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Brought to You in Beautiful Black and White Part 1 – Portraits

Black and white photography has become a “thing” –  meaning that everyone likes it, everyone wants it and, sadly, everyone thinks that they can do it well.  But not everyone can.  Black and white photography, just like every other art form, has rules and characteristics that separate the artistic from the thing that anyone with a camera and Photoshop can do. 


Photographing in black and white is a completely different mind set from photographing in color when it comes to composition.  The reason is that when you photograph in color, your primary compositional goal (aside from making sure that your picture won’t make it look like a tree is growing out of your wife’s head) is to watch the interplay of colors to make sure that your photographic intent is clear.  Photographing a sunset against the autumn foliage in New Hampshire, for instance, would be red and orange leaves against a red and orange sky.  A muddle, in other words.  Photographing a sunset against SUMMER foliage on the other hand, can be striking.

With black and white, you don’t have the distinctness of millions of colors to play with in your composition.  You have three colors…  black, white and shades of gray – so you have to compose your shot so that black and dark gray will go against white and light gray or the other way around.  Otherwise, when you process your photo in black and white it will end up looking like a polar bear throwing a snowball in the Arctic or a black bear eating licorice in the bottom of a coal mine.  One way to do this is to eliminate any unnecessary color from your picture to begin with.  For instance, rather than photographing somewhere wearing a bright mu-mu or dashiki, dress your model in a black blouse and white skirt or a white shirt and black pants. 

One of my specialties as a photographer, something that I am in demand for from friends is black and white portraiture.  When I do my portraits, I turn off every light in the studio except for one very bright spotlight that I train on my model.  I will also frequently hang a black or white backdrop (depending on the coloring of my model and their clothing) behind the model to eliminate any distracting background information.  Here is a photograph of my friend Veronica that I titled “Harvest Goddess”.

Note the sharp contrasts here between Veronica’s pale skin and white hair against the black backdrop and her black blouse.

One mistake that amateurs frequently make is to take any color photograph, process it in black and white and call it art without any thought to contrast.  Here, for example, is a photo of me getting my geek on at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  I’m wearing a dark blue t-shirt against a dark background.

A mess, in other words. 

Hope that this helps on your portraits.  Part 2 will include tips on shooting scenery and sepia.

~Randal Schaffer