A Guide To Black and White Portraits

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Black and white film is one of the oldest photographic mediums around; in fact it IS the oldest method of capturing images that the world has known. Digital is just a baby learning how to walk.

Black and white has long been and still continues to be one of the staples that truly good photographers reach for. It is an art form in and of its self and even though to an untrained eye a black and white photo might appear to be a very dull shot. This is especially true if you compare it to the onslaught of highly colored digital photos that abound on the Internet as you are surfing the World Wide Web.

But a moderately well exposed black and white portrait photo offers a lot that even a greatly planned and executed color shot can give. It becomes quite special because so few people actually use the art form any more. This is sad because it can be such a romantic form for photography and tends to lean to the elegant area and depending on the subject, it can even enhance the feel of the shot.

It is also a great way to start learning photography. In fact if you have never done much of it and are just starting out, look over the manual that came with your camera and see how to set tit up to take black and white shots. You will fid that you will be less drawn towards relying on color and will start to find your self more engrossed in the things that matter, such as proper lighting and composition rather than which colors might clash with which outfits.

Also, keep in mind that color can be a problem with some=e colors and no matter what you do they won’t look good. And yet if you recompose and shoot it in black and white it can become magically phenomenal. If you think I am lying try it on a nice drab olive green outfit sometime. Shoot it in color and then try the same shot and lighting using black and white and you will see what I mean.

Also if you are actually doing your own work in a darkroom, and this can be in either traditional film or the digital medium, you will be able to create a lot of great things that simply would never happen if you were working with a color version.

Why is Black and White so Cool?

People love things that look nostalgic. And let’s face it there is nothing more classically romantic than a good old black and white. Folks that have seen classic movies, such as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca for example, cringe if they see a colorized version of the film. It just loses its magic and appeal and was pretty much a waste of time for someone to sit and color it.

Unusually the first thing that will cross someone’s mind when they look at great black and white portrait is just how elegant it looks. IT tends to be a lot kinder of the human skin texture and skin tone than color photography is. Color shows and seems to magnify each and every blemish and detail where black and white tends to blend out the bad.

If you look at almost any professionally shot wedding album out there, you will still see that eth classic black and white shot is still a staple and a mains stay of wedding shooters. Also it is quite rare that you will walk in to a large corporation and see a head shot portrait of the officers of that establishment done in color. These are often done in black and white because they look better and more professional plus they reproduce better in print media such as annual reports and stockholder updates.

In other words, this form of portrait photography is not liable to disappear or fade away any time in the foreseeable future. The demand is still there and the latitude of what you can accomplish is great. As I mentioned, shooting in black and white allows you to concentrate on the important elements of the shot and not the fluffy things that really don’t matter a lot. In fact, black and white remains fairly constant as far as a style and even when fads with clothing and color change, an outfit that might be in a trend setting color today could easily be considered gaudy in ten years. However if it were in black and white there is a good chance that the portrait will stand the test of time and become one of those timeless classics.

I know I talk about it a lot, and it is not portrait shooting, but if you want to see how much emotion can be evoked from a simple black and white photo, delve into the landscape work of Ansel Adams. The man was a wizard with photos and he made black and white cool. You can look at one of his shots today and it still looks as solid as the day he first printed the image. That is because black, white and shades of grey do not lie. They simply tell the story.

Portraits and Black And White

Portraits that are shot in black and white often have a subtle hint of refined class built in simply because of the nature of black and white verses the color medium. Since everything is relegated to roughly two hundred and fifty six shades of tone they tend to look less busty and cluttered and will look much more refined and elegant that the same image in color. It makes the entire scene look more poised and [polished and adds a depth that can’t really be gotten in color.

All too often people tend to be overcome by the color aspect of the portrait and the eyes tend to wander away from the main element in the shot. Shooting in black and white however takes that tendency away and makes them focus directly on the subject at hand. They can see the focus better and the object that is really the center of the shot becomes apparent and stands out in a way that it rarely can when shot it color. In other words if you take away the distracting elements of color, you are left with a better portrait image.

