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Black And White Portrait Lighting Setup.

Take Control. Although coloured filters may still be used to manipulate contrast when shooting digital black and white images, it’s more prominent to save this work until the processing stage. Until a a couple years ago Photoshop’s Channel Mixer was the favored means of turning colour images monochrome, but now Adobe Camera Raw has more forceful tools (in the HSL/Grayscale tab) that allow you to adjust the brightness of eight individual colours that make up the image. It’s possible to adjust single of these colours to make it anything from white to black with the sliding control. However, it’s important to keep an eye on the whole image when adjusting a particular colour as subtle gradations could become unnatural looking. And adjusting the brightness of a red or pinkish shirt with the red sliding control, for instance , will have an impact on the model’s skin, especially the lips. The Levels and Curves controls may also be used to manipulate tonal range and contrast, but the HSL/Grayscale controls allow you to create discrimination between objects of the same brightness but with different colours.

Dodge and Burn. Dodging and burning is a route that comes from the traditional darkroom and is usually used to burn in or darken highlights and hold back (brighten) shadows. Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tools allow a level of control that film photographers may only hope of because you may target the highlights, shadows or mid-tones with both. This means that you can use the Burn tool to darken highlights when they are too bright, or the Dodge tool to brighten them to increase local contrast. It’s a good convention of sharing a sense of greater sharpness and enhancing texture. Plus, because you should set the opacity of the tools, you should build up their effect gradually so the impact is subtle and there are no hard edges.

Shoot RAW + JPEG. The most excellent monochrome conversions are came across by editing raw files which have the full colour information, but if you shoot raw and JPEG files simultaneously and set the camera to its monochrome picture Style/Picture Control/Film Simulation mode you get an indication of how the image will look in black and white. As most photographers struggle to visualise a scene in black and white, these monochrome modes are an invaluable tool that will help with composition and scene assessment. many cameras are also capable of producing decent in-camera monochrome images these days and it’s worth experimenting with image parameters (usually contrast, sharpness, filter effects and toning) to find a look that you like. Because compact peculiarity cameras and compact cameras show the scene seen by the sensor with camera settings applied, users of these cameras are able to preview the monochrome image in the electronic viewfinder or on rear screen before taking the shot. DSLR users may also do this if they kick in their camera’s live abstraction road , but the usually slower responses mean that numerous will find it preferable or check the image on the screen post-capture.

Try Long Exposure. Long exposure shots could work really well in monochrome photography, especially where there’s moving water or clouds. During the exposure the highlights of the water, for example, are recorded across a wider area than they would with a short exposure and this could help enhance tonal contrast. The blurring of the movement also adds textural contrast with any solid objects in the frame. If required , use a neutral density filter such as Lee Filters’ Big Stopper or Little Stopper to decrease exposure and extend shutter speed (by 10 and 4 stops respectively). typically , when exposures extend beyond apropos 1/60 sec a tripod is required to keep the camera still and avoid blurring. It’s also advisable to use a remote release and mirror lock-up to minimise vibration and produce super-sharp images.

Look for Contrast, Shape and Texture. The complimentary and opposing colours that bring a colour image to life are all reduced to black and white or shades of grey in a monochrome image and you have to look for tonal contrast to make a shot stand out. In colour photography, for example, your eye would instantly be drawn to a red object on a green background, but in monochrome photography these two areas are likely to have the same brightness, so the image looks flat and featureless straight from the camera. fortunately , it’s possible to work adjust the brightness of these two colours discretely to introduce some contrast. However, a good starting point is to look for scenes with tonal contrast. There are always exceptions, but as a general rule look for scenes that contain some powerful blacks and whites. This can be achieved by the light or by the brightness (or tone) of the objects in the scene as well as the exposure settings that you use. The brightness of the bark of a silver birch tree for example, could inject some contrast (and interest) in to a woodland scene. Setting the exposure for these brighter areas also makes the shadows darker, so the highlights stand out even more. Look for shapes, patterns and textures in a scene and move around to find the greatest composition.

