Harness the stark beauty of black-and-white photography with this detailed primer on portraiture in monochrome.
When you think about it, black-and- W white photography is a curious thing. People don’t watch black-and-white TV sets any more, and apart from the occasional contemporary monochrome film, colour rules in the cinema. So why does black- and-white still work so well in photographs?
Many of the great photographers
Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus to name just a few – worked with black and white (and even if some dabbled in colour, it’s their black-and-white photos we remember most fondly). In fact, most of the finest photographs ever taken are in monochrome. So when we remove colour in our own photos, it creates a visual connection to a long history of inspirational photography. Black and white not only gives images a timeless, classic feel; it can also lend elegance and gravitas to the subject.
But the enduring appeal of black and white goes way beyond mere affection for the past. Stripping out colour has the magical effect of drawing attention to shape and form – and in no other genre of photography is this more effective than portraiture.
In this feature we’ll explore the beauty of black and white through its association with portraits. We’ll show you how to create stunning black- and-white portraits using natural light and flash, and then explain the best methods for converting your digital images to punchy, beautiful monochrome prints.
Black and white basics
Many photographers prefer M black and white because the absence of colour simplifies the scene, drawing attention to the essentials of shape, composition and light. So when shooting for black and white, it helps if we train our eyes to dismiss colour and look for variation in light and tone instead. Seeing the world in black and white means looking at the play of light and shade across a scene: how people and objects are illuminated, whether the way they are lit contrasts with their surroundings and makes them stand out, or whether they blend in instead.
Shades of grey
Every colour is transformed into a shade of grey, so think about how those colours will contrast or blend in with one another. For example, in colour a single lemon might look
great against a bowl full of oranges, but when all the colours are removed, it won’t stand out nearly as much. For subjects to stand out in black and white, they need to contrast with their surroundings. So how do we create contrast in our monochrome portraits? It’s simple, really: we look for highlights and shadows.
Break a portrait down and you have two main elements – a subject and a background. We usually want to make the subject stand out against the background. In a colour photo, a person would stand out against a blue wall or a bank of flowers, but with black and white, it depends on how the subject and background are illuminated. If, for example, your subject is in the shade of a tree and the bank of flowers in the background are in the sun, the difference in light will mean that when we expose for the person in the foreground, the background will go much brighter.
Similarly, if the subject is in the sun and the background flowers are in shadow, then the subject will be separated from the darker background. So don’t just think about how the subject is lit: consider the distribution of light across the scene, the ratio of light between the subject and the background, and how directional light creates highlights and shadows.
“Portraiture is about the connection between the photographer and the subject, and what each one wants to show or hide”
Keep the eyes sharp
Whether shooting portraits for colour or black and white, there are a few basic principles to keep in mind. The most important feature is the person’s eyes, so make sure they are sharp. Use compositional guides like the rule of thirds and frames within frames when positioning people, and make sure the lighting suits, and if necessary, flattens the subject. Technical knowledge is important, but with portraits, it only gets you so far.
Portraiture is also about the connection between the subject and the photographer, and what
each of them wants to show or hide. The most successful portraits reveal something about a person that goes beyond their outward appearance. This is one of the reasons why portraiture and black and white go hand in hand. Monochrome gives images an honesty that colour can’t match.
Removing colour takes away one of the key visual dimensions that viewers use to interpret a scene, so not all portraits will necessarily look better in black and white. But sometimes colour can be an unnecessary distraction. Portraits can often be dominated by three colours – the person’s skin colour, the hair colour, and the background colour.
We know what skin tones look like, so we don’t necessarily need to see them in colour. And most hair colours – blond, brown, black – are just as recognisable in shades of grey. So unless the background or the clothes are particularly vibrant, colour can often be superfluous. Its absence allows the viewer to focus more clearly on other equally important things like expression, personality and posture.
Sometimes you’ll take a picture and know instantly that it’ll work better in black and white. But often it’s a case of experimentation. As you get used to thinking of the world in shades of grey, you’ll find it gets easier to capture the scenes, subjects and compositions that are made for majestic monochromes. Setting the picture style to mono on your camera is a big help, too.
Shoot in raw
Raw files preserve all colour information within the digital negative, so nothing is set in stone. You’ll be able to fine-tune the monochrome conversion later, or keep the colour if you prefer. Adjusting white balance after the shoot and fine-tuning exposure is also much easier with raw files.
Switch to Monochrome
Many digital cameras have a Monochrome setting; it’s under Picture Control for Nikon SLRs, and Picture Styles for Canons. It gives you a monochrome LCD preview, while all the colour data is preserved in the raw file. It’s good for checking the effects of mono on a shoot, and it works with Live View.
Fine-tune the settings
Within the Monochrome setting, there are several options that let you fine-tune the conversion process. Alongside options to adjust contrast and brightness, you’ll find controls like coloured filters. These work in the same way as lens-mounted filters, changing the brightness of a scene’s colours.
PORTRAIT FUNDAMENTALS: WORKING WITH MODELS
If you want to go one step beyond taking portraits of friends and relatives, consider booking a model. Agencies offer a professional service, with rates starting at around £200 for half a day. A slightly less expensive option is to contact models directly through websites such as Model Mayhem and Purple Port. Rates are decided between photographer and model, and are generally less than agencies.
If a model likes your portfolio, they might even be willing to work TFP (Time For Prints), so there’s no cost involved other than expenses, which it’s only fair to pay. Whichever option you go for, make sure you get the model to sign a model release form.