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8 Tips for Striking Black & White Portraits

Written by Sasha Bell

I absolutely love portraits taken and processed in colour – but there is something incredibly striking and beautiful about black & white portraits when they are done well.

Some portraits suit colour – whilst other portraits look so much more striking and captivating in black & white. I always prefer to have a choice – so I usually shoot in colour and decide afterwards if the portrait suits black & white or not.

However, usually when I’m shooting portraits – I have in mind what I want the end result to be… so when I’m wanting to take some beautiful black & white portraits, I keep several things in mind.

Below is a summery of the top 5 things I look for and try to focus on most when photographing black & white portraits.

Expressive

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Black & white portraits are more striking and powerful when they’re as emotive and expressive as possible. So learning how to capture your model portraying as much feeling as possible will make our portrait much more striking.

Whatever emotion you’re going for – happy, sad, thoughtful, pensive… it doesn’t matter what it is – but working to ensure your model is as comfortable with you as possible, will mean it’ll be easier to capture your model portraying as much feeling as possible.

Black & white photography brings more focus on the feeling, the pose and the expression on your model – simply because there are no colour distractions.

Keep it Simple

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Everyone knows the saying “less is more”.  This is very appropriate for black & white portraits. If you think about what makes a beautiful black & white portrait… something simplistic and expressive, with beautiful black & white tones, is difficult to beat!

So less distractions and more simplicity is great. Keep your background/backdrop either plain (see above example!) or just very simple. Using a low aperture is usually always a great idea, but even more so with black & white portraits.

Spice it up

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So after you’ve done a number of black & white head shots or relatively close portraits, a great way to create variety whilst still working with the ideas (simplicity, expressiveness, etc), is to go for full body carefree shots. Jump, skip, run! There is no limit experimenting.

The jump photograph above is a really great example of what I mean. The background is simple – a very low aperture was used. The shirt she’s wearing creates some interest – but isn’t too distracting either.

And most importantly – look how expressive she is. This shot works so well in black & white because the viewer is immediately drawn to her captivating expression, without any colourful distractions getting in the way of that.

Mystery

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And if you’ve done enough running, skipping or jumping for a while, why not try creating variety by using anonymity? A little bit of mystery can be beautiful.  There are plenty of ways to do this – the above photograph being a slightly more extreme example (e.g. no view of the model’s face).

Think about how to photograph your model with some mystery. A couple of ideas would be to play with how much of the model’s face is exposed.

Side profile shots would work well. Back shots, switch the distance up a bit, photograph the model their eyes cropped out… etc. The list goes on and will only become longer the more you experiment.

Remember that inspiration finds you working – so even if you can only work with one of these ideas, try it out, and other ideas will come to you.

Different Poses

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The more you work on your back & white portraiture, the better you will become at creating those captivating and stunning black & white photographs. So try out lots of different poses in different positions. You can take portraits of your model lying down, sitting down, standing up and so on.

Choose a “position” (e.g. lying down), and then expand on that, by photographing lots of different poses using different angles.

Practice, practice, practice! It’ll become more clear what works and how to best capture the most expression and feeling portrayed by your model.

Go Vertical. Choose a Theme.

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If you’re used to photographing your portraits in the “landscape” format, switch it up. Likewise, if you prefer to photograph your portraits using the “portrait” format, change!

This alone can create a totally different style and look to your usual style, and will trigger new ideas and inspiration.

Another great thing to do is to choose a “theme”. Decide to photograph a dozen (or more) photographs with the same theme. The theme can be an emotion you’re looking to capture, which could be thoughtful, pensive, sad, happy, spiritual, freedom… the list is endless.

Or alternatively, choose a different type of theme. It could literally be anything.

To give you some ideas – here are a few random ones which come to mind immediately.

  • Glamour
  • Ballerina (inspired by the above photo!)
  • Materialistic
  • Glitter
  • Seasonal (snow, sun, autumn, etc)
  • Action
  • Sleep
  • Dreams
  • Laughter

Different Tones

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Black & white does still have colour options! Sometimes the usual monochrome black & white tones can be a little cold, or lack a bit of interest/warmth. I adore sepia tones along with other varieties. As I said above, I always photograph my portraits in colour and then process them later to covert them to black & white.

I use the Premium Black & White Lightroom Preset on all of my portraits. It’s fantastic because it has lots of different black & white versions with different highlights, shadows, contrasts, etc, which will work on every portrait.

It has everything from dramatic tones to subtle and light ones. And the best part is it has lots of different add-on colour options, which basically includes sepia tones, chocolate tones, subtle blue tones, red tones… the list goes on. It has everything which means my post-processing is fantastic and effortless every time.

 

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Sasha Bell

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