Use Filters. Graduated neutral density (AKA ND grad) and polarizing filters are just as useful in monochrome photography as they are in colour. In fact, because they manipulate image contrast they are arguably more advantageous . An ND grad is helpful when you require to retain detail in a bright sky while a polarizing filter could be used to decrease reflections and boost contrast. Alternatively, consider taking two or more shots with varied exposures to create a high dynamic range (HDR) composite. Don’t be anxious to use a ND grad with a standard neural density filter if the sky is brighter than the foreground in a long exposure shot. Coloured filters, which are an essential tool for monochrome film photographers, should also be advantageous for manipulating contrast in digital images. They work by darkening objects of his opposite colour while lightening objects of her own. An orange filter, for example, will darken the blue of the sky while a green one will lighten foliage.

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These effects can be achieved in Photoshop, as well. You’ll likely find that Adjustment Layers are the perfect tool to add selective brightness and darkness to an image to polish it off. If you have dark areas that need to be darker, you can always use Photoshop’s Paintbrush tool to paint away unwanted details in the darkest shadows.

Don’t be afraid to take the time to move the light subtly in and out of frame, forward and back, up and down, until the effect is just right. As a world-class portrait photographer once told me, when an image is mostly dark tones, the few light tones really matter even more. So position the key light deliberately to put those highlights exactly where you want them.

Smart photographers know that a single light source can deliver unbelievably beautiful illumination. (Don’t believe me? Watch a sunset.) By moving a single light source far from the subject, the illumination gets flat and less dramatic. Moving that source close to the subject, however, allows the faster falloff from highlight to shadow to make for more drama. This approach also helps to create the darkness in the background that sets the mood and isolates the highlights against a canvas of dark pixels. With a subject far from the background and the key light very close to the subject, the background is bound to go dark.

In a lot of commercial portraiture these days, there’s an emphasis on high-production values. Whether from exotic locations or from using a lot of lights, it seems the conventional wisdom is generally “more is better.

” But, in fact, when trying to create a moody, dramatic or intimate black-and-white portrait, sometimes less actually is more. With a simple setup, using strobe lights or constant sources, in a studio or even on location, photographers can create beautiful, low-key black-and-white portraits that prove minimal lighting can deliver a maximum effect.

For another series of portraits, Elson mixes hard light with soft light. He uses a hard light source, in the form of a small light with a 20 degree grid that fires straight onto the side of the model’s face. With this he mixes a 64 inch umbrella with a diffusion panel to act as the fill light, bringing the shadows up.

With an image that was too bright at the time of exposure, drag the Exposure sliders down to darken the overall look of the scene, then grab and hold the sliders corresponding to whites and highlights and drag them to the right.

If you’d like to consider adding lights, you can. Just keep them behind the subject so they create edge lighting, and use a frontal fill for detail illumination, as needed. This technique is popular in edgy sports portraiture in recent years. The edge lights really define the shape of a muscular body, and the frontal fill adds the polish to this lighting approach. Without that frontal fill, the shot can still work—it just becomes a graphic, almost abstract outline of the human form.

I find that a very subtle fill from a reflector or very low-powered strobe positioned close to the lens works wonders to add a hint of detail to shadows. This might be a garment or a cheek or even a subject’s hair. Because too much pure black shadow can be overbearing, a little bit of fill can be a big help.

Sometimes not only is a studio unavailable, anything indoors is unavailable. But low-key lighting can still be created. Even on a sunny day, you can use a strobe to overpower the sunlight and make the background fall to black. To do this, increase the shutter speed to the maximum sync speed. This is often a shutter speed of 1/250th. Then set the ISO as low as possible (100 or 50, ideally) and set the aperture to the smallest opening (ƒ/22 or ƒ/32, depending on your lens). Take a picture with these settings and check how underexposed the scene is. If you’re able to shoot at 1/250th at ƒ/32 and ISO 50, even on a bright, sunny day, you’re going to create a photograph that’s at least four stops underexposed. There still may be some visual information evident if it’s really bright out, but on an overcast day or any other situation where the light is low, the ambience should be very dark, maybe even pure black. Then you can add your strobe—placed close to the subject—and dial up its output to match the camera settings and create the appropriate illumination for the subject. This “day for night” effect can make practically any location look like a darkened studio.