That is also exactly why a young bride will ask for black and white to be used in some of the wedding shots. It is elegant and romantic and will look that way virtually for eternity. They are aware that this style is classic and will remain that way for the length of time that they are alive. They tend to stand the changes in the industry much more so and remain viable even as they color techniques and the way they are shot change. Ad once you learn to shoot effectively in black and white, those rules will never change. Black, white and the two hundred and fifty six shades of grey will always react the same way in the same light no matter what else is happening. So you will have consistency that doesn’t need to be re-learned as times and trends change.

Tips for Taking Black and White Photographs

As we learned above, working in black and white forces you to concentrate on shapes and composition and lighting unlike color which can easily distract you from the main focus of the portrait that you are shooting. That is why a good photography teacher always starts out his or her students teaching them the proper use of black and white. Because the truth is that once you learn how to shoot this way, you can apply what you have learned to most any other color or setting that you might end up photographing.

The important things that you, as a photographer need to practice and concentrate on using include, but are not limited to the following things.

You will learn exactly how the contrast of an object can create lines and then additionally how those liens can be made to lead the viewer’s eyes to any place on the photograph that you want them to go. You do it with shades and shapes, something that is very hard to do effectively when using color in an image.

Use the shapes and the lines that are present in the composition to help to give the object, in this case the portrait depth, texture and form. Again this is a case where in color these same elements could be distracting as opposed to helping to focus the attention on the subject of the portrait.

Remember when you are “painting” your portrait in different shades that highlights might sometimes argue with one another and actually appear to compete for the attention. While the subdued dark tones ten to become more of a negative and can highlight things in the photograph. Simply moving a light a foot one way or the other can change to total chemistry and feel of a black and white portrait in a way that it would not affect the make up of a color shot.

What is totally neat about black and white is that it is not something that the normal naked eye can see. So you are starting more or less with a blank canvas and you are going to set the feel, the mood and the tone of the portrait simply by how the light and the shadows interact with what the camera is capturing.

Another interesting anomaly of shooting in black and white as opposed to color is that you are forced to see detail in the photograph that would not otherwise be seen. Lines in an old person’s face will become deeper and more defined if you adjust the angle of the lighting. In contrast, you can make those same lines all seem to disappear by moving the light the other way. This forces you to become a better photographer by default. You will start to look at light in a different way and that will do nothing but enhance your skills even when you switch back to color.

As humans we see things in three dimensional perspectives. By the simple nature of going to photography, we are dropping to two dimensions and when we go to black and white photography we are dealing with light and dark and thus can quite easily use this to create more abstract images than we would be able to even envision in the world of color. In short, once you remove the aesthetics of the color and are left with simply black, white and the shades of grey, many of the items and elements of that photograph or portrait will take on new dimensions and become different from a graphic perspective.

Can Black and White truly be better than color?

That often can depend on what the object t is and the effect that you are trying to capture, but for the most part the answer is that the black and white is actually as good and many time even better than the color prints. Things that are normal everyday boring items when you shoot them in color can become works of art and quite interesting when shot in black and white.

Shooting on a very cloudy or overcast day is a great example of this. While it softens the light and makes for great portrait work, generally speaking, the color tends to be over bearing and will often wash out in this type of lighting. However when you shoot that same portrait in black and white the highlights are generally better an d you might actually get a better result from the shoot. Next time you are in such a situation try a couple in colors and a couple in black and white so that you have a visual frame of reference to come back to. The dull looking sky tends to clash with the colors of the scene but in black and white they often work in concert to create a better shot.

You will also notice that if you are including a large portion of sky in your portrait on a cloudy day, it might tend to get totally washed out. This can completely distract from the portrait in color and yet in a black and white rendition it is likely that the sky will simply melt into the back ground and you will be left with a highly useable shot that would otherwise have been unsuccessful.

When you are working with a portrait session in black and white you will usually notice that the skin tones tend to be a much more subdued tone so that it makes the person look better. Things like blemishes and blotches or even the uneven skin tones that typically stand out like a sore thumb in color tend to fade away like magic when shot in black and white. Over the course of time the human eye has been trained, at least sub consciously to be overly critical of the skin and the tones that it portrays. The nice thing about shooting a portrait in black and white is that our eyes can no longer find a frame of reference on the skin tone with which to be critical and so we tend to evaluate the image a little differently and usually perceive it to be a better shot.

You will find that with all of the available technology in the world today, many of the photographers whoa re considered to be the masters of the craft lean towards using black and white because it takes the human eye out of the equation and forces the viewer to look at the image in the way that the photographer intended it to be seen.

