Black and white portrait photography is beautiful, it’s powerful, and it often seems to communicate more than just a subject.
But how can you capture gorgeous black and white portraits? What are the secrets to success?
I’ve been doing B&W portraiture for years, and in this article, I share all my best tips, including:
- The key facial features you must consider while shooting
- Whether you should start by working in black and white or in color
- How to adjust your lighting for incredible results
- Much more!
So if you’re looking to take your black and white portraits to the next level, read on!
1. Start with black and white in mind
For many photographers, black and white is an experimental choice at the post-production stage. This is a mistake.
Instead, make black and white portraiture part of your mindset. Decide whether you plan to shoot in B&W or color in advance. If you create 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. But if you think you’re capturing a color image – or you’re just not sure whether to use color or black and white – your image will likely turn out less impactful.
You see, black and white photos are different from color photos, and they consequently require a different approach. For instance, the best B&W portraits tend to feature lots of tonal contrast, dramatic lighting, and specific facial expressions. These elements are difficult – and sometimes impossible – to fix after the image is taken, which is why you must plan to do B&W in advance if you want the best results.
Some experienced photographers can “see” the world in black and white, which is an insanely helpful skill. They can strip away the distractions of color and imagine the world in shades of gray. Try to build up your black and white vision by switching your camera to its Monochrome mode and then checking your images frequently on the LCD. Carefully note how different image areas were translated in the final file.
And if you have a mirrorless camera with a viewfinder, even better! When you switch over to Monochrome mode, the EVF will turn black and white, so you’ll genuinely see the world around you in grayscale. It’s an incredible trick, and it can be very helpful, especially for beginners.
Pro tip: Make sure you’re shooting in RAW. That way, when you switch your camera over to its Monochrome mode, you’ll retain all of the image’s color data, and you’ll have far more flexibility when editing later! (Plus, if you change your mind and decide the image works better in color, you’ll have all the pixel information you need.)
2. Keep the eyes sharp and well lit
What’s the most important part of a portrait? The eyes. Eyes are usually the focal point of an image, and this is especially true in black and white.
Due to the lack of color, black and white photos are often perceived as graphic forms. Eyes are shapes that everyone recognizes, and they’ll immediately capture the attention of your viewers (and help them interpret the overall portrait).
So pay special attention to your subject’s eyes. Make sure they’re well lit (here, it can be helpful to experiment with different lighting angles), and make sure they’re in focus. If your camera offers some form of eye AF, I’d encourage you to try it, especially if you frequently shoot with a shallow depth of field. Nailing focus on the eyes is critical, and you just don’t want to take any chances! (If your camera doesn’t offer reliable eye AF, try using a single-point AF mode to carefully position your AF point over the subject’s nearer eye.)
A few additional tips for getting the eyes right in black and white portrait photography:
- Make sure you include a clear catchlight to help the eyes pop.
- Don’t be afraid to enhance the eyes in post-processing. Make sure plenty of detail is present!
- If you’re working in tricky lighting conditions and you’re worried you may not have the eyes in focus, try deepening the depth of field for a bit of extra leeway.
3. Pay special attention to your subject’s expression
As I emphasized above, the eyes are especially important in B&W portraits – but they’re not the only facial feature that matters. The subject’s expression also stands out, so it’s essential that you coach your subject carefully and fire the shutter at the exact right moment.
Because black and white photos are so stripped down, the more emotion that appears on your subject’s face, the more eye-catching the image. I encourage you to see this as an opportunity; if you can include lots of emotion in your B&W portraits, you’ll be well on your way to capturing outstanding shots.
Start by making your subject feel comfortable; explain your goals and have a casual conversation. Then, when you bring out your camera, use the first few minutes to help the subject relax. Check the images on your LCD and praise the subject (even if the images look stiff). Keep the conversation going. See if you can get your subject to have fun.
Next, hone in on specific facial expressions and emotions. It can help to bring along a set of example portraits that feature the expressions you’re after. You can show these to your subject (just put them on your phone and scroll through them when the moment is right) so they have a much better idea of your interests.
Make sure you’re constantly looking through your viewfinder with your finger on the shutter button. Remember: 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.
If you’re not getting the expressions you desire, try this simple exercise:
Prepare a list of words or phrases, then ask your subject to react to each one. The words you choose can be simple emotions, 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. (If you have a subject who’s tense or nervous, the latter approach can easily lighten the mood!)
