Black and white portraits seem to be making a comeback. The traditional feel and timeless look they provide are benefits that today’s photography consumers are looking for. Black and white portraits can also convey emotion in a way that’s tough to do in a color portrait.
The difficulty with portraiture is trying to give some direction to your subjects regarding their attire without touching a nerve regarding their style. This issue is compounded when taking black and white portraits because it’s difficult for people to visualize how their color wardrobe will translate into black and white.
Make it easier on yourself and your portrait subjects by consulting this easy guide for black and white portrait wardrobe selections.
Avoid Wearing Solid Blacks or Whites
This might seem obvious, yet many portrait subjects show up wearing black and white clothing for a black and white photo shoot. The problem with this is that by wearing solid blacks and solid whites, the portrait will lack the various shades of grey in between that give the image the dynamic range it needs to really pop. As a result, subjects should wear clothing that will render as these various shades of grey. Blue and brown, for example, will render as dark grey while yellow will render as light grey. Mix these in with some blacks and whites for a good dynamic range.
Clothing Should Contrast With the Background
If you have a light background, you don’t want the client wearing light clothing. Similarly, dark clothing with a dark background won’t work. You’ll need to give recommendations for clothing that with provide a nice contrast, which helps differentiate the subject from the background and draw the viewer’s eye to the subject in a more powerful manner. Although, in general, most people either naturally tend toward lighter clothing or darker clothing, so consult with your subjects and determine if they prefer lighter or darker clothing, and select a background that is the opposite so you get the contrast you need.
Try for Contrast Between Clothing, Skin Tones and Hair Color
If you’re photographing someone with fair skin and blonde hair, it might be prudent to recommend darker clothing. In doing so, you help achieve the tonal contrast that’s necessary for an eye-catching black and white portrait. The same applies to someone with a darker skin tone and darker hair - avoid dark, heavy clothing or else the image will lack contrast, not to mention the fact that the viewer’s eye will have trouble focusing on the person’s eyes and face.
Patterns, Textures, and Bright Colors are Great!
Where in color portraiture you might direct your subjects away from patterns, textures, and bright colors, in black and white portraits, each of these features will give the image more visual interest. Subtle patterns are the key, as busy patterns might still not translate well. Faint stripes, for example, would be a preferred pattern over a floral print.
Because of the lack of color, textures are needed to give the image some depth. Texture can be achieved by the fabric of the clothing itself, like a corduroy, by the style of the clothing, such as the length of the sleeves or the cut of the neckline, or by layering clothing. When layering clothing, remember to do so in a manner that the colors translate well in terms of contrast - a darker sweater over a lighter shirt, for example.
Bright colors, another no-no in color photography, can give your black and white portraits some depth as well, particularly on the lighter side of the contrast scale. Oranges and yellows will render as a light grey, whereas bright reds and greens will render as a dark gray. Bear this in mind when layering clothing or suggesting a wardrobe to your clients.
In the end, clothing choices can make or break any portrait, but they are of particular importance for black and white images. If the wardrobe selection is off, the focus might be drawn away from the portrait subject’s face, or the dynamic range of the image might be off. The clothing that subjects wear should enhance the classic look and feel of the image, and not detract from the person’s face. By following the suggestions outlined here, you should be able to achieve an impactful black and white portrait that you and your subjects can be proud of.