Black and White Portrait

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The First StudioPortrait Kit comes with two lights, two umbrellas, and endless opportunities for creating great portraits. We have covered how to use a key light with a fill light in another lesson, so lets look at some other options.

When we shoot in color, we do not depart from what we see everyday, so our eye expects certain details in order to fill out the image. Black and white photography gives us the opportunity to diverge from this norm, and in a way view reality as an abstraction.

For certain situations, it is advantageous to use the black and white setting on your digital camera, as it is the only way to "see" without color; observing only the highlights and shadows. Professional photographers used polaroids for years, now we can use our LCD screens!

In this lesson, we will use the First Studio Portrait Kit to create dramatic black and white portraits that may not have worked in a color setting.

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(Click on any thumbnail image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Black and white portraiture
  • First Studio Portrait Kit
  • First Studio BackDrop Support Kit

Lighting Equipment

  • BackDrop: 10 x 12-foot grey
  • FirstStudio® Portrait Kit
  • FirstStudio®: BackDrop Support Kit

To begin, set up the First Studio BackDrop Support Kit and a 10'x12' gray BackDrop. For detailed information on how to setup this kit, we recommend that you view the lesson on Photoflex Lighting School entitled "First Studio BackDrop Support Kit".

There is also a lesson entitled "The First Studio FirstStar" that goes into detail about how the lights and umbrellas that come with the Portrait Kit are used.

After the BackDrop Support Kit was in place, we had the model sit for some poses. We took one of the First Studio lights and set it up at eye-level with our model and about 3 feet away (figure 1). We positioned the light deep into the umbrella (figure 2) to create a smaller reflected light source that will help with creating a more moody atmosphere. We also set the light parallel to the backdrop in order to keep light off of it and directed at our subject.

Finally, we had the model turn slightly into the light so that the shadow from her nose left a slight upside-down triangle of light on her left cheek. This is known as "Rembrandt Lighting", and serves to give the model a more three dimensional appearance. If properly positioned, a nice highlight will show in the model's left eye.


Figure 1


Figure 2


We wanted to shoot a black and white portrait, so we set the filter mode on our Olympus EVOLT E-500 to Black-and-White. We set all of our exposure settings, focused, and made the first exposure.


Figure 3

In our result (figure 3), we get nice highlights and shadows on our subject's face without any background detail. This is a very nice effect, but restricts the amount of detail information we get from our subject.

While we like the first result very much, it is little on the "arty" side and not really a "classic" portrait. By adding gradated light to the background we can give more information about our subject and still maintain our original lighting scheme.

In figures 4 and 5, we added the second light behind our subject, raised it about two feet over her head and moved it a foot closer to the backgound than the other light. We then positioned the light in the umbrella to get the maximum reflection and no light leak. Then, by changing the axis of this light, we achieved different levels of gradation across our backgound.


Figure 4


Figure 5


Figure 6

Now, the strong key light we liked on the face remains, but we have added new layers of dimension to the image (figure 6). The highlights on her face contrast nicely with the black background, and the gradation gives us a nice sillhouette to define her form. Instead of a disembodied head, we now have a very tangible person.

Plus we have added a neat little "Rembrandt" on her left cheek. This refers to the small upsided down triangle of light that occurs when we turn the model's face just enough to let light spill over the bridge of her nose. This light is also reflected in the right eye of our model, giving her more "life".

(The Dutch Master and famous portrait painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn popularized this method of lighting during the middle 1600's and the style carries his name to this date.)

We like both images for different reasons and applications. Perhaps a more intimate portrait mood for figure 7 and a professional resume shot for figure 8. It is important to think of the end usage for your image, but is also important to experiment. Photography provides for many "happy accidents", so don't be afraid to color outside the lines. Especially in black and white.


Figure 7


Figure 8


By using black and white as our medium, we have come up with a very striking end result. Our eyes are not distracted by different color variations and the subject is presented prominently. If you have a model and the time, be sure to try other angles or change the lights.

Here are some variations we did with our model. As you can see, changing the angle of her head or the expression on her face can dramatically alter the feel of the portrait. Just remember to have fun and that there are no lighting rules, only lighting guidelines.

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