A black and white photograph is an image that combines both black and white while also producing a range of shades of gray.
A black and white photograph that did not have any gray in it would be a silhouette, therefore, most black and white images don’t just contain black and white.
While it sounds simple to begin doing — just taking an image and removing the color in post-production — it can take years to master.
Like running, most people can run, but not everyone can win a gold medal in the Olympics for running.
It takes practice, technique, and time to hone your craft.
In this guide, we’ll be covering black and white portrait photography.
We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):
1. Know if You Want a Black and White Photo
The first tip when it comes to black and white portrait photography is to know beforehand whether you want your image’s final result to be black and white.
Since black and white images work well when the contrast, texture, and subject work harmoniously, you will want to pay special attention to these aspects when you know you want a black and white image.
Usually, if you are going into an image knowing that you want it to be colored, you may pay attention to the existing color harmony of the scene.
Since there is no color in black and white photos, you can focus your attention elsewhere.
2. Keep Composition Simple
The second tip for black and white portraits is to keep your composition simple.
I’ve found that only having around 3 – 4 “subjects” with 1 or 2 being your main subject works best.
Since we remove color from the image, black and white is a form of simplification in itself.
You don’t want to have a composition that is cluttered with subjects that leaves your viewer confused as to what to look at.
Black and white portraits are about emphasizing your subject so you don’t want to ruin this with cluttered compositions.
3. Be Mindful of Tonal Contrast
The third tip is to be mindful of tonal contrast.
Tonal contrast is the difference in brightness between different parts of the photo.
Since there will be no color in a black and white portrait, you need to see the image in terms of black, white, and greys — in other words, highlights, and shadows.
A tip to see this in advance before heading to post-production is to set your camera in monochrome mode.
If you decide to do this, be sure that you are shooting in RAW in case you want to develop a colored version of your portrait as well in post-production.
I often don’t set my camera to monochrome mode and I just pay special attention to the highlights and shadow in the scene, making sure that there is good contrast between the two.
4. Be Mindful of the Texture
Similar to being mindful of tonal contrast, our fourth tip is to be mindful of texture.
The texture is the visual quality of the surface of an object. Texture adds depth, and further contrast, and can reveal and highlight existing patterns in an image.
To bring up the texture in post-production, you can increase the clarity slider while simultaneously playing with the contrast slider.
Texture can add or remove contrast in an image.
Since black and white images focus on contrast as one of their core components, you’ll want to pay attention to the existing natural texture in composition as well as how you adjust texture in post-production.
5. Capture Emotion
The fifth tip is to focus on capturing emotion and expression. This is especially true if you are capturing a black and white face portrait.
Since black and white portraits put emphasis on a main subject, often a person, the emotion of that person will play a big part in whether the image is successful or not.
You can have the perfect blend of highlights and shadow and your composition can be perfect but if you have a subject with a disinterested look on her face then it will ruin the whole image.
How do you capture emotion?
Put the camera down for a brief moment and talk to him/her. Ask them what their hobbies are or what they are passionate about.
See what topics make them spark up and ask further questions on those topics.
It’s very similar to street photography in this aspect where you are trying to capture a genuine moment and one that is not forced.
While you ask these questions, every once in a while snap a quick photo while they are smiling, laughing, or giving a serious face.
I find it’s best beforehand to preface the session by letting them know you’ll be taking photos when they are talking so they know beforehand and also give background on yourself as well.
When talking to him/her, make it a conversation — not an interrogation.
6. Choose Your Pose
The 6th tip is to choose a pose for your subject.
Similar to capturing a genuine expression, you don’t want the pose to seem forced or unnatural.
It’s best to approach choosing a pose from a guidance standpoint.
You want to guide them into a pose rather than picking a pose for them saying, “Here stand like this” while showing them an example picture.
Unless they are a professional model, what often happens is they will try to stand like that while focusing on their pose when you are snapping photos as opposed to feeling relaxed and natural.
This often produces stiff-looking photos which could also affect the subject’s expression.
Instead, you want to guide them, make small adjustments, and encourage them that they are doing a great job.
Say, “Hey I’m thinking we go for a photo where you are leaning on the wall like this (give them an example of leaning on the wall).” They will lean on the wall naturally based on what’s comfortable for them.
From here, you can guide them and make those small adjustments saying, “Bring your forehead down and out, chin up a bit, etc.”
You want to make them feel confident and relaxed. Check out some female poses for inspiration.
7. Focus on the Eyes
The 7th tip is to focus on the eyes.
The cliche saying — the eyes are the windows into our soul is true.
As mentioned, black and white portraits often put a stronger emphasis on the subject since there is no color.