4. Carefully choose your lighting setup
Black and white portraits can be done using artificial light, natural light, or a mix of the two. Personally, I prefer to use artificial light; it offers greater control and lets you create lots of drama. But you can also get great natural light B&W portraits, so don’t be afraid to shoot outside if you don’t have access to a studio setup.
Now, when it comes to lighting black and white portraits, there are no hard and fast rules. Contrast is generally good, which is why I encourage you to try split-lighting and Rembrandt-lighting patterns, but if you prefer softer, low-contrast images, consider reducing your light angle for a less-extreme effect.
Pro tip: For high-contrast portraits with rapid gradations in tone, use a hard light source, such as a snoot, a bare flash, a small softbox, or the midday sun. For soft tones and subtler images, modify your light with a large softbox or an umbrella. And if you want low-contrast images but you’re shooting outside, make sure your subject is shaded or head out when the sky is overcast.
At the end of the day, it’s all about personal preference. If you’re not sure what you like, search for black and white portraits on the internet. Find the first ten shots that stand out to you, and see if you can deconstruct the lighting. Then try to use those lighting techniques in your own images!
5. Rely on light, not Photoshop
If you want to create outstanding black and white portrait images, it’s important that you rely on your lighting skills, not Photoshop (or any other post-processing program).
You can use lighting to:
- Create drama
- Add a high-contrast effect
- Emphasize the main subject
- Turn the background black
- Much more!
And while it’s okay to make small adjustments in post-processing (and I certainly encourage you to do a thorough edit of each image!), you shouldn’t see editing software as a quick fix. If you push your adjustment sliders too far, the results often won’t look realistic (even if you don’t realize it at the time).
For instance, if you want a high-contrast image, don’t increase the Contrast slider to +100. Instead, choose contrasty lighting, then if you need an editing boost, try carefully adjusting the sliders. You might also try a dodging and burning technique. Just remember to keep things subtle.
Bottom line: While you can apply adjustments while editing, strive to make the largest changes with your lighting setup!
6. Don’t try to save bad images with black and white
This tip is quick but crucial:
If you’re editing an image that you feel isn’t up to scratch and you ask yourself if it might instead work in black and white, the answer is probably “No.”
Photographers love to “save” images with a black and white conversion, but the B&W treatment will often emphasize the flaws that made you question the image in the first place. And generally speaking, a bad photo is a bad photo, regardless of its color scheme (or lack thereof).
There’s nothing wrong with doing a quick conversion to see how an image looks in monochrome. But make sure you judge the image carefully. And if the shot doesn’t feel right, just reject it.
7. Learn why black and white does – and doesn’t – work
Some subjects practically beg to be shot in black and white.
Some subjects lend themselves to color.
And others…aren’t so obvious.
As much as possible, you should try to understand what makes a subject work in black and white. I’d encourage you to find some black and white portrait photography you really admire, then make a list of what you like about each image. That way, when you’re working with a new subject and/or setup, you can instantly know whether the images will turn out best in B&W or in color, and you can make adjustments accordingly.
Here are a few characteristics that tend to look great in black and white:
- Heavy shadows
- Hard lighting
- Intense, serious expressions
- Clear geometry
On the other hand, if you’re photographing a subject featuring bright, punchy hues – where the colors feel like an important part of the scene – it might make more sense to stick to color.
By the way:
Sometimes even experienced photographers struggle to decide whether a subject or scene looks best in black and white or color. So if that happens to you, try not to get too frustrated. In such cases, don’t be afraid to experiment! Take some deliberate color photos, then make a mental switch to B&W and shoot some more. Do the necessary conversions in post-processing, then spend time looking between the two sets of photos.
As you look, ask yourself: What’s different about the image sets? What works? What doesn’t? What do I like? What do I dislike? And see if you can identify whether the scene ultimately worked best in color or B&W.
Black and white portrait photography: final words
Black and white portrait photography might seem hard, but it’s really not!
Just spend time looking at good B&W portraits, follow the tips I’ve shared, and shoot constantly. You’ll soon be capturing black and white photos like a pro!
Finally, if you try black and white and you like it:
Welcome to the addiction!
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!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- 7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES