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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This portrait uses tonal contrast by placing a model with fair skin against a dark background.
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.
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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.
Increasing contrast makes the portrait stronger. A subtle touch is often best. See the result below:
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.
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.
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Tonal contrast is the difference in brightness between the different areas of the photo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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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.
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.
Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
5. Use a plug-in like Silver Efex Pro 2 to take your portraits further
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.
In the portrait below, the model’s smooth skin contrasts with the rough texture of the concrete wall she is leaning against.
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.