What Makes A Great Black and White Portrait?

It used to be that if you wanted a black and white photograph you used black and white film. Now with digital much has changed. But has it really? Sure with Instagram and other Apps you can literally push a button and convert that photo to black and white. But is it always a good thing? What exactly makes a good black and white.

Well just like in the film days a good photographer chose their film based on the subject. Want photos taken in low lighting conditions (you chose a higher ISO rating like 800 or 1600 film). Want to capture a fast moving object (such as in sports) you chose a “faster film” (also a high ISO). For a portrait with great lighting a lower ISO. A photographer also chose film based on other attributes than just ISO—some films provide more contrast and a grittier look while others were “smoother” in reproduction.

Well with digital we all pretty much rely on the sensor in the camera as our “film”. You can custom set your ISO but that’s pretty much it. The difference lies in lighting and good post production or “processing” of the  digital file.

A good black and white photographer should pay attention to light and shadow. A compelling black and white includes various shades of gray tones and you really need good lighting and shadow for this—can be natural or artificial lighting. If a scene is all about color it will not necessarily translate into a great black and white print. Many color tones are the same shade of gray in black and white—that’s why few outdoor shots say with a family outside near foliage look great in black and white. Why is this? The family could be wearing blue jeans with blue and red tops. The trees are green—the result is a gray mess—everything is pretty much the same tone. Now an amateur photographer may try to “save” this photo by really increasing the contrast and “blowing” out the highlights in post processing but that is usually less than desirable. A true pro will understand and plan the shot accordingly and not try to “fix” it in post.

This is why black and white photography is not necessarily easier and often can be more difficult than color photography. Sure you can just push a button to convert from one to there other but the result may not be as compelling or dramatic as you had envisioned. You must learn to think in terms of black and white from the beginning and plan from there.

This is why most of our black and white portraits are in studio—we can control the lighting, the background—the shadows and highlights. With good planning before the correct outfit can be chosen to make the portrait wonderful. Black and white photography is all about the subject—made more noticeable through light and shadow.Thinking of having us create a black and white portrait for you? Email us at the studio or  call 719.475.0160 and we’ll schedule a consultation for you.