How to Create Good Black and White Portraits
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.
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.
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.
Black and white is less forgiving
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.
With black and white portraits, you will need to pay more attention to light, composition, contrast, and the whole scene in general.
Lighting for black and white
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.
It is important to study the work of others. For example, Peter Coulson is a photographer who takes stunning black and white portraits.
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.
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.
The difference will mainly play in the shadows and it will depend on how dark do you want your shadows to be.
Plan for black and white
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Please share your comments and black and white portraits in the section below.