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A Guide to Beautiful Black and White Portrait Photography

A guide to stunning black and white portrait photography

Black and white portrait photography is beautiful, it’s powerful, and it often seems to communicate more than just a subject. But how can you capture gorgeous black and white portraits? What are the secrets to success?

I’ve been doing B&W portraiture for years, and in this article, I share my best advice, including:

  • The best gear for black and white portraits
  • The key facial features you must consider while shooting
  • Whether you should start by working in black and white or in color
  • How to adjust your lighting for incredible results
  • Much more!

These tips are designed for everyone, whether you’re a beginner with a new camera or a seasoned photographer looking to diversify your portfolio. I’ll walk you through all the elements that go into creating stunning black and white portraits, and by the time you’re finished, you’ll be ready to capture some gorgeous shots of your own.

Let’s dive right in!

Should you take black and white portraits?

Black and white portrait photography

Not every moment is best captured in black and white. There are times, especially in modern settings, where color photography remains the ideal choice. Color can add vibrancy and life to your images. So why go for the monochromatic approach?

The beauty of black and white lies in its ability to simplify. Without the distraction of colors, you focus more intently on your subject’s face and expression. The interplay between light and shadow becomes the center of attention. Your eyes naturally follow lines and forms. Black and white often exposes the soul of the subject in a way color photography might not.

A more subdued or reflective atmosphere can be effectively conveyed through monochrome images. It’s a tool that gives you, the photographer, more leeway to set a particular mood, usually something more contemplative or somber. Let’s be honest: we often associate black and white with artistic, soul-stirring photos.

It’s not uncommon for portrait clients to request a mix of both color and black and white images. Some people appreciate the added touch of classic monochrome photos alongside their colorful counterparts, particularly for events like weddings or high-end fashion shoots. But remember, if your client expects a colorful, vibrant album, you should primarily aim to fulfill that request.

The key takeaway? Black and white is a fantastic option but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Your decision should hinge on what you aim to convey and what your client expects. If you get those elements right, your monochromatic portraits can truly shine, delivering that extra layer of emotional depth that’s often hard to capture in full color.

The best equipment for B&W portrait photography

Black and white portrait photography

So, you’re excited about diving into the world of black and white portraiture. What gear do you need? Surprisingly, the essential equipment isn’t all that different from what you’d use for color portraits. You’ll still need an interchangeable lens camera and wide-aperture lenses that can focus quickly for that perfect shot.

Now, lighting can be a bit of a wild card. You might opt for studio lighting, or perhaps you prefer the natural, unpredictable beauty of sunlight. The choice is yours. The good news is that black and white photography is pretty forgiving when it comes to grain. Unlike in color photography, where grain can sometimes distract, it often adds an appealing, retro texture to black and white images. So, feel free to crank up the ISO if your scene is a bit dark.

Here’s a pro tip: Consider a mirrorless camera with a high-resolution electronic viewfinder. Why? Because these viewfinders can display your world in black and white as you shoot. It’s not just a nifty feature; it’s transformational. Seeing the scene in black and white helps you focus on what will be highlighted and what will be shadowed in your final image, thereby giving you a leg up in the composition department.

While the basics like camera and lens remain consistent, the nuances of lighting and real-time monochrome viewing set black and white photography apart. The freedom to work with a higher ISO can also be liberating, especially for those who often shoot in natural light conditions where it’s not always possible to set up complex lighting.

Black and white portrait photography tips

You’ve got your gear sorted, and now it’s time to make the most of it. In the upcoming sections, you’ll find some practical advice that can significantly improve your black and white portraits.

Some of these tips work well for color photography too. But they shine especially bright in black and white. From editing to lighting, we’re going to cover it all. You don’t need to apply every tip at once. Start with one or two, and work your way up. It’s all about improving one step at a time.

1. Start with black and white in mind

Black and white portrait photography tips

For many photographers, black and white is an experimental choice at the post-production stage. This is a mistake.

Instead, make black and white portraiture part of your mindset. Decide whether you plan to shoot in B&W or color in advance. If you create an image knowing that you ultimately intend it to be black and white, you can take steps to ensure that all of the elements of a good monochrome image are in place before you press the shutter. But if you think you’re capturing a color image – or you’re just not sure whether to use color or black and white – your image will likely turn out less impactful.

