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.


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).


 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.


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.


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.


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 | Instagram

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Previous comments
Austin Rogers's picture

Damien Lovegroove made a YouTube video a while ago where he used a speedlight and a "dingle" (light / shadow modifier). Shooting a bare bulb strobe through a bit of weed or a tree branch produced really cool dappled light (screen grab attached). I've been playing around with this sort of lighting, it's an easy way to make cool shadows in an otherwise boring scene. Here's the vid if you're interested:

Great article, and thank you for not being a gear-head techno-nut. I have never seen a great photograph that owed its brilliance to the gear, but always the shooter.

John Schell's picture

haha, thank you. I think that regardless of the hobby, every one of us goes through the gear-head stage at some point. It was true when I played guitar and it was certainly true in the first few years after I picked up a camera. The difference, imo, is being able to recognize it and break out of it - if for no other reason than to free up all that cash!

Brook Thompson's picture

Hi. Enjoyed the article and my only quibble is why would you write a guide and tell us you are probably doing it wrong? This is how you do it and the results speak for themselves. Remember Ansel Adams- "There are no rules for good photographs. There are only good photographs."
Oh and for the guy who said these aren't portraits a definition from Mirriam Webster. Portrait: "A painting, drawing, or photograph of a person that usually only includes the person's head and shoulders" . So yes these are portraits.

I recently moved my business into a studio that has lots of natural light. My previous studio was all strobe work. I too have really been enjoying rediscovering the joys of natural light. So much more opportunity to connect with the subject when I'm not fussing with lights as often. The light is so soft and learning to utilize the various windows and reflectors has been a lot of fun. I still love working with strobes but really haven't used them much in the past few months.

Thanks for the inspiration.

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?

dierk topp's picture

impressive portrait, KO KO
I really like it, the whole composition and PP!

Thank you dierk... very kind of you.

These comments about portraits or headshots are ridiculous. good article.

one thing I thought I would add is adjusting your color sliders in LR or PS does wonders with B/W's. raising reds, yellows and oranges while lowering the luminance in other colors can create really nice popping skin tones in B/Ws. But like you said their are thousands of ways to Post Process a photo.

Thanks for the article.

I'm like a few of the other commenter. Great work. But hey, it doesn't hurt that all of your subjects a totally hot babes.

You might want to consider that pretty and artistic are not always happy together.

In any case, I used to shoot B&W film, and process it and print it myself. The power and abstraction of B&W is hard to beat.

Enjoyed this & thanks for not getting caught up in all the talk of technical perfection. Great shots form an enjoyable process.

Fantastic article, and even better images. As for the opening quote, not sure who said it, but it did remind me of something David Bailey once said. That "Color is a distraction".

Philippe Deguent's picture

My grand son in B&W. Just direct sun lighting

Radek Makar's picture

Great article John, thanks!
I would only add that portraiture is not limited to Head & Shoulders shots... :)

Anita Antonia's picture

John, I live in Los Angeles. Any chance you'd mind sharing the location of this magical three wall shed?

Mike Mendoza's picture

Great article! Inspired to go out and shoot with B&W in mind!

What a great article and lovely shots.

Regarding the conversion technique, a creative one and very effective to control the tone is using Luminosity Mask as the BW Image.

Tony Kuyper demonstrate it really well on his blog post - https://tonykuyper.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/infinity-monochromes.

It can be done using his tool Infinity Mask though I'm pretty sure it can also be done using other Luminosity Masks tools (Nino Batisa's NBP Lumizone come to mind).