With that being said, you’ll want to make sure the eyes are in focus and are your focal point. This way, when a viewer looks at the image, they can instantly connect with the image, similar to how we look and connect with people in real life.
We look at their eyes.
8. Play with Lighting
The 8th tip is to play around with the lighting.
This is especially true if you are in an indoor setting.
Mess around with your fill light and key light and try different angles. Remember the three-point lighting setup:
Keep adjusting different lighting angles until you are happy with the contrast.
If you are shooting the portrait outdoors, then pay attention to where the sun is and other light sources that could be affecting your image such as street lights, lampposts, etc.
Since black and white photos emphasize contrast as one of their components, you’ll want to pay special close attention to the lighting when outdoors to make sure that contrast exists in the first place and that the image does not look flat.
9. Be Mindful of Camera Settings
The 9th tip is to be mindful of your camera settings.
Make sure to check on your exposure and exposure triangle elements by tweaking your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Adjusting your aperture to produce a bokeh effect by shooting wide is important for a portrait photo so you can put further emphasis on the subject.
You want to make sure that you are adjusting all three so that the photo is not overexposed or underexposed.
You can be in a perfect setting where there is a nice mix of highlights and shadows but you might not capture it because your camera settings are either under- or overexposed.
10. Choose a Background
The 10th tip is to choose a background that is suitable for your black and white portrait.
This tip also aligns with choosing a composition that is not cluttered.
Ideally, you want your background to be blank or follow a uniform pattern so as to not introduce any new subjects or focal points into the scene to draw attention from the main subject.
Often, you will want your background to be on the darker side this way your subject can stand out from the background adding further contrast and depth to the image.
You can darken your background in post-production, you can pick a dark background from the beginning.
11. Utilize Negative Space
In your background, you will also want to utilize negative space.
Negative space is the area around and between a subject.
By correctly introducing negative space into the image, you can further take away unnecessary distractions and draw attention and focus to your main subject.
12. Learn How to Post-Process
The 12th tip is to learn how to post-process.
Take the time to read up and watch videos regarding post-production in your favorite software whether it be Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, etc.
Knowing how to edit your black and white portrait in post-production is essential to taking your photo to that next level in terms of professionalism and quality.
13. Play With Contrast
Within your post-production software, play around with the contrast slider.
As we’ve been mentioning, contrast is a crucial component of a successful black and white portrait.
Try increasing it subtly but don’t go overboard and end up with a comic book-looking photo.
A tip I like to follow is that I slide it to the extreme to see what it would look like then I work my way down from there.
In the beginning, you may be adjusting it for hours trying to get it perfect then changing your mind over and over.
Adjust it to what you like, then come back to it the next day and if you still like the adjustment, then it is good to go. Approaching it with a fresh pair of eyes helps.
I always follow this 2-day edit procedure with all my portraits and photos.
14. Play With Clarity
Within your post-production software, you’ll always want to play around with the clarity slider as well.
As mentioned, clarity can add further contrast and bump up the texture of an image.
But similar to adjusting the contrast, you’ll want to make sure to make a subtle change and not go too overboard.
You’ll want to note that bumping up the clarity slider can also cause attention and bring forth texture to certain imperfections on a face such as acne marks, scars, etc.
If this is the case, you may want to use local adjustments to exclude the clarity adjustments on these imperfections.
15. A Bad Image is a Bad Image
The last tip when it comes to black and white portrait photography is to not try to put lipstick on a pig — as the phrase goes.
If you captured a “bad image” in terms of composition, lighting, and other factors such as your model giving a bad expression, then just scrap it.
I’ve seen numerous photographers who had a bad image think they could just turn it into black and white and it would be fine.
A bad image is a bad image.
We all take them. Often, I shoot around 50 images, and out of that 50 maybe only 5 are good if I’m lucky.
Be honest with yourself. Be your own harshest critic but also your biggest supporter.
This is where growth happens.
To further explore the subject of black and white portrait tips, we also recommend this video by Jamie Windsor:
Why do People Use Black and White Portraits?
Black and white photographs are removed from any distracting color and are left with black, white, and shades of grey.
This helps draw the viewer’s focus on other aspects of the photo, such as the subject in the frame, the texture, and the composition of the image.
While the viewer focuses on these aspects in colored photographs as well, it is emphasized more in black and white photos due to its lack of color.
Black and white photos, especially black and white portraits are often associated with photos that hold serious, sad, or pensive themes.
When Should You Use Black and White Photos?
There is no specific time when you have to use a black and white photo, the only time to use a black and white photo is when you want to use a black and white photo.
