious consumer of black and white film myself, I do understand your views on the matter. I regularly use all nine of my working film cameras and find myself using them more as time goes on. However, the reason I didn’t mention film in this article is because this website is dedicated to digital photography techniques and as such, it does not fall into my remit to do so nor does it relate to a great many of the readers. I do share a similar enthusiasm for the medium of film, but that’s an article for another place and another time.

  • Thank you for the suggestion…Just curious, I don’t have a yellow filter, what K temperature do you recommend for outdoor b/white?

  • Florina Belu-Alexandru Fotogra

    Hello,John.I am new in photograpy and I’m beginning to like taking photo and convert in Black and White,then,but I am not pleased how it gets,meaning :for eg.the face is not very sharp,I took this photo in the house,in completely dark,all I used being a flashlight.Any sugestions might be more then overwelcomed.Thank you and by the way,great article.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    For a different twist, try white and black photography.

  • Great article! I just shot a black and white portrait yesterday.

  • KC

    I agree. Maybe not so much with #6, but that’s conditional. Portrait photography is a study all its own. People have an illusion of what they look like. Black and white removes the reality layer. As a large display piece it also makes for a powerful statement piece.

    Switching to black and white allows you to focus on the lighting, and the way the light falls on the model. Look at old Hollywood black and white PR pictures. The lighting is masterful and dramatic. There’s strong modeling and the light is almost liquid in the way it defines the subject. There’s powerful use of positive and negative space. We also have the luxury of filters (yellow, red, blue, etc.).

    Color can bring up some interesting problems in portraiture, compared to model photography. With models, you’re a bit more in control of the clothing, accessories, and makeup (men and women, to be fair). With portraiture, well, it can get bizarre. These aren’t professional models. Not only can you be dealing with the “camera face” and “camera poses” they concocted on their own, you’re dealing with their sense of color, clothing, accessory, hair, and makeup style. There’s no gentle way of putting this but “yikes!”.

    Some of this overlaps into black and white, but I’ve had to sort out some “interesting applications of makeup” (yes, both men and women). It’s often worse with flash, but concealer can blast right through a foundation. Clothing presents it’s own problems, from weird draping, to distracting patterns and fabrics.

    I don’t shoot formal portraits often. They can be as time consuming as a complex set piece. I prefer “hot light” over flash. I’m not only the photographer but the stylist. In some ways color is easier. You can let color contrast do the work and flat light, just separate the subject from the background. With black and white you really have to work with your lighting. It sounds hard, but it’s not. You can create a few signature “looks”.

    The images above are excellent and interesting. In black and white the images are almost timeless. In color, the “pink” that looks right today, may not in a decade.

    If you really want to know what it’s like to be a subject of a portrait, be a model, and let a stylist work you over. That will give you perspective in ways you can’t imagine. When I was younger, a friend who modeled for me, decided she’d rather be a professional makeup and hair stylist. OK. But, she needed models to practice on, “real people”. I was “volunteered” while she was training. Fair enough. I have a whole new level of respect for professional models.

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