Cyclops is my official “holy sh*t” book. It’s the best collection of black & white photographs I’ve ever seen, with incredible portraits of everyone from Clint Eastwood to Mick Jagger to David Bowie to Tupac Shakur.
13 Black and White Portrait Photography Tips That Actually Work
I suggest picking one of the following portrait photographers, and studying their work:
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.
I’ve always admired Albert Watson’s nude portrait of Kate Moss, shot in 1993 in Morocco for German Vogue:
The same goes for yellow, blue, green, etc.We often think of skin tones as shades of black, white, and olive, etc.
We can do the same with music videos! Remember what a music video is (or at least used to be…) – a visual commercial for an album.
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Hard light is defined by a ‘hard’ transition from highlight to shadow. It comes from using smaller light sources like grid spots, fresnels, or even direct sun. (since the sun is so far away from the Earth, raw sunlight is actually a small light source)
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’t make a bad picture good by converting it to black and white.
You can also try KEH.com, which is my go-to source for used photo gear. I’ve ordered plenty of filters from KEH, and they’re always fairly priced.
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 a full end-to-end article on creating and then post-processing the black and white portrait of my father you see above, check out this tutorial.
So are you ready to make better, more creative black and white portraits? You’re in the right place.
It has a drama and sparkle you can’t just find with soft light.
And if you’re using a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder like the Sony A7 series, you’ll actually see the world in black and white through the viewfinder.
To make great black and white portraits, you must first know what great black and white portraits look like!
Want black and white portrait photography tips that you can put into action right away? Tips that actually work? You’re in the right place.
But just a word of warning: don’t compare yourself to legendary photographers. Just use their pictures as inspiration.
If you are looking for great black and white portrait photography books, I urge you to get Albert’s legendary best-selling book Cyclops.
But black and white portraits are special to me for two reasons.
You’re looking at real artifacts from some of the greatest artists in history. I mean, seeing a Jackson Pollock painting in a book is fine, but the real thing is so much cooler.
Let’s have a quick run-through of color channels in plain English.
For example, Matthew Rolston added blue to this otherwise black and white portrait of Bono:
Just keep in mind that it is very easy to take looks like these way too far. And ironically, even though you’re emulating a classic, timeless process – if you take the effect too far, they will instantly look dated.
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But we don’t have to take black and white photography too seriously, especially us digital photographers.
And if you are shooting film, you most definitely have to take into account issues like rating and pushing/pulling.
Let’s try the same exercise with Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull:
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Now, I said I was going to contradict my first tip, so let’s get right to that:
Here’s a portrait shot with the Tiffen Black Pro-Mist 2 filter:
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See how the shadow has a “hard” edge? The transition from hightight to shadow is instant. That’s hard light.
As with any other portrait, you’ll have to crop, adjust contrast, apply clarity/sharpening, and dodge & burn as you see fit.
And that’s why black and white portrait photography is as popular as ever, even 80+ years since Kodak released Kodachrome, the first color film, in 1935.
Readers have been demanding more black and white portraiture tips, so I created this in-depth guide for you.
And oh yeah – don’t be afraid to randomly try different image adjustments with your black and white portraits.
Start with shapes. Create interesting shapes in your frame, even if you have to create those shapes yourself with your subjects.
If something is red in a color image, it will become brighter in the black and white image if you boost the red channel.
Ironically, a black and white image does not have to be in black and white!
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I think the second image is more eye-catching. What do you think?
These all fall under the umbrella of ‘contrast,’ which is the relationship between dark and light tones in a picture.
And yes, I know this article is entitled 13 Black and White Portrait Photography Tips That Actually Work, but let me give you a bonus tip:
So music videos can give you a master class in creating eye-grabbing images of people.
In black and white photography, you must use contrast to create an eye-catching picture.
But let me warn you: I’m going to contradict this point at the very end of this article – so keep reading!
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.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: when you have what you like, scale the color back by about 10%. That will stop you from going overboard.
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.
But human skin tones actually have lots of red in them, so as a portrait photographer, you’ll always want to work the red channel to get the skin tone you want. (yellow also affects skin tones too)
She naturally slid her left arm underneath, which created an interesting shape which “completed” the composition.
You can emulate that look by adding a color overlay to your portraits in Photoshop, Lightroom, or Capture One Pro.
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.
Black & White Portrait Photography Tip #1: Don’t Rely on Black and White to Make Your Portrait Effective
Madonna’s Vogue is one of my favorite music videos of all time.
Black and white is not a basis for a picture. It’s a stylistic choice.
This section is going to be very short for a simple reason: there’s no such thing as a “black and white portrait lighting setup” or “camera settings for black and white portraits.”
And who knows? Maybe you’ll even like the JPEGs the way they are.
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Here’s an exercise: pause the video when you see a frame that could work as a portrait.
Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.
When you shoot in black and white, you lose color as a visual tool – obviously!
Let’s do our best to be thoughtful, intentional photographers.
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.
I find Francis Ford’s Coppola’s Rumblefish endlessly inspiring:
You can train your brain to “see” in black and white by setting your camera to shoot RAW + black and white JPEG’s.
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.
I love the lines and shapes created by Kate’s hand in front of her foot, and the late afternoon feel of the light.
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.
On one hand, it’s important to previsualize our images. We should try to see the black and white portrait in our minds before we click the shutter.
