Black and white portrait photography (B&W) is one of the most popular genres for portraiture. Many gravitate to it because of the unique and honest perspective it can bring to your photos.
A lack of colour opens up a new world where light, expressions, and stories are intensified. With B&W portrait photography, you can show feelings without the distraction of colour.
What I love most about a black and white portrait is its soulfulness. If you compared two versions of the same portrait – the original and its B&W copy – you would feel more drawn to the emotions in the second one.
This is because B&W has an unparalleled moodiness that goes beyond colour photography. A B&W portrait will prioritise your subject’s expressions, movements, and other subtleties.
You can take photos of anything you like and convert them to black and white, but chances are you won’t be happy with the result. B&W portraits demand careful attention and preparation.
What you initially have in mind while taking the photos could disappoint you during the editing process. Knowing how to prepare, what to watch out for, and how to communicate with your model will get you far.
This article will equip you with the skills to achieve those visually appealing black and white portraits.
Should You Shoot in Black and White Mode
A lot of cameras nowadays have a B&W shooting option. It’s a really fun feature worth experimenting with. But it should not be your main tool for black and white photography.
There are a couple of reasons for this:
- If you shoot in colour first, you’ll have more control during the editing process. Instead of manually selecting areas you’d like to edit, you can instantly adjust certain “colours” using tools like sliders in Lightroom or Selective Colour in Photoshop.
- Not every image looks appealing in black and white. Learning how to shoot for B&W as opposed to in B&W will help you strengthen your ability to think creatively. You’ll get to challenge yourself and take better photos.
Camera settings, lighting, location, and your model’s posing all have to be planned carefully before your photo shoot.
As you read the following points, think about the stories you want to tell and what you want your viewers to feel when they look at your work. This information will help you immensely before, during, and after your photo shoot.
When I take photos of people, I like to separate them from their backgrounds. To do this, I use an aperture of f/1.8 – f/2.5.
This range makes my subjects stand out and creates gorgeous bokeh. A soft background will complement your model’s features, eliminate any potential distractions, and look amazing in B&W.
However, this is just my way of working with aperture. If you have a different method, don’t feel left out, but do remain open to experimenting with new settings.
When I take portraits at night (or in a place with very few light sources), I like to experiment with high ISO numbers. I know this might sound intimidating, but it’s ideal for black and white photography.
The grain in your photos will create a rough, film-like look. The lack of light, which may look unappealing in colour, will look dramatic in B&W.
The type of lighting you should work with depends on the kind of story you want your photos to tell. You don’t even have to come up with a complicated idea. All you have to do is ask yourself three simple questions:
- How do I want people to feel when they look at my portraits?
If you want people to feel touched when they look at your work, try experimenting with fewer light sources and more shadows. If you’re aiming for a brighter atmosphere, take photos in a well-lit location. (One of my favourite locations to take black and white portraits is any shaded area on a sunny day.)
- How do I want my model to feel when I take these photos?
Once you choose an emotion that appeals to you, consider the instructions you’ll give to your model. If you know how to give your model clear instructions, you won’t have to deal with unnecessary confusion later on.
- What is my favourite black and white portrait?
As I mentioned in my self-portraiture article, there’s nothing wrong with using other people’s work for inspiration. Research B&W portraits, analyse what stands out to you, and find out why you like those portraits.
Posing for Black and White Portraits
Without any distracting colours and details, your subject will stand out. Every curve, movement, and texture will be emphasised. It’s important to know what looks most natural.
Posing relies heavily on communication and practice, so don’t be afraid to make mistakes during this process, especially if you’re working with non-models. Also, get to know your models before you work with them.
Befriending your subjects will help you understand what makes them who they are. This information will allow you to tell your story through their unique personality.
Many photographers recommend focusing on the eyes when taking black and white portraits. When you ask your models to pose a certain way, make sure their eyes look bright and sparkly.
This will make your photos eye-catching (pun intended!) and impactful. Combine that with a great pose and you’ll have the perfect black and white portrait.
Watch out for Striking Elements
A lack of colour gives other elements a chance to be seen and appreciated. These include textures, expressions, and negative space. Wrinkles, freckles, and fabric will all tell a story of their own in black and white.
Expressions will add depth to every other part of your photograph. Negative space, like an empty sky or a black backdrop, will give your portrait a minimalistic yet striking look.
Keep an eye out for these things when you take photographs as they’ll greatly complement your subject’s poses and enhance your compositions.
When you watch out for interesting objects to include in your portraits, don’t forget to think in black and white. What may look appealing to you in colour may not look that great in black and white, and vice versa.
Focus on the things you usually overlook or leave out. If there are any vibrant colours you’d usually avoid, take a photo of them and convert the results to B&W.
The real magic of black and white photography happens when you start editing.
Your editing style is probably different to mine, but there are some tricks that every artist with an editing program can benefit from.
Firstly, don’t get discouraged if your photo looks dull as soon as you convert it to black and white. The first thing you should do is work with the options that your editing program offers.
In Photoshop, you can choose various filters. What works best for most portraits is the Green filter. It enhances every skin colour, darkens textures, and adds more contrast to the entire photo.
In Lightroom, the same tools are available under Tone Curve. Simply drag the Orange slider to the right and the Red slider to the left.
Moreover, you should make the most of the Curve and Clarity tools in your editing program. They’re usually all I need when I convert my portraits to B&W.
These tools will help you deepen shadows and brighten highlights. It’s easy to get carried away with clarity and unintentionally add too much depth to your photo, so be careful when you adjust it.
You can also add grain to your photos if you want to make them look like they were taken with a film camera. Subtle grain or dust textures look particularly stunning in black and white photographs.
I myself often use free scratch textures or make my own. More often than not, these effects look better in my B&W portraits than in their coloured versions.
If you want to save time and experiment with someone else’s style, use B&W Lightroom presets or Photoshop actions. These resources will instantly convert your photos to stylistic black and white portraits.
Familiarising yourself with other people’s editing preferences is a great way to learn or even get out of a creative rut.
I remember how skeptical I felt when I took my first black and white self-portraits. I had seen so many B&W galleries that seemed impossibly gorgeous to me. As a beginner with virtually no experience, I didn’t think I had much to contribute.
Filled with doubts, I still persevered and discovered a world that completely changed the way I looked at portrait photography.
What first started out as a skeptical experiment turned into a personal creative journey. Through self-portraiture, I found a way to express my deepest feelings.
Through black and white portrait photography, I found a new way to heighten those feelings and exceeded all of my expectations. It’s worth trying it out yourself.
Figure out what kind of stories you want to tell, learn how to give clear instructions to your models, appreciate the uniqueness of elements like textures, and don’t be afraid to fail once in a while.
Eventually, you’ll feel confident in this sub-genre, become great at editing black and white portraits, and turn into a master of thinking in B&W.
Now that you know the basics, you have every reason to keep experimenting with black and white photography, from portraiture to self-portraiture to landscapes.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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