Another plus for photographers when using black and white is that it is much more forgiving when it comes to lighting. With color you need to make sure that the color balance is right. That either means that you use an on camera filter or you make a change in the on camera white balance setting or using expensive studio bulbs which are balanced to give off the same color temperature as the sun.

These are very costly things to do and the result is not always perfect because bulb temperatures can vary from bulb to bulb and as the bulb gets older the temperature can change. You can also forget that you have set the white balance on your camera and screw up you next session/s batch of shots if they are not shot at the same location.

With black and white photography, light it light. Your camera will expose virtually the same no matter what type of temperature lamp or light source you are using. That means that you are almost guaranteed to get a great exposure that will look good without all of the odds and ends that go into setting up for a color shoot. Net result there is better photos faster and very consistent results from frame to frame and session to session.

Should I try Black and White on my next session?

The answer is yes, maybe. Okay if it is a session where you are paying the model or you happen to be doing a trade for CD session then unequivocally yes, shoot in black and white and expand your horizons. However if the subject is coming in and paying for portraits, there is a great chance that they are expecting a glossy color photo to hang on the wall or send to relatives. It is up to you, as the photographic artist to sell them on the black and white aspect.

The worst case scenario is telling them that you are going to shoot some color and some black and white so that they can see the difference in the end result. If you put it to them that way, they know that they are getting what they expect and you are broadening their horizons by showing them another type or method of print that might appeal to them. The most you will lose is a little time as you switch back and forth from color to black and white but you might just make a convert of the subject in the process.

Evaluate your needs for the photograph. If it is something that could be color dependant then by all means use color. It is still a very worthwhile medium from which to shoot. You just need to evaluate every potential shot and session and determine if shooting in color will really be best for the shot or if it might just benefit from the subtraction of color.

The saying of being clear as”Black and White” is there for a reason. Black and white will give you a quality that can be razor sharp even with less than top end equipment and it can force you to learn and become a better shooter in the process.

Why not just shoot in color and Photoshop it to black and white?

This is a very good question. Yes you can do that and get some very good results as long as your initial exposure is correct and the graphic elements, lighting and such are all where thy need to be.

But the point is that you really won’t learn anything that will make you a better photographer if you rely on software. You will become more proficient in the computer but not in the actual art of shooting a photograph that is great and not simply average.

If your goal is to be average and to take just simply good pictures then by all means relying on the software to fix things is a viable way to go in today’s high powered computer age. But if you are after the best portrait that you can possibly take and want to make sure that every time you step behind a camera that you learn and become better at your craft then you should avoid the temptation to let the software do it.

Yes there are times hen you are forced to stay in color and shoot. Because of time or weather constraints or lighting or for whatever reason you will at some point be relegated to a situation where you simply can’t use black and white. In these cases it is okay to let the computer do it for you. If you have been diligent and learned what you need to know then you can take the cheaters way out from time to time. There is no shame in that. Just remember that it is a craft and the more you cheat the more you let our craft fade away.

The main thing is that you have to remember that everything is a tool. Your camera is a tool, your lenses are tools, your computer is a tool and Photoshop is a tool The quality of the end result that you get is going to be a direct result of your knowledge and ability top use your tools and the outcome is only going to be as good as the weakest link in your tool chain.

So you need to evaluate your skills and abilities and decide where your weaknesses are. If you are weak in one area, then take time from your schedule to learn and improve on that specific skill set. Once you know all of them by heart and are able to master each of them then you will begin to create the masterpieces that will be great in and on their own merit. You will find that Photoshop will be used for minute touch ups and your over all quality will become much better.

One side note here is that as your skills set becomes enhanced and you start to shoot shots that are good enough to use straight off the camera, you will find that the demand for your work will increase and the amount of money that you can ask for and get for your sessions. This is really a case of the more you know the better you get and the better you get the more you can earn. So you, my friend are in complete control of what you do, make and earn.

Don‘t settle for simply capturing the image and remember that you can fix it in the software. This will give you marginal success at best and will often mean that what could be a stellar shot will end up merely adequate at best. And I am fairly sure that you consider yourself to be better than simply okay at your art or you would not be reading this article. So, since you want to improve – back away from your computer and put some of these ideas into practice and learn the art of the craft that you are trying so hard to master.

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