The most difficult question I often ask myself is, “Do I convert this image to black and white or leave it in color?” This question is particularly difficult with people, because black and white portraits look really good.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, if you try black and white and you like it: welcome to the addiction!
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When taking portraits in natural light, always use a shallow depth of field to centre the attention on the eyes and avoid slow shutter speed as the image needs to be completely sharp.
Please share your comments and black and white portraits in the section below.
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.
A lot of people prefer black and white images and because of that I always send to my models/clients one black and white image and one edited image in color. I basically force myself to convert all my images to black and white, and in some cases, I get surprised because the result looks really good.
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My go to rule is that if the colors in the image do not match, are not complementary, or simply do not look good, then I convert my image to black and white.
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.
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.
Always think about black and white when the colors in the RAW image do not look good, when when your model has a very strong facial expression, and when you have good looking light whether it’s outdoors or indoors.
Flaws in monochrome images will automatically stand out than in color ones. This is because sometimes color distracts the viewer and it can give the impression that the image is perfect even if the composition, facial expression of the model, or lighting are not the best.
Taking images during the magic hour will give a very flattering result as the light will be very soft. In studio sessions, a large softbox or window light will give you very soft light. For more contrasty results, the best solution outdoors is to photograph during the middle of the day and in studio is to use a beauty dish.
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.
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.
It is important to study the work of others. For example, Peter Coulson is a photographer who takes stunning black and white portraits.
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.
Contrasty lighting is what makes a black and white image pop. If you look at the work of famous photographers like Ansel Adams, his images stand out because of the light contrast. Fine art photographer, Joel Tjintjelaar, explains very well separation and the grey scale, tonal contrast, separation and presence and depth. Black and white is all about presence and depth. Most of the time this can be created and enhanced using the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop.
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.
Hopefully, you can see that even though bold colors can make for vivid imagery, their absence can as well.
With black and white portraits, you will need to pay more attention to light, composition, contrast, and the whole scene in general.
Black and white portraits look amazing when they are done properly. The result will depend on how good you can control and define the light around your subject. In other words, how defined is your contrast between the different tones.
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.
Black and white work is not only desaturating an image, it is much more complex. The work flow I usually use is I start by editing my image in color and playing around with the contrast of colors. I adjust my exposure, the sharpness, do skin work and then I do my first dodge and burn. Afterward, I convert my image to black and white using the channel mixer and it is quite simple because the different filters will give you different results.
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The most important part of post-processing is using dodge and burn to give life to your image. Brighting and darkening up key areas of the image is the most important step, take your time to do it well. The result will depend on you, so don’t hesitate to do it several times before you are completely satisfied. I recommend using a Wacom Tablet for full control. Finish your post-processing by creating a vignette to add another feel of dimension.
Studio portraits in black and white can be much more creative because you fully control the amount of light in the room. You can control the direction and intensity of that light towards your model. Try to get creative by only lighting one part of the face, by using objects or using a black background to isolate your subject.
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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The difference will mainly play in the shadows and it will depend on how dark do you want your shadows to be.
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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.
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.
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.
Black and white portraits are all about facial expression and transmitting emotions. The eyes of the model should always be the centre of attention and facing the light source to create a little sparkle of light (called catch lights), this makes the difference. You can also create a second sparkle if you use a light reflector. You don’t necessarily need an assistant to hold the reflector, you can ask the model to hold it or you can hold it yourself with one hand.
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Most of the time, the best solution is to have black and white in mind for the final image because you will automatically pay more attention to light and shapes around your model. You also need to tell your model that this is your intention because the pose and facial expression will be more important and emphasized.