Scroll through your Lightroom (or Capture One Pro library) and just randomly turn portraits to black and white.
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.
How to Talk to Portrait Subjects (and what you should NEVER say)
Soft light has a gradual transition from hightlight to shadow, which you can see in this portrait of Erin:
Go on Craig’s List. Photographers are always selling their old filters, and you can often get a huge filter collection for a small amount of money. I once bought a wallet with over 20 filters in it for $25!
Note: you can obviously do this with color movies and photography too.
I’ve been lucky enough to see prints by legends like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Albert Watson up close and personal. And they are stunning.
You don’t have to love these pictures. But I do want you to play around!
But most people don’t watch black and white movies and music videos, so I wanted to point it out here.
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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But by thinking about them, you’ll be become a more thoughtful portrait photographer. You’ll start visualizing your images BEFORE you click the shutter.
Paul McCartney, London, August 11, 1967. . . #richardavedon #paulmccartney #thebeatles #outtake
Then, take your favorite 10, and see what they have in common.
We spend thousands of dollars on digital cameras and computers. Why not take full advantage of digital technology by playing with images after the fact?
Simple – prints are made and presented the way the photographer intended. So you can see the artist’s true vision.
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There is a downside to using real filters: you can’t undo the effect. So you’ll have to shoot twice (both with the filter and without), or just live dangerously.
We only see a few iconic images out of the millions they’ve created over decades-long careers. Their duds are long gone, and we’ll never see them!
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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.
But do yourself a favor and see some actual black & white prints at museums and galleries!
I just want a very simple and stark portrait. I find color in the photo to be distracting and unnecessary. I convert an image to black and white in Capture One Pro or Photoshop, and I just happen to like it! My instincts tell me “this will look great in black and white.
I’m now talking about Instagram filters. I’m talking about actual glass filters that go on the front of your lens.
For example, in this portrait of Dilara (incidentally inspired by the Kate Moss picture shown above), I had her put her right hand under her chin to add some shape to the picture:
I began my photography journey inspired by Richard Avedon’s powerful black and white portraits.
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Start playing with the saturation and white balance sliders – you’ll be shocked at how much they can impact the look of a black and white image.
Too many photographers use black and white as a crutch. They think black and white pictures are more creative and artistic, which is absurd.
Film photographers use chemicals to add color toning to their black and white prints.
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 like the Fotodiox step-up rings. They’re very cheap and they work great.
Michael Comeau is a Brooklyn-based portrait photographer and the founder of OnPortraits.com.
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Photographers should take inspiration from all the visual arts – not just photography.
Now, you can study black & white portrait photography online all you want.
Your job isn’t done when you’ve captured the image in-camera.
Now, I’m sure some of you will come up with exceptions. For example, if you are using an off camera flash setup, color gels can have a massive impact on the tones of a black and white portrait.
It was inspired by the work of legendary Hollywood photographers like Horst B. Horst and George Hurrell:
A post shared by The Richard Avedon Foundation (@avedonfoundation) on May 29, 2018 at 2:09pm PDT
12) Add Color Tones to Your Black and White Portrait (Yes, Add Color) for an Edge
Whether you’re shooting film or digital, you can use filters to get a variety of looks from your black and white portraits.
But don’t be afraid to randomly convert a portrait to black and white just to see what it looks like.
However, hard light does have one major weakness: it accentuates facial imperfections. So you may have some extra retouching and Photoshop work to do!
But 99% of the time, digital photographers should just set their camera and lights to achieve a specific goal for your image – not to hit some kind of “black and white portrait recipe.”
Don’t buy the same filter in multiple sizes. If you have a lens with a 58mm filter size and another with a 49mm, get a 58mm filter and use an inexpensive step-up ring. A step-up ring allows you to use a larger filter on a smaller lens.
RAW files are always in color, so you can post-process them any way you want.
To make an effective black and white portrait, you must start with a good idea for the picture. Then you must execute that idea well.
The lack of color makes them more simple than color portraits. But that same lack of color also makes them surreal. Simplicity and surrealness are almost opposing concepts, but they come together in black and white portrait.
10) Don’t Think There Are Magic Camera Settings and Lighting Setups for Black and White Portraits
So to make interesting pictures, you have these basic elements to work with:
Do you have a black and white portrait photography tip you’d like to share? Pop it in the comments!
That’s your roadmap to a more satisfying black and white portrait style.
But if you’re shoowing RAW + black and white JPEG, you’ll see the black and white JPEG when you hit the play button on your camera.
As you shoot more portraits, you’ll develop a “sixth sense” for when black and white makes sense for you.
And there are plenty of great black & white portrait photography books.
They work pretty much the same way in any program, whether you’re using Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One Pro, Silver Efex Pro, etc.
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.
Thanks to the magic of books and Instagram, we have instant access to all the great photography we’ll ever need.
So before beginning your shoot, ask yourself these questions:
Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!
Pick a photographer, and then pick a black and white portrait that speaks to you. Think about why you’re attracted to that particular image.
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?
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.
Color channels are key to post-processing black and white portraits. Color channels allow you to set the lightness and darkness of different tones in your. This is where processing for black and white is vastly different than color photography.
Richard Avedon Irving Penn Herb Ritts David Bailey Albert Watson
How would this picture be different if it was black and white?
If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on filters, I have two quick tips: