Bl ack & White Portr aiture
Learn the essentials for crafting and conquering the art of black & white portraiture
The beauty of black & white portraits is you often have the time to control how you create them. Whilst with landscapes you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature and available light, portraits can be styled to enhance contrast, lit to create sculptural highlights and special effects, and positioned in front of backgrounds that provide depth through tonal separation. how you build your portrait is up to you but there are certainly countless ways to create stunning monochrome portraits that there’s no excuse for a ‘ flat’ photograph.
Colours can be used to grab attention in a number of ways: throw a red scarf on a subject in a crowd and you’ve instantly made them a focal point; or zoom in for a close- up and vibrant eye colour can be captivating. for black & white to work, you need to take control over the play of light and shade to create contours and the style you want. highlights are perhaps the most important for portraits as it’s where the eyes get drawn to first, for this reason it’s important with women to correctly expose the skin, or even overexpose slightly, to avoid dull skin tones. how you light for a flattering female portrait is half the challenge: soft, even lighting will help you illuminate their skin and exposing for their skin may also darken surrounding, creating the illusion of an even brighter, smoother skin tone. If your subject has naturally dark skin, however, which may be rendered as a dark midtone or even shadow, it’s crucial you insert some rim or backlighting to add definition. for men, you can be far more dramatic with your black & white conversions as well as your lighting. Side- lighting is notorious for revealing maximum texture and detail, so if it’s a five o’clock shadow, chiselled contours and character you want to capture, high contrast is an absolute must.
Dramatic lighting works well for black & white portraits: backlighting for bright high- key images or silhouettes, rim- lighting for curves, front- lighting for skin illuminating portraits, side- lighting for strong contrast and definition – the options are endless, whether you use natural light or studioflash. your lighting modifiers also need to be considered, for instance if you want a sharp fall- off from light to dark you’ll need to place a bright light with small modifier close to your subject; but if you want a smooth, soft and wide graduation of tones across your subject’s face, you’ll need to use a much larger and more diffused light source.
as much as the light’s behaviour and your backgrounds are important for achieving a desired effect and level of contrast, clothes, hair colour and make- up are also crucial considerations when designing your portrait. Whether it’s a polished portrait or a detailed, grungy headshot that’s oozing mood, your choice of editing is the last but essential stage to master. We’ll cover a few approaches later but selective editing is your friend. Whatever method you use, treating each section of the portrait separately for exposure and contrast whilst watching how it works as a whole is best. brightening the skin in processing can help, whilst amplifying highlights in hair, on lips and in eyes inject life into details that global adjustment may miss.
Sometimes black & white might not be the design, but it can be a saving grace so even if you haven’t shot with monochrome in mind, it’s worth a try in certain situations to hide a multitude of sins. If noise ‘ ruins’ an image because of a high ISO, the wrong White balance, a subject’s uneven skin tone needs more work than you can muster, or you’ve horrible colour casts – monochrome can be a quick and simple way to save, and possibly even improve, your portrait.