A Guide To Black and White Portraits

A Guide To Black and White Portraits

There is an old quote that says, “If you want to shoot fashion, shoot in color, but if you want to shoot emotion, shoot in black and white.” I don’t know who said it, but I tend to agree. I do love myself a good black and white portrait. There is something special about black and white imagery which has the ability to cut through all the baggage and display both the inner beauty and turmoil which can be so easily hidden away by color photography.

That’s not to say emotion and/or mood cannot be captured with a color photograph. Given the chance, however, when looking at two portraits side by side, nine times out of ten, the black and white portrait will hit me in a place where the color photograph just cannot reach.

When I first started shooting fashion, I was all about color and pop. The work I followed was very representative of the outdoor strobed look; vibrant, bright colors, deep skin tones, and an unlimited depth of field all set against deep blue skies. It’s an almost timeless, classic style and one that I believe, when done properly, is more a work of art than a simple photograph. My attempts to emulate (copy) it fell short and, despite my best efforts, I eventually decided to put my strobes away and piece by piece, sold all of my strobist equipment.

john-schell-bekka-gunther-black-and-white

Sometime after that, during a particularly nasty creative dry spell, I happened upon some really great work by some photographers who shot only natural light. Having learned on strobes, what I saw in their work was fresh and amazing. I decided almost immediately that it was something I needed to pursue. The challenge of shooting in a new direction was invigorating. Beginning this new journey, I quickly found that rather than lugging around strobes, reflectors, and the assistants I needed to help set everything up, I much preferred to carry around a camera and a couple of lenses. In addition the lightened load, it was much easier to be low-key during a shoot as having an assistant helping to cary around strobes, modifiers and/or large reflectors just screams, “Hey Mr. Police Officer, why not come and ask me for a permit…”

In shooting natural light, I discovered, somewhat by accident, a love of black and white portraiture.

Although I am posting some of my black and white work, this should by no means be considered the final word on black and white portraiture (it shouldn’t even be considered MY final word on black and white portraiture). There are so many different styles out there to enjoy. This is just one small piece.

The Setup: 

The key to a successful portrait is, in my opinion, the subject’s eyes. Deep and meaningful, fun and playful, dark and mysterious, no matter what the mood, in the eyes is where you will find it. This is why, I feel that regardless of what you're trying to capture in your portrait session, even if the intent is to keep them closed, you should always aim for the subject's eyes (this may seem like common sense, but I assure you, this something that took me a while to learn and feel comfortable with - so I'm writing this because I feel that others may have difficulty with it as well).

The eyes of your subject will tell a story; your job as a portrait photographer is to allow them to do so.

Second to the eyes, most important is to find a location where your subject's face is brightly lit, and the falloff of light starting about the ears or back of the head is pretty abrupt. What works best for me when shooting natural light portraits is to place the subject in an area of open shade, trying to find a place where they are surrounded on at least three sides. Place your subject in the shade and as close to the line of light as possible (see diagram below). Bonus point are given if you can find a place where your subject is in the shade, you are standing in the sunlight, and there is something large and brightly colored and/or reflective immediately behind you (like a building or light colored fence).

john-schell-lighting-diagram-black-and-white

 Camera Settings: 

I should add a disclaimer in here somewhere that speaking to the technical aspect of photography has never been one of my strengths. I am sure there are photographers who can tell you how and why they used the settings they used - and for the most part, I can too - but as soon as I set a few basics, I usually just go ahead and focus on the moment - leaving all the technical jargon to others. I am a firm believer in trial and error. I am also a believer in shooting until you get what you want and then overshooting just in case. While I realize this isn’t the case for most people, especially those on time constraints, it works for me.

