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.
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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?
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.
Unedited Photo on Left | High Contrast Black and White on Right
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.
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.
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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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In the develop settings the Contrast was raised and the Shadows and Blacks have been dropped. This is giving our nice deep shadows and blacks, and adding to the high contrast look we’re editing for. The Highlights and Whites have also been dropped in order to bring the highlights in the skin closer to the mid tones.
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’s what our image looks like before and after our presets are applied.
If you would like to see exactly how all of the settings and adjustments were applied, please watch the video from the SLRLounge YouTube Channel.
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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.
Here’s what our photo will look like before and after we’re done with the edit.
We’re starting with our “01-10 BASE – SOFT: 13b. Light Crush – B&W” preset, and after we lower the Exposure to -0.10 we have a nice high contrast black and white look. Then we apply a “03-70 ADJUST – VIGNETTING: 71c. Neutral – Zeroed” vignette preset so we can get a subtle edge darkening.
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.
In the image below you can see a huge difference that the adjustments make. The eyes stand out, there’s more details in the hair and grass, and there’s more texture in the clothes. All these subtle details combined add quality to an otherwise flat black and white image.
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.
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 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.
Here’s what our image looks like with a simple black and white conversion (convert by hitting “V”), without the adjustments in Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, and Tone Curve.
Here’s our image with Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, and Tone Curve adjustments applied.
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Creating a Black and White High Contrast Portrait Edit in Lightroom
In our Sharpening settings our preset applied our standard amount, but the image is still a bit soft because of the shallow depth of field caused by shooting this image at f/2.0. To get a nice sharp portrait we raise the Amount, Radius, and Detail. The preset also adjusted our Noise Reduction settings, giving the subject in our portrait nice soft skin. All of the “SOFT” presets have this standard amount of Noise Reduction applied in order to soften and smooth out skin without going so far to kill fine details.
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Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.
For those who have the Preset System, you can follow the Mixology Recipe below to get to the same results. If you don’t have the Preset System, please read the article or watch the video below to see exactly how this look was achieved.
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.
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Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!
01-10 BASE – SOFT: 13b. Light Crush – B&W 03-70 ADJUST – VIGNETTING: 71c. Neutral – Zeroed Written Tutorial Step 1: Checking The EXIF Data
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The Following is an excerpt from the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5 and accompanying workshop from the Lightroom Workshop Collection v5. The Lightroom Preset System is designed to take you from Ordinary to Extraordinary photos in just a few seconds and clicks within Lightroom 4 and Lightroom 5.
In this tutorial we’re going to go over how to turn a regular color portrait into a nice high contrast black and white image. For this tutorial we have a portrait of a baby out in a field. The overalls, details in the field, and overall background blur will be complimented by a high contrast black and white edit. The SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5 has presets specifically for high contrast black and white portraits which we are going to apply to this photo. If you don’t have the preset system, we’ll list all of our Develop settings so you can achieve the same look.
We hope you all enjoyed this tutorial. If you are interested in learning more or purchasing the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System v5 or the newly released Lightroom Workshop Collection v5, please click any of the links in this article.
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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All Settings Zeroed On Left. High Contrast Adjustments on Right
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.
We press “i” to pull up our EXIF data so we can see exactly how this image was shot. This image was shot with a 50mm lens at f/2. We want to keep in mind that the depth of field is shallow, and we may have to add sharpening to this image.