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Black and white portrait tips

Monochrome majesty - elevate your portrait with a timeless black and white look...

Black and white portrait photography tips

1. Know if you want a black and white photo

The first tip for 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 enter an image knowing that you want it to be colored, you may pay attention to the scene's existing color harmony. 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 having only 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 leave 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 a black-and-white portrait does not have color, 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 to shoot in RAW in case you want to develop a colored version of your portrait in post-production.

I often don’t set my camera to monochrome mode; instead, I pay special attention to the highlights and shadows 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 and 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 taking 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 briefly and talk to him/her. Ask them what their hobbies are or what they are passionate about. See what topics spark them up and ask further questions on those topics. It’s very similar to street photography in that you are trying to capture a genuine moment that is not forced. While you ask these questions, snap a quick photo every once in a while while they are smiling, laughing, or making a serious face.

I find it’s best 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. 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.

Like 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 pick 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 should take a photo of you leaning on the wall like this (give them an example of leaning on the wall).” They will naturally lean on the wall 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 it, 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 further emphasize the subject.

You want to make sure you adjust all three so the photo is not overexposed or underexposed. You can be in a perfect setting with 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 darker. 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 remove 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 about post-production in your favorite software, such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, etc. Knowing how to edit your black-and-white portrait in post-production is essential to elevating your photo to the 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 mentioned, 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 to slide it to the extreme to see what it would look like, then work my way down from there. In the beginning, you may adjust it for hours, trying to get it perfect, then changing your mind repeatedly.

Adjust it to what you like, then come back to it the next day. 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. However, like adjusting the contrast, you should make a subtle change and avoid going too overboard.

You’ll want to note that bumping up the clarity slider can also draw attention to and bring texture to certain imperfections on a face, such as acne marks and scars. 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 for black-and-white portrait photography is not to try to put lipstick on a pig, as the saying 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. I 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 if I'm lucky, only 5 are good. Be honest with yourself. Be your own harshest critic but also your biggest supporter. This is where growth happens.

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 image's composition.

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 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 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 photograph right out of the camera should already have 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 those similar to the black, white, and shade of grey color schemes, such as black, burgundy, royal blue, hunter green, or other earthy 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 because they remove 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.

We hope you enjoyed this guide on tips for black-and-white portrait photography. Now go out and practice!

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