Take strik­ing mono stud­ies

Practical Photography (UK) - - Mono Masterclass -

PHO­TO­GRAPHS OF PEO­PLE, whether for­mal, nat­u­ral or can­did, have al­ways had a spe­cial ap­peal. The fas­ci­na­tion with cap­tur­ing a sit­ter’s es­sen­tial char­ac­ter has been a main­stay of pho­tog­ra­phy since the very ear­li­est days of the craft, and where those pi­o­neer­ing im­ages were black & white by ne­ces­sity, the por­traitist’s love of mono has en­dured through the era of colour film and into the dig­i­tal age.

Por­traits pre­sented in black & white are some­how raised in stature when com­pared to colour im­ages, as if the sim­ple act of de­sat­u­ra­tion adds in­stant grav­i­tas and a ‘fine art’ dis­tinc­tion.

Why go monochrome?

So why are black & white por­traits so com­pelling? It should cer­tainly be ac­knowl­edged that there’s some in­trin­sic his­tor­i­cal in­flu­ence – old pho­tos were black & white so black & white pho­tos are ‘more se­ri­ous’ – and, as por­trai­ture is a branch of pho­tog­ra­phy that tends to take it­self quite se­ri­ously, mono has a par­tic­u­lar ap­peal to por­trait shoot­ers and the whole process be­comes rather self-ful­fill­ing. But there are some par­tic­u­lar ad­van­tages that black & white can of­fer to any­one tak­ing a por­trait. For a start, there’s mono’s won­der­ful abil­ity to sim­plify a scene. If your por­traits are taken on lo­ca­tion you may not have much con­trol over the back­ground that your sub­ject is present against. While a nice wide aper­ture will throw much of it out of fo­cus, there could still be some dis­tract­ing colours or a tonal­ity that jars with your sub­ject. Black & white en­sures that your sub­ject will al­ways pop out of the frame.

Mono’s abil­ity to strip away any dis­trac­tions goes be­yond the back­ground.

By re­mov­ing skin tone and eye colour the hu­man face is ren­dered as a graphic con­struct, in which male and fe­male, young and old, take on a graphic qual­ity that adds oth­er­world­li­ness to the image.

Let the light in

The rules of por­trait light­ing – avoid harsh, di­rect il­lu­mi­na­tion and soften shad­ows with a re­flec­tor – do not ap­ply to black & white. In­deed, the type of light­ing that might ruin a colour por­trait can cre­ate a mas­ter­piece in mono.

The graphic na­ture of black & white por­trai­ture is en­hanced by di­rect light­ing and strong shad­ows, and a shot com­posed of al­most noth­ing but pure blacks and stark whites can work re­ally well in por­trai­ture. Out­door shoots, where the sun is right over­head, can make colour por­trai­ture very dif­fi­cult, but mono can cope much bet­ter and ac­tu­ally ben­e­fit from the harsh­ness.

When work­ing with ar­ti­fi­cial lights a good tip is to try mov­ing the lights fur­ther from your sub­ject to cre­ate an image that has more con­trast be­tween shad­ows and high­lights – a look that is par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive in monochrome.

Flat light­ing can work just as well with a black & white treat­ment, but it may re­quire some dodg­ing and burn­ing in the edit­ing process to bring the image to life if the raw shot lacks in con­trast.

Above These two black & white shots from An­drew’s port­fo­lio demon­strate ef­fec­tive use of dif­fer­ent light­ing styles.

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