You see, black and white photos are different from color photos, and they consequently require a different approach. For instance, the best B&W portraits tend to feature lots of tonal contrast, dramatic lighting, and specific facial expressions. These elements are difficult – and sometimes impossible – to fix after the image is taken, which is why you must plan to do B&W in advance if you want the best results.

Some experienced photographers can “see” the world in black and white, which is an insanely helpful skill. They can strip away the distractions of color and imagine the world in shades of gray. Try to build up your black and white vision by switching your camera to its Monochrome mode and then checking your images frequently on the LCD. Carefully note how different image areas were translated in the final file.

And if you have a mirrorless camera with a viewfinder, even better! When you switch over to Monochrome mode, the EVF will turn black and white, so you’ll genuinely see the world around you in grayscale. It’s an incredible trick, and it can be very helpful, especially for beginners.

Pro tip: Make sure you’re shooting in RAW. That way, when you switch your camera over to its Monochrome mode, you’ll retain all of the image’s color data, and you’ll have far more flexibility when editing later! (Plus, if you change your mind and decide the image works better in color, you’ll have all the pixel information you need.)

2. Keep the eyes sharp and well-lit

Black and white headshot in black and white

What’s the most important part of a portrait? The eyes. Eyes are usually the focal point of an image, and this is especially true in black and white.

Due to the lack of color, black and white photos are often perceived as graphic forms. Eyes are shapes that everyone recognizes, and they’ll immediately capture the attention of your viewers (and help them interpret the overall portrait).

So pay special attention to your subject’s eyes. Make sure they’re well lit (here, it can be helpful to experiment with different lighting angles), and make sure they’re in focus. If your camera offers some form of eye AF, I’d encourage you to try it, especially if you frequently shoot with a shallow depth of field. Nailing focus on the eyes is critical, and you just don’t want to take any chances! (If your camera doesn’t offer reliable eye AF, try using a single-point AF mode to carefully position your AF point over the subject’s nearer eye.)

A few additional tips for getting the eyes right in black and white portrait photography:

  • Make sure you include a clear catchlight to help the eyes pop.
  • Don’t be afraid to enhance the eyes in post-processing. Make sure plenty of detail is present!
  • If you’re working in tricky lighting conditions and you’re worried you may not have the eyes in focus, try deepening the depth of field for a bit of extra leeway.

3. Pay special attention to your subject’s expression

Black and white portrait photography

As I emphasized above, the eyes are especially important in B&W portraits – but they’re not the only facial feature that matters. The subject’s expression also stands out, so it’s essential that you coach your subject carefully and fire the shutter at the exact right moment.

Because black and white photos are so stripped down, the more emotion that appears on your subject’s face, the more eye-catching the image. I encourage you to see this as an opportunity; if you can include lots of emotion in your B&W portraits, you’ll be well on your way to capturing outstanding shots.

Start by making your subject feel comfortable; explain your goals and have a casual conversation. Then, when you bring out your camera, use the first few minutes to help the subject relax. Check the images on your LCD and praise the subject (even if the images look stiff). Keep the conversation going. See if you can get your subject to have fun.

Next, hone in on specific facial expressions and emotions. It can help to bring along a set of example portraits that feature the expressions you’re after. You can show these to your subject (just put them on your phone and scroll through them when the moment is right) so they have a much better idea of your interests.

Make sure you’re constantly looking through your viewfinder with your finger on the shutter button. Remember: Even tiny changes in your subject’s expression can make a difference. Things like a raised eyebrow, a twitch at the corner of the mouth, and smile lines under the eyes can all be used to great effect.

If you’re not getting the expressions you desire, try this simple exercise:

Prepare a list of words or phrases, then ask your subject to react to each one. The words you choose can be simple emotions, such as love, sadness, joy, anger, and melancholy.

For more diverse expressions, try abstract words. You can even go for funny words, such as cheeseburger, politics, Teletubbies, or Hulk smash. (If you have a subject who’s tense or nervous, the latter approach can easily lighten the mood!)

4. Carefully choose your lighting setup

Black and white portrait photography

Black and white portraits can be done using artificial light, natural light, or a mix of the two. Personally, I prefer to use artificial light; it offers greater control and lets you create lots of drama. But you can also get great natural light B&W portraits, so don’t be afraid to shoot outside if you don’t have access to a studio setup.

