Despite all the millions of colors that today’s cameras can capture, there’s still something to be said about the appeal of a black and white portrait. Strip everything else away, and a black and white image is just pure emotion, with your viewer mesmerized by a subject that has no distractions.
Whether it’s composition, lighting, capturing emotion, or any number of other factors, black and white portraits have the power to mesmerize when done properly.
We’ve assembled a small collection of eight black and white portraits that are excellent examples of just what a black and white treatment can do for a portrait. Have a look, and be inspired!
The Eyes Have It
Most portraits benefit from having their focus on the subject’s eyes, but doing so is even more important when creating a black and white image. With a lack of color, black and white portraits often take on a very graphic vibe, with a collection of white, black, and gray shapes.
To help grab the viewer’s attention, highlight your subject’s eyes. The eyes are immediately recognizable and will give the viewer a leaping point from which to inspect the rest of the portrait. You can highlight the eyes in various ways: Use makeup to enhance the size of the eye, frame a close-up to give viewers an in-depth view, or use a nondescript background to simplify the scene, thus drawing more attention to your subject’s face. These are but a few strategies that will help you play up the importance of the eyes.
Play With Light
As with color portraiture, there is an abundance of options when it comes to lighting for your black and white portraits. You can take a soft lighting approach to create a low-key portrait that’s easy on the eyes, like the one above. Notice the absence of harsh shadowing and the prevalence of mid-range tones in the man’s face that create a soft look.
Alternatively, use harsh lighting to create a high-key look, one with significant contrast and strong edges that is reminiscent of graphic design. This look is much more jarring to viewers because of the deep areas of shadow interrupted by the bright highlights on the subject’s face.
Go For Emotion
Having been stripped of color, black and white portraits bring far more attention to your subject’s face. As a result, there are times when it’s much easier to convey emotion in a black and white portrait versus a color portrait. In the example above, viewers can’t help but immediately connect with the little boy that’s not having a very good time. Had this image been created in color, the impact of his tantrum would be lost a little bit amongst everything else that is going on in the photo.
Even the smallest change in the subject’s facial expression will be noticeable without the distraction of color, making it easier for you to capture a highly emotive moment, one with which viewers will more easily connect. The woman in the image above appears somewhat pensive, but with a tiny change in her expression, a turn of her lips upward, for example, the image might take on a completely different look, one that is much happier in tone.
Frame for Impact
Taking color out of the equation makes for a simpler, cleaner portrait. You can emphasize that feeling by making smart decisions regarding your framing as well. In many cases, you’ll want to adhere to rules of composition, like the rule of thirds. But with black and white portraits, you can push the boundaries a little bit and experiment with placement that adds to the impact of the image, as was done above.
Play with negative space. Push your subject to the very edges of the frame. Even try positioning your subject in the dead middle of the frame. The key is to experiment and explore how framing can punch up the drama in your portrait.
When it comes down to it, black and white portraits, are, in a way, more raw than their color counterparts. That’s not to say that color portraits can’t be stunning because they most definitely can. But with more attention drawn to the eyes and the raw emotions of subjects, and the ability to use light and framing to play up those features, black and white portraits can be a goldmine for creating something that truly connects with viewers. Use the images above as inspiration and see what you can create!