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.
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.
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.
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.
Photographer Andre D. Wagner works exclusively with analog film, developing his own prints in a traditional darkroom. Originally from Nebraska, he can now typically be found in New York City, where he excels at capturing street scenes that are full of energy. His black and white photos have a classic feel. Wagner displays his images one by one, keeping galleries short.
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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.
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.
Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.
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New York photographer Lee Bullitt takes intimate portraits on analog film, often shooting in black and white. Bullitt introduces her work via one page which lists selected photo series, and includes separate pages for her bio and press mentions to keep things organized. Her unique logo helps make her portfolio memorable.
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Originally from Japan, and now based in Brooklyn, Haruka Sakaguchi’s black and white photography is full of life. Whether she’s shooting portraits or documenting her surroundings on travels across the United States and elsewhere, Sakaguchi’s images are powerful and carefully considered. She uses a classic serif font to give her portfolio a professional feel.
Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!
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Highlights of this Dutch photographer’s portfolio include a compelling portrait study of author Bredje Hofstede, pictured here, as well as a black and white photo project called Looking At The Other, in which Kars asked fellow train riders in the New York subway system to take her photo. Kars displays photos one by one for a minimal, distraction-free portfolio.
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.
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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No one can capture freckles as well as Agata Serge does. The Polish photographer, who is currently based in Łódź, Poland, excels at sharply focused portraits and editorial shoots. She has won a number of awards for her photography, including International Photographer of the Year in 2016, and she was included in New Dutch Photography Talent in 2014. Serge keeps her portfolio simple with a classic logo.
To celebrate the creative talent that’s opting out of color, we put together this list of 20 photographers that has mastered shooting black and white in their own style. They prove that you don’t need color to be captivating.
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.
From English photographer Josh Nice who documents skateboarders across Europe, to New York street photographer Andre D. Wagner who develops his own film, these portfolios set the standard for what’s possible in black and white.
Charlee Black is a photographer based in the American Midwest. She specializes in gorgeous, up-close black and white portraits, and uses a vertically scrolling theme to show them off in a way that grabs the viewer’s attention.
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.
Based in Austria, Sarah Gallaun is a portrait and fashion photographer. She mixes black and white and color images for a varied and interesting online portfolio. Gallaun has worked with Monki, and been featured in outlets like Cake and Contributor magazine.
Based in Seattle, Sebastian Cvitanic specializes in analog photography, capturing striking black and white portraits as well as lively street snapshots. Cvitanic aims to take photos that are beautiful in their simplicity, working in a classic, straightforward style. Organizing images into separate galleries of black and white portraits, color portraits, couples, and other categories keeps his portfolio site easy to navigate.
This London photographer and skateboarder captures the exploits of a French skate crew beautifully in candid analog photos. His black and white photography feels especially classic. Nice introduces his portfolio website via a vertical scroll of his best shots, with a sidebar menu linking to different series.
Based in Amsterdam, Lieke Romeijn takes beautiful, delicate analog portraits, as well as photos of the places she visits. Romeijn organizes her images with a grid theme, which allows separate series to stand alone as whole bodies of work.
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New York photographer Richard Rothman has work in the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Rothman’s black and white photography is meditative and quiet, capturing unexpected moments of depth. He gives context to his work right away by using his About page as him home page on his online portfolio.
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.
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Whether it’s photographing ancient ruins in Utah or mountains in Montana (as seen here), photographer Rob Outlaw knows what makes a landscape photo work. The established American photographer has been documenting scenery stateside for over thirty years. He creates an elegant online portfolio with a subdued grey background that makes his black and white images pop.
English photographer Jack French’s black and white photos are incredibly peaceful. “I’m interested in how to get closer and deeper into nature using photography,” says French in his portfolio bio. On his site, he presents three very simple galleries of work: Woods, Rock, and Water. The minimal style fits well with French’s quiet, contemplative photography.
Since the introduction of color film in 1958, black and white photography has taken on a classic, nostalgic feel. It’s a universal way for present-day photographers to create a retro look. It’s not an easy style to work with, however. Black and white photography can be extremely challenging to keep interesting and dynamic—after all, the final image won’t look like what you see through the viewfinder.
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.
Fashion photographer Darryl Richardson has shot for Brooklyn’s Flatbush Zombies, and done backstage shoots for brands like Hood By Air, Maison Kitsune, and Alexander Wang. He’s also shot street scenes in cities from Tokyo to Mexico City. Richardson separates his portfolio into fashion and travel photography, allowing for easy navigation of his diverse work. A super minimal menu gives his portfolio a modern vibe.
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.
Based in Belgium, Jean-François Flamey takes enigmatic photos on film. His black and white images are eerie, artfully unfocused, capturing brief moments in time. Flamey arranges his photos in a collage-like format across a horizontal scroll, exhibiting a number of different, compelling series.
Cover image by Haruka Sakaguchi. Want to see more of our favorite portfolios? Check out the best online portfolios by Format’s best… Fashion photographers Portrait photographers Wedding photographers Illustrators Designers Artists using animated GIFs
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London fashion photographer Rebecca Naen often shoots on 35mm film, working with magazines like Coeval, Oyster, and Client. She offers a brief introduction to her portfolio with an overview gallery, and then organizes the rest of her work by dividing it between personal and editorial images.
Charlotte Navio is a French photographer based in Paris. She’s worked with brands like L’Oreal, Givenchy, and Lancome. Navio uses a vertically scrolling grid theme to display her portrait work, including lots of classic black and white shots. A floating, pastel-hued menu allows access to other portfolio pages without distracting from her work.
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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.
Based in Southern California, Cinthya Guillen specializes in black and white analog photographs. In her Commuter Series, seen here, the most prosaic train stations seem interesting when framed in film photos. Guillen uses a minimal theme, without much text, to keep the focus on her work.
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.
Based between Berlin and Scandinavia, photographer Pernille Sandberg shoots fashion and fine art photos, mostly in black and white. Whether she’s creating abstract portraits or documenting backstage moments at runway shows, Pernille’s images are powerful. She uses a minimal sidebar theme to sort her work into categories like art, portrait, and fashion series.
This enigmatic photographer doesn’t share much information on her portfolio, but her photos are stunning. In addition to two series of self portraits, she’s also shot black and white photos of a range of musicians. Her self portraits, in which she’s often floating underwater, are frequently superimposed over images of plants, giving the work an organic, abstract feel.
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.