Now, when it comes to lighting black and white portraits, there are no hard and fast rules. Contrast is generally good, which is why I encourage you to try split-lighting and Rembrandt-lighting patterns, but if you prefer softer, low-contrast images, consider reducing your light angle for a less-extreme effect.

Pro tip: For high-contrast portraits with rapid gradations in tone, use a hard light source, such as a snoot, a bare flash, a small softbox, or the midday sun. For soft tones and subtler images, modify your light with a large softbox or an umbrella. And if you want low-contrast images but you’re shooting outside, make sure your subject is shaded or head out when the sky is overcast.

At the end of the day, it’s all about personal preference. If you’re not sure what you like, search for black and white portraits on the internet. Find the first ten shots that stand out to you, and see if you can deconstruct the lighting. Then try to use those lighting techniques in your own images!

5. Rely on light, not Photoshop

tips for black and white portrait photography

If you want to create outstanding black and white portrait images, it’s important that you rely on your lighting skills, not Photoshop (or any other post-processing program).

You can use lighting to:

  • Create drama
  • Add a high-contrast effect
  • Emphasize the main subject
  • Turn the background black
  • Much more!

And while it’s okay to make small adjustments in post-processing (and I certainly encourage you to do a thorough edit of each image!), you shouldn’t see editing software as a quick fix. If you push your adjustment sliders too far, the results often won’t look realistic (even if you don’t realize it at the time).

For instance, if you want a high-contrast image, don’t increase the Contrast slider to +100. Instead, choose contrasty lighting, then if you need an editing boost, try carefully adjusting the sliders. You might also try a dodging and burning technique. Just remember to keep things subtle.

Bottom line: While you can apply adjustments while editing, strive to make the largest changes with your lighting setup!

6. Practice different lighting patterns

Black and white portrait headshot

You know what can make or break a black and white portrait? Lighting. It’s a big deal, especially in black and white photography. So, let’s start with split lighting. This pattern can introduce some serious contrast in your portrait. One side of the face is lit, the other is in shadow. It’s a great way to add drama to your shots.

Rembrandt lighting is your go-to for a moodier atmosphere. Named after the famous painter, this technique creates a small triangle of light on the cheek that’s opposite your light source. It’s a classic look that adds emotional depth. The triangle should ideally be no larger than the nose and no wider than the eye.

Black and white portrait photography

Now for something lighter. Butterfly lighting is wonderful if you want a more ethereal look. It’s called “butterfly” because the shadow it creates under the nose resembles the insect’s wings. To achieve it, position your light source directly in front of the subject, angled downward. This will illuminate the face evenly.

Another even lighting option is clamshell lighting. To achieve this, use one light source above the subject’s face and another below. It’s an excellent choice for portraits that require minimal shadows and an even tone. Think of it as filling in the gaps left by other lighting techniques.

If you’re confident with the basics, try adding in some extra lights. A hair light can add a glow around your subject’s head. A rim light can outline the edges of your subject, separating them from the background. And a background light can make your backdrop more interesting or add texture to the shot. Each added light provides a new layer of depth and complexity.

7. Don’t try to save bad images with black and white

Black and white portrait photography

This tip is quick but crucial:

If you’re editing an image that you feel isn’t up to scratch and you ask yourself if it might instead work in black and white, the answer is probably “No.”

Photographers love to “save” images with a black and white conversion, but the B&W treatment will often emphasize the flaws that made you question the image in the first place. And generally speaking, a bad photo is a bad photo, regardless of its color scheme (or lack thereof).

There’s nothing wrong with doing a quick conversion to see how an image looks in monochrome. But make sure you judge the image carefully. And if the shot doesn’t feel right, just reject it.

8. Consider tethering

Black and white portrait photography

Let’s talk about tethering. If you haven’t heard of this technique, it’s about time you did. Tethering is basically connecting your camera to a computer or tablet. This simple setup gives you the ability to see your photos instantly on a larger screen.

This immediate feedback is valuable. You’re not just looking at a tiny screen on the back of your camera. A monitor provides a better view of your work. It lets you see all the details you might miss otherwise. You can catch any issues with lighting or composition on the spot.

