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Black and White Portraits : Weekend Assignment

How to Shoot Black and White Portraits.


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I’ve a friend who believes that shooting in black and white is the only way to create a photographic image. You get the feeling he’s just waiting for everyone to get bored with this new-fangled colour photography and go back to a purer way of working. I think he may have a long wait.

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I can’t say I entirely agree with him either, though I am sympathetic. Black and white has a directness that colour often struggles to match. The problem with colour photography my friend would argue is…well it’s the colour.

Colour can be distracting. Stripped of colour an image is entirely about the subject (unless of course the entire point of the subject is its colour…). This is particularly true of portraiture. Black and white arguably conveys the inner soul of the subject more powerfully than colour. For that reason I often switch to mono when shooting portraits.

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There are essentially two approaches to portraiture. Your subject either knows they are being photographed or they don’t.

In terms of directness you can’t get more direct than your subject looking directly at the camera. This means engaging with your subject, even guiding them where to look if need be. However, this can lead to forced smiles, particularly if your subject doesn’t want to be in front of the camera in the first place.

It’s a good idea to reassure your subject, talk to them, and get to know them so that there’s a connection. Don’t try to force a smile if it’s not forthcoming. Sometimes an enigmatic expression has a greater emotional impact than an easily read one. After all, people don’t go and ponder the Mona Lisa because of her manic grin do they?

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I’m less comfortable with candid portraiture, unless I know the subject well. My approach to candid photography is to get permission to shoot first and then wait. Wait until the subject has forgotten all about being photographed and has started acting naturally once more (this can happen relatively quickly if they’re working at something or have something to do).

Once I’m done I always show the subject what I’ve shot. I do this so that they’re happy that I’ve not captured them in an embarrassing pose or with an awkward expression on their face.

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Regardless of which approach I take I also think black and white when I’m shooting. This means thinking about filters: do I need to a coloured filter to lighten or darken skin tone? A coloured filter lightens similar colours and darkens the complementary colours (there’s a blog post on this very subject a few pages back).

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A yellow or red filter lightens skin tone; a blue filter will darken skin tone. Black and white also means thinking about the light you shoot your subject in. Without wishing to be too stereotypical, men tend to suit harder, more contrasty light than women or children. Though, the key to interesting photography is to see what happens when these ‘rules’ are broken.

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Your weekend assignment this week is to shoot a black and white portrait and upload it to our FREE MONTHLY PHOTO COMPETITION (either by switching to a black and white picture style or converting a colour image in postproduction). ‘Living’ museums are good places to find willing photographic subjects if your friends and family now leave by the nearest exit when you get your camera out. Or, you could borrow my friend for the weekend. He’ll be your friend too when he discovers you’ve joined the monochrome set.

If you would like to learn more about black & White photography why not consider taking John Beardsworth’s 4 week online photography course Digital Black & White Photography

Geoff Harris

I am a photography journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill, Steve McCurry and the late Mary Ellen Mark. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time.

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