Adding a fill light to the scene evens out both the shadows and the skin tones.

As with every kind of portraiture, it’s the combination of quality lighting and just the right amount of retouching that make an image work. With low-key lighting, the effect can be as classic and timeless, or as hip and cutting edge, as you want it to be. Either way, these lighting and editing techniques go a long way to creating successful low-key portraits.

How do you set up the perfect black and white portrait? Photographer Nathan Elson demonstrates some of his favorite lighting setups, using a mixture of large softboxes, gridded lights, and textured backgrounds. He also describes his thinking process:

Another refinement for low-key black-and-white images is toning. Because low-key images can easily come off as too stark, a bit of toning or split-toning can really add some dimension. Simply use Lightroom’s Split Toning controls to add a hint of warmth in the highlight (by first selecting the appropriate yellow or beige tone, then using the Saturation slider to increase its appearance) and balancing it with subtle blue or purple tones in the shadows. Failing that, consider using a Photoshop Adjustment Layer with the Filter adjustment dialed in to exactly where you need it. The Warming Filter is a personal favorite.

William Sawalich is a commercial photographer, an educator and a contributing editor for Digital Photo Pro, Digital Photo and Outdoor Photographer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. Visit his website at sawalich.com.

If your goal is lots of darkness and minimal light, it can also be helpful to ensure your subject is wearing dark clothing, as well. A light-colored outfit will distract from the place in the frame where you want the eye to go: the few pixels that are brightly illuminated, often the face. I use a black cotton or velvet cloth as a drape to camouflage bright clothing and make it easier to achieve a truly low-key scene.

With a few simple adjustments in Lightroom, it’s possible to boost the effects of your low-key lighting setup.

This also works exceptionally well with a profile pose. To create this rim, position a specular light source directly behind the subject, aiming toward the camera, but ensuring that the subject’s body casts a shadow on the lens. If you’d like the light to wrap around a bit and provide more illumination on the subject’s cheek, simply move the light incrementally from behind the subject to the side. These subtle key adjustments, or subtle moveme nts of the subject’s head position, make all the difference.

Let’s be clear on some definitions, first. What is low-key lighting? Unlike high-key lighting—which creates a scene that’s very bright and low contrast—low-key lighting is darker and higher contrast. Low-key lighting features prominent shadows and many near-black tones, with minimal midtones and highlights serving as poignant counterpoint to all that darkness. And it works very well in black-and-white.

Once you have your RAW files in the computer (you do shoot RAW, don’t you? It’s particularly helpful when working with low-key image files because of the retouching latitude), simple Lightroom adjustments can really refine your images. For an image that is very dark and contrasty, the Shadows and Blacks sliders will slightly bring up those values, while dragging down the Highlights and Whites sliders in the Develop module will keep the very brightest pixels in the scene in check. With Lightroom’s Adjustment brush, these edits easily can be applied selectively, like dodging and burning.

Lastly, clean up any skin texture produced by the raking light position. The Frequency Separation approach is a great way to isolate texture from tonal values, or just use the Clone stamp and Spot Healing brush to eliminate the most egregious bumps and wrinkles.

Because low-key lighting, by definition, requires deep shadows and a plethora of dark tones, too many lights actually can be a liability. For most low-key lighting setups, a single source is all that’s needed. You can do a lot with just one light.

If you can diffuse the source, that’s even better. True, a bare-bulb, specular light definitely will make for some dark dramatic shadows, but until you’re skilled at illuminating faces with a hard light source, I recommend starting with some diffusion. If you insist on working with slightly harder light, consider a beauty dish, which is a great compromise between specular “pop” and beautiful diffusion.

Want to sharpen your lighting skills? Our guide to Portrait Lighting Essentials provides instructions on the must-know basic lighting techniques, and provides tips for making a memorable image.