While the choice is yours, there are certain scenarios when a black and white photo may look better.
For example, when the light, subject, pattern, or texture in the scene is more compelling than the color hues, then black and white may be a good choice.
If you are looking at your image and you find all of these things and think to yourself that color is only distracting from the message you wanted to convey with your image, then it is another good sign that black and white may be the path to go on this one.
What Makes a Good Black and White Portrait?
A good black and white portrait is one that highlights the existing contrast, texture, composition, and subject in the portrait.
As we know, you can’t fix everything in post-production (I wish).
So your existing photograph right out of the camera should be one that already has these strong attributes. You will only use black and white to highlight and accentuate them.
What are Black and White Portraits Called?
Black and white portraits and photographs exist under the monochrome photograph umbrella.
Monochrome photography is a photograph where each position in the image records a different amount of light, but not a hue.
This makes sense because black and white photos only contain black, white, and shades of gray.
What Color Looks Best in Black and White Photos?
The colors that look best in black and white photos are the ones similar to the black, white, and shade of grey color schemes such as black, burgundy, royal blue, hunter green, or other earthy color tones.
Why do Black and White Photos Look Better?
Some people believe black and white photos look better.
Better is a “subjective” term, however, people may feel black and white photos look better due to the removal of color and focus on the subject, texture, contrast, and composition.
A well-composed and captured black and white photo can draw your attention quickly due to the lack of color.
How to Take Black and White Portraits
By following these 5 steps, you'll be well on your way to capturing captivating black and white portraits that convey the emotions, textures, and nuances of your subjects.
- Lighting Equipment
- Post-Processing Software
- Reflectors and Backdrops (Optional)
- Consider Lighting and Contrast: Lighting plays a crucial role in black and white portraits. Opt for soft, diffused lighting that minimizes harsh shadows and creates gentle transitions between light and dark areas. Additionally, pay attention to contrast, as it can add depth and visual interest to your portraits. Experiment with different lighting setups, such as natural window light, diffused studio lighting, or outdoor shaded areas, to achieve the desired effect.
- Focus on Facial Expression and Emotion: Portraits are all about capturing emotions and conveying the essence of the subject. Encourage your subject to express themselves genuinely and capture their natural expressions. Keep in mind that black and white portraits can be particularly powerful in highlighting the nuances of facial expressions. Focus on capturing the eyes, as they are the windows to the soul and can convey a wide range of emotions.
- Choose the Right Background: The background of your black and white portraits should complement the subject and enhance the overall composition. Consider using simple, uncluttered backgrounds that don't distract from the main subject. Solid walls, textured backdrops, or natural elements like trees and foliage can provide a clean and visually appealing background that allows the subject to stand out.
- Pay Attention to Tonal Range and Texture: In black and white portraits, tonal range and texture take on added importance. Pay close attention to the subtle gradations of light and dark tones in the subject's face and clothing. Seek out textures, such as skin, hair, or fabric, that can be accentuated in black and white. Experiment with different angles, lighting directions, and focal lengths to bring out the desired textures and tonal range in your portraits.
- Post-Processing and Conversion: Once you have captured your black and white portraits, post-processing and conversion are crucial to refining the final result. Utilize photo editing software, such as Adobe Lightroom or Capture One, to adjust contrast, tonal range, and fine-tune the overall look of the image. Experiment with black and white conversion techniques, such as adjusting luminance values, applying selective adjustments, or using dedicated black and white presets. This stage allows you to refine the mood, tones, and overall impact of your black and white portraits.
We hope you enjoyed this guide on tips for black and white portrait photography.
Now go out and practice!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best lighting for black and white portraits?
The best lighting for black and white portraits is soft, diffused lighting. It helps to minimize harsh shadows and creates smooth transitions between light and dark tones, which can accentuate the texture and details of the subject’s face. Additionally, directional lighting, such as side lighting or Rembrandt lighting, can add depth and dimension to the portrait, enhancing the overall visual impact in black and white.
What colour filter is best for black and white portraits?
When it comes to black and white portraits, the choice of color filter depends on the desired effect. A red filter can deepen shadows and enhance contrast, resulting in a dramatic and moody look, particularly for emphasizing facial features and textures. On the other hand, a yellow filter can provide a subtle warming effect, adding a touch of warmth to the skin tones while maintaining overall balance in the image. Experimenting with different filters allows you to creatively manipulate the tones and contrasts in your black and white portraits to achieve the desired aesthetic.
Nate Torres is an entrepreneur, growth marketer, and photographer and writes mostly on those topics. Nate runs his own professional photography business and photography blog called Nate Torres Photography. Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. He is also a photography speaker and author on Photofocus.