Take striking mono studies
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.