Black and white portrait photography is an art form that has been around since the earliest days of photography when there was no other option. It is a technique that involves taking portraits in black and white or shades of gray, and stripping away the distractions that color can add to a picture. The dramatic and striking images created through this method can be powerful and emotive. In the world of portrait photography, black and white images can create portraits that express all ranges of emotion from moody to cheerful. Shooting black and white portraits can seem daunting, but if you have the right approach, you can create stunning images all on your own.
Determine if your subject is a good candidate for black and white photography
Before you do anything else, it is important to understand that not every subject is a good candidate for a dramatic portrait in black and white. Some people just look better in color – they benefit from that pop and pazazz that color offers. That’s why it's essential to carefully consider your subject's facial features. Look for facial features with strong lines and contours, such as high cheekbones and a well-defined jawline, that will add dimension and interest to the portrait. Interesting facial hair can also make for a great subject - so that guy you know with the braided beard? Yeah, he’s perfect. Also, try to choose a subject with contrasting skin tones, hair, and clothing to create a more dynamic image. By incorporating these elements, you can create a powerful and striking black and white portrait that will stand out in a sea of gray.
See the world in black and white
This one might sound a little complicated, but in order to capture captivating black and white images, it's essential to train your eye to see the world in grayscale. When shooting, pay attention to how the light and shadows fall on your subject's features. Look for textures, lines, and patterns that will translate well into black and white. Shapes like triangles, circles, and squares can create a striking composition in your image. The cheating way to do this is to use your camera’s viewfinder in the grayscale setting and look through it. You’ll be amazed at how differently the world looks and how this new worldview will elevate your portraits.
Focus on the eyes
The eyes are crucial to creating a powerful and emotive black and white portrait. They serve as a focal point and can convey a wide range of emotions and expressions. This is how you will change your black and white picture from moody and boring, to cheerful and creative. To capture striking eyes in your black and white portrait, ensure they are in focus and well-lit. Experiment with natural or artificial light sources to create interesting shadows and highlights around the eyes - like real-life eyeshadow! By focusing on the eyes, you can capture the true emotion of your subject and help the viewer see your vision.
Use negative space wisely
Negative space is an important element in photography that adds depth and interest to your images. Just in case you weren’t sure, negative space refers to the area around your subject in the image. When shooting with a solid background, make use of negative space to create interesting shapes and patterns for a positive outcome. Outdoors, you can look for natural negative space such as a clear blue sky or a blank wall. Inside, you can easily create an environment conducive to negative space work by finding an open room, blank wall, or hanging a sheet to create a solid backdrop. Bunching up the sheet can give interesting textures in your negative space and avoid the boring blankness - but be careful not to let your background distract from your subject. By being smart about how you use your negative space, you can create a striking composition that draws the viewer's attention to your subject in your portrait.
Choose and rely on your lighting setup
Lighting is crucial in creating the mood and atmosphere of your black and white portrait. Without color, lighting becomes even more important in setting the tone and creating the desired effect in your image. Experiment with different lighting setups, such as side lighting, front lighting, or backlighting, to see which one works best for your subject. Reflectors or diffusers can also be used to create softer and more even lighting, depending on the mood you want to convey. By choosing the right lighting setup, you can enhance your subject's features and create a powerful and emotive black and white portrait.
Choose a background
Choosing the right background is crucial in creating a captivating portrait. The background sets the tone for the image and creates a contrast with the subject's features. Look for backgrounds with interesting textures, shapes, and lines that can add depth and interest. A solid black or white background can be used to create a dramatic and moody portrait and makes for great negative space. By selecting the right background, you can elevate your subject - which is the goal of any good photographer. The atmosphere of your black and white portrait is greatly influenced by the separation between subject and background. By using a shallow depth of field, you can blur the background and create a sense of separation and strip away distractions. This can create a more somber or bleak mood in your image, however, so you’ll want to work with the angles depending on the effect you’re trying to achieve.
Pay Attention to Contrast
To achieve the dramatic black and white portrait of your dreams, it is important to pay attention to the tonal contrast in your image. This refers to the range of tones from black to white in your image - since it truly is not always just black and white. Experiment with different camera settings, such as shooting in monochrome mode, to achieve the desired effect. If you have a camera with a viewfinder, try using a grayscale setting to give you a better idea where contrast lies. Additionally, by shooting in RAW format, you can have greater control over the final image during post-processing - since it allows you to switch between color and black and white later on. This saves you from making tough decisions during the shooting process. That’s a problem for future-you. By shooting in RAW you’re able to fine-tune the tonal range and adjust the contrast, brightness, and shadows to create a perfect image.
Take lots of pictures and don't give up
Finally, the real key to creating stunning black and white portraits is to keep shooting and experimenting and never give up. Take lots of pictures from different angles and with different lighting setups to explore the full range of possibilities. Don't be afraid to try something new and push yourself creatively. Take an extra memory card if you’re feeling extra creative, and don’t forget there is no negative outcome. Either you get the perfect shot, or you learn something for next time. This allows you to fine-tune the tonal range and adjust the contrast, brightness, and shadows to create a perfect image. By keeping an open mind and exploring different techniques, you can create a unique and unforgettable black and white portrait.
Capturing stunning black and white portraits requires careful consideration and loads of creativity. Focusing on your subject's facial features, using negative space to create interesting compositions, and carefully choosing and relying on your lighting setup, allows you to create stunning images that will stand the test of time. Remember to experiment with different techniques, such as shooting in black and white versus RAW format, and utilize shadows and lighting to create a sense of depth and dimension in your image. With a little practice and a lot of patience, you can create powerful and expressive black and white portraits that showcase your subject’s good side every time.