My camera settings are simple. Using a fast lens, I try to shoot as close to wide open as possible - usually an aperture of somewhere between f/1.4 and f/2.2, maybe f/3.2 if the situation calls for it. Shutter speed is set to the situation and ISO is usually locked in on 400 or so (I can hear all the technical shooters grumbling and cussing at me right now). Once the camera is set, I start shooting, making adjustments as necessary. Additionally, I find that if I'm shooting for black and white, I set my camera to shoot in black and white. The feedback is instant and it's much easier for me to see what I'm doing as I'm shooting - especially if I'm standing in the bright sunlight photographing someone who is standing in the shade.

Taking the Photo:

Once you’ve got the subject set where you want them, it’s important to remember the purpose of the shoot. Stick to the plan and follow through with it, leaving time and space for experimentation. While this might not always be possible, I have found that some of my favorite photos have come from shoots from we deviated from the plan and shot how we were feeling. Planning is everything, but so is being able to switch things up when you see an opportunity.

john-schell-black-and-white

Location is key. For these shots, I scouted a few locations until I found this this incredible old shed which had three walls (barely) in place and was missing the fourth. Located in a place where I, and quite a number of other people, walk by on a daily basis, the old shed had suddenly become a perfect, natural light studio. Though most of these were shot on separate days, I made sure to position both subjects in the same place and took care to shoot about the same time of day. It was roughly about 3pm in October which meant that the sun was just over my left shoulder. One other important aspect that I should note was that the sidewalk I was standing on and shooting from was made of cement and was a much lighter color than the surrounding asphalt. The light it reflected back up pulled the shadows away from their chin and in addition, gave me a nice catch light in each subject's eye.

Model Posing:

The connection between you and your subject is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of any photo shoot. Posing should be natural, moody, and expressive. Ask your subject questions. Ask them to move. Ask them to think about a time when they were happiest or when they were saddest. Ask them to think about their favorite person, or someone whom they cannot stand. In addition, there really shouldn’t be any distractions within the frame. If you are taking a portrait of someone, take a portrait - nothing else.

john-schell-tova-black-and-white-commercial-lifestyle

Post Processing: 

As I said earlier about the technical aspects of the camera, the same can be said for the post processing aspects. I am constantly learning new things and discovering my own way of doing things. As such, I am certain there are retouchers who will tell me that what I am doing is wrong, wrong, wrong. And they’re probably (definitely) right. I'm not going to get into any of that. My post processing is fairly simple; adjust the exposure, convert to black and white, deepen the blacks and/or shadows via a tone curve (or sliders in Lightroom), perhaps add a bit of a fade, and then sharpen. After that (or before, whichever) you can retouch away any blemishes, even out any skin discolorations, and you’re good to go. If you want take it a few steps further, you could dodge and burn the image to make it really pop. The key here is to get most of it right in camera.

Conclusion: 

When shooting portraits, the overall goal is not to make something so technically perfect that it becomes a workshop in itself or a tribute to your technical ability. You want to capture the mood, the drama, the emotion, and even the flaws contained within your subject. For me, black and white portraiture is the medium which allows us to do so...and then some.

john-schell-tova-black-and-white

 John Schell | Instagram

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49 Comments

Loved the article. Thank you.

Eric N's picture

Thanks for this article...its not often you hear from photographers who've been in the flash/strobe trend moving to natural light portraits to discover a fresh world waiting out there.

lovely images. thanks for sharing the tips!

dierk topp's picture

thanks for an interesting post.
BUT:
you are showing only young
and attractive women. Most of my portraits are from elder people, men
and woman up to 92 years. These faces can tell endless stories and it it
fascinating, to look at the final print.
here are my portraits (from
6x6 analog to Leica M Monocrom and the new Sony A7R with the new Zeiss
24-70/4, a great portrait lens)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/dierktopp/sets/72157627967118544/
dierk

Yeah, these aren't portraits. They're typical model headshots.

How is that not a portrait?

How can you ask such a stupid question?

@ Mike Moss-They're head shots, they're portraits, they're snapshots, they're photshop'd, they're straight outta the camera, they're memories captured, they're a photographer's interpretation of tone, they're something that moved a photographer to capture that subject at that particular time in that particular light.
So, internet tough guy, how 'bout you ratchet down the attitude and answer the man's question?