But here’s where it gets even more beneficial for black and white photography. If you’re using a camera without a high-resolution electronic viewfinder, tethering becomes your best friend. The big screen can show you exactly how your black and white settings are playing out in real time. You’re not guessing anymore; you’re making informed adjustments as you shoot.

So what software can you use? There are several tethering applications available, like Adobe Lightroom or Capture One. Both of these offer real-time adjustments and a good set of tools for analyzing your shots. They also support a wide range of cameras, which makes things easier for you.

Setting up is pretty straightforward. You’ll need a stable stand for your laptop or tablet, a compatible USB or HDMI cable, and the tethering software itself. Make sure to test this setup before you start your actual shoot. The last thing you need is a technical hiccup when you’re trying to focus on capturing the perfect portrait.

9. Learn why black and white does – and doesn’t – work

woman's expression emphasized in black and white

Some subjects practically beg to be shot in black and white.

Some subjects lend themselves to color.

And others…aren’t so obvious.

As much as possible, you should try to understand what makes a subject work in black and white. I’d encourage you to find some black and white portrait photography you really admire, then make a list of what you like about each image. That way, when you’re working with a new subject and/or setup, you can instantly know whether the images will turn out best in B&W or in color, and you can make adjustments accordingly.

Here are a few characteristics that tend to look great in black and white:

  • Heavy shadows
  • Hard lighting
  • Intense, serious expressions
  • Clear geometry
  • Patterns

On the other hand, if you’re photographing a subject featuring bright, punchy hues – where the colors feel like an important part of the scene – it might make more sense to stick to color.

By the way:

Sometimes even experienced photographers struggle to decide whether a subject or scene looks best in black and white or color. So if that happens to you, try not to get too frustrated. In such cases, don’t be afraid to experiment! Take some deliberate color photos, then make a mental switch to B&W and shoot some more. Do the necessary conversions in post-processing, then spend time looking between the two sets of photos.

As you look, ask yourself: What’s different about the image sets? What works? What doesn’t? What do I like? What do I dislike? And see if you can identify whether the scene ultimately worked best in color or B&W.

headshot with bold colors

10. Edit beyond the black and white conversion

Black and white portrait photography

Turning your portrait into black and white is just the start. Don’t stop there; editing is where you bring your image to life. After converting your image, your first priority is to get the basics right. I’m talking about adjusting the contrast and brightness. These two sliders can have a dramatic effect on how your photo feels. Play around to find the right balance.

Next up is the Shadows slider. Your goal here is to reveal detail without making the image look flat. Small adjustments can go a long way. You might find that enhancing the shadows brings out facial expressions or clothing textures. But remember, subtlety is your friend here.

So, you’ve got the basics down. Now let’s talk about dodging and burning. These are techniques that can help you highlight specific facial features. You can lighten areas to draw attention, like the eyes or lips. Or darken areas to add depth, like the contours of the face. Software like Photoshop offers specialized tools to help you here. Again, less is more. You want your edits to enhance, not overpower, the original image.

Tonal balance is another key element. You’re not dealing with colors here, so the focus is purely on the range of blacks, whites, and greys. Make sure you have a full spectrum. Not only does this make your portrait visually appealing, it also adds a level of sophistication.

Finally, consider tweaking the color channels. This might sound counterintuitive for a black and white image. But adjusting the individual color channels can alter how the colors in the original image are rendered in black and white. For example, reducing the blue channel can make the sky darker, making your subject pop.

Black and white portrait photography: final words

We’ve covered a lot, haven’t we? From weighing the pros and cons of black and white portraits to diving into the nitty-gritty of equipment and editing, it’s been a thorough journey. But here’s the most important takeaway: black and white photography isn’t just a click of a button or a filter you slap on at the end. It’s a conscious decision that should align with your vision for the image.

Just spend time looking at good B&W portraits, follow the tips I’ve shared, and shoot constantly. You’ll soon be capturing black and white photos like a pro!

Finally, if you try black and white and you like it:

Welcome to the addiction! Whether you’re a beginner wanting to dabble in black and white, or a seasoned photographer looking to add more depth to your portfolio, the art of black and white portraiture offers a rewarding, creative experience. Enjoy the process.

Do you have any tips for black and white portraits that I missed? Do you have a favorite black and white portrait technique? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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