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7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography

tips for black and white portrait photography

In the era of digital cameras capable of capturing millions of colors, why would you choose to do black and white portrait photography?

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 emphasize specific elements without the distractions color can create.

And fortunately, portrait photography is a genre where black and white images can really shine.

However, like any photographic technique, there are tips you can follow to make sure your images have the most impact. In this article, I offer 7 simple tips that will instantly improve your black and white portraits – no matter your level of experience.

So if you’re looking to take your black and white portrait shooting to the next level, read on!

1. Start with black and white in mind

Black and white portrait photography tips

For many photographers, black and white is more than a creative choice at the post-production stage; instead, it’s a mindset. If you can start creating an image knowing that you ultimately 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 tonal contrast, lighting contrast, 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 using the monochrome setting on your camera. While I don’t recommend you use an in-camera black and white conversion for your final image, as long as you shoot in a RAW file format, then all of your image’s color data will still be present in the file, and Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw will reset the photo back to color once it’s imported.

Working in black and white will give you an idea of how an image will look without color, while still providing the highest amount of versatility in post-production.

2. Keep the eyes sharp and well-lit

Black and white headshot in black and white

In the majority of portraits, the most important part is the eyes. Eyes are usually the focal point that the rest of your image is built around.

And this is especially true in black and white.

Due to the lack of color, a black and white image often breaks down into graphic forms and shapes. Eyes are shapes that everyone recognizes, and they immediately capture the attention of your viewers.

So make sure that your subject’s eyes are well-lit and in-focus for a stunning black and white portrait.

3. Expressions are emphasized in black and white portraits

woman's expression emphasized in black and white

As with the eyes, other facial features become very prominent in a black and white portrait.

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 the 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, then ask your subject to react to each one.

The words you choose can be simple descriptors of emotion, such as love, sadness, joy, anger, and melancholy.

For more diverse expressions, try abstract words. You can even go for funny words, such as cheeseburger, politics, Teletubbies, or Hulk smash. Plus, if you have a subject who’s tense or nervous, this can easily lighten the mood.

4. Do your lighting carefully

Black and white portrait headshot

When it comes to lighting black and white portrait photography, 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 you like, search for black and white portraits on the internet. Find the first ten black and white portraits that stand out to you the most and see if you can deconstruct the lighting.

Then try to use those lighting techniques in your own images!

5. Add contrast with light

tips for black and white portrait photography

If you want to create high-contrast black and white portrait photos, the best advice is to add contrast with light, not Photoshop.

Small global adjustments are okay and won’t hurt your images, but definitely do not crank the Contrast slider to 100. Try to keep it between +15 and -15.

For local adjustments in post-processing, use a dodging and burning technique of your choice. The key point here, and in all post-production, is subtlety.

Ultimately, you can use contrast adjustments while editing. But strive to make the largest changes with your lighting setup!

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 might 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 practically beg to be shot in black and white.

Other subjects may not be so obvious.

Bright, punchy hues 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 can become a distraction.

So try getting rid of it.

This can be a difficult concept to understand without seeing it in action, so I have included the color version of one of the black and white portrait photos above.

Look at the image, then ask yourself: How did my perception of the photo change? What did I notice first in each version of the image? Do I respond differently when I see the image in color versus black and white?

headshot with bold colors

Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid images, so can a lack of color.

Black and white portrait photography: Conclusion

If you’re new to black and white portrait photography, do remember that these are guidelines, not rules.

So if you need to stray from my tips 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!

Now it’s your turn:

Do you have any tips for black and white portraits that I missed? Do you have a favorite black and white portrait technique? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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