"The battle for the soul is won and lost in the arts."

If people can't make simple distinctions between standard genres within the arts, then what might that indicate about the status of their souls?

So, if you are a cute girl, even if you are not a model, can't have a portrait done? I don't understand it.

Exactly, I shot this, she's not a model, it's not a model headshot, it's a picture of a friend. How is this NOT a portrait?

And... you didn't answer any of the questions. You just tried to make yourself look interesting. And failed at it.

The supposed difference between Portrait and a Headshot is basically the style. A Headshot usually only focuses on the head-face (a photo of the back of a head it's not considered a headshot), it tends to have clear backgrounds so that the focus is on the expression. They are also very direct. A portrait, usually also focuses con the head, but it should reveal more of the story behind the person photographed (whether this is the person's hands, torso, environment, etc. - sometimes it doesn't even includes the face, as in Helmut Newton's self portrait). A portrait also leaves more space for wondering.

To illustrate. A Headshot of MikeMoss web's persona would show his name and the FS logo and give us an idea that he is into photography. Then, a portrait, might show us his comment so that we don't only know he is into photography, but that he is also a dick.

Then again, head shots can fall into the portrait category. An in this particular case (if you still want to consider them head shots), they do. Since they are not necessarily direct and/or clear, as there's a photograph of one of the models looking away from the camera, or another one touching her lip, or showing the movement of her hair, yet another one showing us her shoulder.

Hope your soul gets better. For real

Gibberish. You talk gibberish and, as others are pointing out-you still haven't answered the man's questions. That's enough of my time with you.

Check this out MikeMoss:
That's some sound information you wrote about in your article Mr. Schell. Thanks for posting your images. Hope there's more to come!

A portrait is the representation of a person in whole or in part. Style does not come to matter. What you are talking about is the physical approach to the subject (and the inclusion or exlusion of its context) and the subsequent filling of the frame.

I don't know the terms in English, but in Spanish they are:
Plano general extremo
Plano conjunto
Plano general
Plano tres cuartos o americano
Plano medio
Plano medio corto
Primer plano
Primerísimo primer plano
Plano detalle

So, it is not a "distinction between standard genres" that is going on here. It is about type, not genre.

Good points Omar, but you're using reductionism when the key to understanding photographic genres is broad and historical. Reductionism would categorize a dog and a cat as the same since both have four legs. Of course, we all know that dogs and cats are different from each other, but we can't know that by comparing the parts that they share. On the contrary, we can only differentiate between them by comparing parts that they do NOT have in common.

The dog/cat example applies directly to the distinction between portraits and model headshots. There's no way to tell the difference between a portrait and a model headshot by comparing them according to qualities that they have in common. Instead, they have to be compared according to what makes them different.

If "genres" make some people uncomfortable, then it's possible to talk in terms of "class membership." A model headshot and a portrait might both be members of a class of pictures that contain humans as their subject matter. In that sense, they're both the same.

But, portraits can never be classified as "theatrical" whereas model headshots most certainly can be. A portrait is kind of like a person as himself/herself. A headshot is much more like role playing. If you'll notice, many of the pictures in this thread contain the subject doing theatrical things (swinging hair, forced gestures etc) and that's much more in line with membership within the photographic class of model headshots than within the class of portraiture.

People are free to classify pictures in any way that they want. However, it's a sign of dilettantism to blur distinctions between genres. On a personal note, my first job in photography was shooting portfolios for a talent agency and the reason I got the opportunity was because the head agent said that the other photographer interviewed could do the technical photography just fine but couldn't nail the appropriate genres.

I get the point. I know genres overlap between them; it is not a rigid thing. But it is not reductionism, it is understanding not what they do not have in common, but the essential structure of each. That's a type. Everything else is contingent.

You can name it the way you like, but a headshot is still a portrait. The same thing that a headshot portrays can be portrayed full body and viceversa. It is a matter of detail what changes, but it is not the detail, but how you manage it.

