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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.
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.
Using black and white photography is a great way to create eyecatching images. The best black and white photographs are planned that way from the beginning, not created in an attempt to rescue a bad colour photo.
The traditional advice is to avoid including white or grey skies in your black and white landscape photography, but if you plan the shot well, you can incorporate the blank canvas and create strong images:
If colour is critical to the image – to the subject, to the mood or to the composition – then don’t try and force that image into black and white. This image works well enough as a textured black and white image, but because the green and pink hues are the same tone in a black and white photograph, the impact of the colour contrast is lost:
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.
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.
In this post I run through a few do’s and don’ts for beginner photographers wanting to create stunning black and white images.
Subjects that make great black and white photos are those that are defined by their shape, form or texture:
If you have Lightroom, these 2 videos from Adobe show you first, how to convert to black and white in Lightroom, and second, how to add colour toning to your black and white images:
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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.
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.
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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.
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It can be difficult to think in black and white to start with, but once you get your eye in you will start noticing images everywhere that would look better with no colour. Many cameras have a setting that will let you view a scene in black and white through the viewfinder, but it will still take a colour photograph when you press the shutter. This is a great way of getting the best of both worlds.
The image should be defined by the overall composition, the interaction between the elements, the play of light, or a strong graphic presence – not by the subject itself.
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Shoot RAW if you plan to try black and white conversions – you will have much more depth of data to play with. Read this post if you want help with RAW: What Is RAW And Why Do You Need It?
Are you ready to learn how to use your camera properly? A Year With My Camera is my flagship beginner’s photography course, and the email version is entirely free for a year.
The free online editor Polarr lets you do fine-tuned black and white conversions. This tutorial runs you through the steps.
Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!
Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.
It’s for complete beginners who want to learn once, and learn properly. Register here and get started today:
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.
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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?
My favourite phone apps for black and white photography are Provoke, and Enlight. Android users should try Snapseed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this colour image for example, the eye is drawn to the green splashes of colour which detract from the overall composition. It is much stronger in black and white:
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.
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.
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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.