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Black and white is a powerful and expressive medium for portraiture. The absence of color seems to allow us to see deeper into the soul and reveals the model’s character. Black and white portraits often have a timeless quality that adds to the expressiveness of the portrait. But working in black and white is challenging because you have to learn to see in what’s essentially a new medium.
In this recent article by dPS author Yacine you get some tips from his perspective and style: How to Create Good Black and White Portraits. Here are 5 more tips for you to continue learning. Once you understand the following five key concepts and you’ll be well on your way to creating beautiful monochrome portraits.
Black and white tests your ability as a photographer. You can no longer rely on color to carry the photo if the composition is not as strong as it could be. The two most important elements of a black and white portrait are tonal contrast and texture.
Tonal contrast is the difference in brightness between the different areas of the photo.
You need to ignore colors and see the scene in terms of highlights and shadows. An easy way to do this is to switch your camera to shoot in monochrome mode. Make sure you have image quality set to RAW in case you ever decide to develop a color version of the portrait (RAW files retain the color information).
In monochrome mode, a digital SLR displays your photos in black and white when you view them on the camera’s LCD screen. This will help you see whether the composition is working in black and white, and how the colors in the scene translate to gray tones.
If your camera has an electronic viewfinder (like a mirrorless camera) it will display the scene in black and white before you even take the image, making it even easier to see if the composition is working.
This portrait uses tonal contrast by placing a model with fair skin against a dark background.
Texture is also important when shooting in black and white. If your model has smooth skin, you might like to place her against a rough background to emphasize the difference in texture. You should also pay attention to the textures in your model’s clothing.
In the portrait below, the model’s smooth skin contrasts with the rough texture of the concrete wall she is leaning against.
Black and white is a form of simplification because it removes color from the scene. Keep the theme of simplicity going when it comes to composition and lighting.
All of the photos you see in this article were taken in natural light, sometimes with the assistance of a reflector. The more complex your lighting, the more your attention will be diverted from your model.
Keep backgrounds as uncluttered as possible. Don’t be afraid to move in close and use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. Simplifying the composition removes distractions, emphasizing your model.
I kept the composition of this portrait simple by using a short telephoto lens (85mm) and a wide aperture to blur the background (f/1.8). I also darkened the background in Lightroom to focus attention on the model.
Keeping your approach to composition and lighting simple gives you time to talk to and build rapport with your model. This is very important because ultimately it matters little if your composition and lighting are brilliant but your model seems bored or disinterested. It helps if you are genuinely interested in your model’s life. Ask her questions about what she does, what her hobbies are, and so on. Once you get going you will find interesting things to talk about.
But while you are doing so, pay attention to her expressions. What subjects make her eyes light up with enthusiasm? How does her expression change when you talk about different topics? What unconscious gestures does she make while talking about things she likes? Pay attention and try to capture those intimate moments that reveal character.
This portrait captures a moment of contact between the model and her horse. The expression came near the end of the shoot, after a conversation about her horses.
Once you have made the portrait then you need to reveal its full potential in post-processing. There are lots of techniques that you can use in Lightroom, but I’d like to concentrate on two main areas.
Black and white images often need higher contrast to work than color images. Don’t be afraid to push the Lightroom sliders around to see what works best. See what happens when I convert this color portrait to black and white.
Increasing contrast makes the portrait stronger. A subtle touch is often best. See the result below:
Increasing Clarity brings out more texture in the image. The problem with portraits is that too much Clarity can make skin tones look overly textured. This is more of an issue with portraits of women, who will often expect you to use some kind of skin smoothing to make them look beautiful. You have far more freedom when developing portraits of men because you can use Clarity to bring out the texture.
I set Clarity to +65 on the portrait below. This brought out the beautiful textures in the model’s beard and shirt. It emphasized the texture in his skin as well, but you can often get away with this in black and white portraits of men.
Don’t forget that you can apply Clarity as a local adjustment. In the next portrait, I used the Adjustment Brush with the Soften Skin preset (Clarity -34, Sharpness +9) to smooth out the texture in the model’s skin. The screenshot on the left shows the area covered by the mask.
Move beyond Lightroom by using a plug-in like Silver Efex Pro 2 to create black and white conversions that aren’t possible in Lightroom alone. Plug-ins often have features that Lightroom lacks.
For example, you can use Silver Efex Pro 2 (a great plug-in to start with because it’s now free as part of the Nik Collection) to add a frame, emulate film or the look of a portrait taken with a 5×4 camera.
You can use Topaz Black & White Effects 2 to emulate old processes like cyanotypes or van dyke brown. You can use Alien Skin Exposure X2 for a range of film-like effects. Yet another option for Mac users is Macphun Tonality.
The best black and white portraits are created in two stages – first when you take the photo and secondly when you develop them in Lightroom. Follow the simple principles in this article and build a good rapport with your model and you’ll be rewarded with timeless, powerful black and white portraits.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about processing black and white photos please check out my ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White.