Imagine a headshot without that "theatrical" look. Imagine a full body standing stiff. They both happen in life. And they both are portraits.

I guess what you are talking about is how you pose or direct the model.

Don't get me wrong, but saying dilettante to someone is the same as saying you have 20+ years of experience: authority fallacy. Either you know too much or what you know is just tangled.

But in one thing I agree with you: agencies catch detail, and if that gives you the results to be hired, then go ahead. Again, name it the way you like. You are also free to classify pictures in any way you like.

Hi Omar,

Maybe we can agree to disagree.

I gotta tell you, I was intrigued by your post him showing only 'young and attractive woman' and you shooting older people. I went though 5 pages of your portraits and not one did I thing was great. you had some ok ones but you I could not see any connection with you and the subject in any of these portraits. Maybe instead of listing your 20k worth of Leica sony etc etc equipment and discounting others peoples work you could actually practice a bit more with you fancy equipment and read articles and be open to them instead of brushing them off. I can assure you I am not a troll. I read these articles all the time and rarely post comments but I had to say something here.

dierk topp's picture

David,
thanks for your emotional critique.
You must have much "better" portraits, please show some of them to me/us!

I attached some examples:
(gear is not the point, but I include it for you info)
1. the first one is my mother in law, 91 years old
(Sony A7R with Zeiss Vario-Tessar FE 4/24-70 ZA OSS)
2. the second is Leica M9 with 75mm APO-Summicron
3. the third one is Nikon D3 with Micro Nikkor 105mm

I don't understand, what you mean with "I could not see any connection with you and the subject"?

and BTW: I mentioned the Leica M Monocrom, as with thread is about B&W and I am very glad that I could afford one after dreaming 50 years of a Leica.

dierk

sorry for the multiple images, I tried to delete some, but could not do it :-(

mirza indigo's picture

yea David is right..few of them OK..others boring

John Schell's picture

Thanks, Dierk. You are correct - they are all highly attractive women. I have a lot of respect for those who shoot portraits of the storied facial features of 90+ year olds, like you do, but unfortunately, the fashion industry is not yet accepting of that quite yet. In addition, if I were to shoot those types of faces (and I want to), I would perhaps light in somewhat differently.

Thanks for your comments!

dierk topp's picture

John, I got attracted by the title "A Guide To Black and White Portraits"
I did not know, that you are working in the fashion industry and shoot fashion models. Sorry for my misunderstanding.

I would like to add a tool, that I use most of the time for B&W images: Nik Silver Efex

If my portraits are boring for anybody, sorry, if I wasted your time.

John Schell's picture

No worries, Dierk. I really enjoyed your portraits. And I've heard nothing but great things about Nik software.

It's great to see a post about the classic look of B&W. In 2011, I decided that I would shoot 2012 exclusively in B&W. It was a chance for me to experiment with different B&W contrast lens filters. Sure, I had some regrets about limiting myself to B&W film, but it was a period of growth for me and I learned to visualize in B&W.

I'm not quite as brave as you. I now shoot almost exclusively in B&W mode on my DSLR. I get to visualize the light better when chimping but the raw files contain color if I want it later. I've discovered nice high contrast photos that are great in B&W but I would have tossed in color.

just started doing this and enjoy it. I can see a definite change in how I meter and expose images now...

Nice work, John. I appreciate your humbleness, but you do very fine work. Thanks for the article.

Mark Schueler's picture

Love the photos--headed out to a headshot photoshoot shortly, and I appreciate the inspiration!

John Schell's picture

My pleasure, Mark.

Jon-Mark Wiltshire's picture

I have always loved the look of shooting on the edge of open shade, despite being a big time flash user. My question is semi related to the article...

How do we recreate this kind of light in camera? This "edge of open shade" light? I have seen a few photographers do it, but no matter how hard I try, my flash-lit images are always obviously flash. Is it that modifiers are simply too "perfect" and we need imperfection to feel like natural light? I'd love some discussion on this.

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