There’s a black-and-white-specific advantage when it comes to dodging and burning a low-key image, too. Using the individual color sliders that adjust the black and white mix, whether that’s in Lightroom’s Develop Module or Photoshop’s Black and White Adjustment Layers, it’s easy to brighten or darken specific areas of an image that correlate directly to the original colors in a scene. Blonde hair, for instance, can be lightened or darkened easily with the yellow luminance slider, even though the image is now grayscale.

Like the ideas? Go ahead and try them out and share with us what you get.

For the second set-up, Elson uses the textured background. For this session he brings in a gridded strip-box. He also brings in a 64 inch umbrella that adds some fill light on to the model’s face. Elson shoots tethered for this session with his Nikon D800.

Enhance the effect by starting with a dark or black background. In the studio, a dark wall or roll of dark gray or black seamless paper provides the perfect backdrop against which to set your low-key scene. If you’re not in a studio, choose a space that’s large enough to put some distance between the subject and background so any falloff from the key light has dropped to nearly nothing by the time it reaches the background. Underexposing the ambient light in a large room works very well for low-key lighting when a black backdrop can’t be had (more on that in a moment).

To take a shot with a female model, Elson uses the large windows in the studio, and with some opaque film he transforms them into large softboxes. With these he uses a set of two black flags that are held in place using C-stands. The black flags cut out the light spilling on to the sides of the model’s face, creating a bit of contrast in the process.

A small softbox, an umbrella or even a light bounced off a white reflector can create just enough diffusion without scattering the light all around the room. Too much spill on the subject’s body or background will ruin the low-key effect. To fight this, use carefully placed flags. Not only can they prevent spill, they will help to stop lens flare when the light is placed beyond 90 degrees from the camera axis. And that’s often the ideal place for low-key lighting.

Sharpen Your Lighting Skills With Our Portrait Lighting Essentials tutorial

Low-key lighting can emphasize the contours and shapes of your subject, while drawing the eye to the image more effectively than high-key lighting.

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Without a fill light, the shadows on the subject’s face facing the camera are very strong and create a highly dramatic look.

One caveat when it comes to light placement: A light like this can create a raking effect across the subject’s face. This is certainly dramatic, but it also can emphasize any texture on the subject’s skin. A diffused light source may help, as will subtle tweaks to the subject’s face or the light’s position. It also can be defeated with fill light, but too much fill flattens the scene and changes the key. Ultimately, it’s simply a technique that may not work for every subject.

In the studio, creating a one-light low-key portrait can be done with either strobes or constant lights such as LED panels, compact fluorescents or even HMIs and tungsten hot lights. Whatever equipment you choose, it’s important to be able to move the light away from the camera. So if you’re using a hot-shoe speedlight, invest in the necessary accessories, such as a stand and remote trigger, to be able to move the light around the subject and away from the camera (more on placement in a moment).

For a final shot, Elson sets up his trusty 64 inch softbox almost directly above the model, who is seated. He uses another softbox that is aimed directly at the floor. A white board bounces off the light from this softbox and onto the model’s lower jaw and chin area to lift the shadows.

For his first shot, Elson uses a large Octagon with a diffuser as his primary source of light. He also uses a smaller Octagon as a fill light. For the first series of images, he uses a white background and adds texture during post-processing.

The large softbox overhead and the fill light bouncing off of a white board

I’ve already mentioned keeping the light close, but where exactly should it be? I find one of the most effective placements of a key light in a low-key portrait is to create short lighting, where the side of the face that primarily faces the camera is in shadow and only the smaller side of the face—or even just a sliver—is illuminated. Better still, consider backlighting for a rim effect to create separation between subject and background.

As long as you’re thinking about placing sources, look to the classical lighting patterns as a guide. When it comes to low-key portraits, the butterfly/Paramount pattern works very well, and loop and split lighting also do a fine job here. But it’s Rembrandt lighting that really excels in short-lighting, low-key situations. Watch for a diamond of light spilling onto the subject’s otherwise shadowed cheek, and you’ll know you’re on your way to beautiful, dramatic lighting.

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