Beginner’s Guide to Black and White Portrait Photography

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with color, black and white photography remains incredibly popular. Perhaps that’s because they stand out in a sea of color. Or maybe it’s because the lack of color brings a unique and honest perspective to your images. Whatever the reason, black and white photography is especially popular for portraits.

This guide will give you the skills you need to create stunning black and white portrait photography. We’ll go over the best camera and lenses for black and white portraits, and what settings you should use. Plus, we’ve got tips and tricks to improve your black and white photography.

Black and white portrait
Photo by Ольга Вельская

What is black and white portrait photography?

In the early days of photography, black and white was the only option. Nowadays, black and white photography is a creative choice. You have the option to shoot in color or black and white. We’ll discuss why you might choose black and white over color in detail below.

Black and white portrait photography refers to images of people (and sometimes pets) that are shot or edited in post-processing to be black and white or, actually, black, white, and many, many shades of gray.

What black and white portrait photographs lack in color, they can easily make up for with drama, emotion, simplicity, and mood. 

Why shoot black and white portraits?

There are a number of reasons why a photographer might choose to shoot their portraits in black and white instead of color.

  • Preference: The photographer might just prefer the look of the image in black and white.
  • Simplicity: Some photos are too distracting in color but converting them to grayscale removes that layer of distraction and makes the subject more prominent.
  • Quality issues: Sometimes converting a poorly shot color photo to black and white will make focus and quality problems less obvious.
  • Emotion: When you want to show a highly emotional image, try black and white. Ted Grant, the father of Canadian photojournalism, explained it best when he said, “If you photograph people in black and white you photograph their souls, but if you photograph them in colour you photograph their clothes.
B & W portrait
Photo by Ales Dusa

What’s the best camera for black and white portraits?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what camera is best for black and white portraits. For one, are you a photographer who shoots film? Then you’ll use a film camera and black and white film. 

If you shoot with a digital camera and don’t plan to do any post-processing, then you should opt for a camera that is well suited to shoot directly to black and white. While most digital cameras will give you that option, the Leica M Monochrom and the Fuji X-T3 are known for excelling at shooting directly to black and white. Keep in mind, however, that the Leica will not allow you to shoot in color at all. The benefit of using a camera to shoot directly in black and white is that you can preview your image in black and white and get a close idea of what the final photo will look like.

If you shoot digital but plan to photograph in both color and black and white, then your answer is to use a camera that will allow you to shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW allows you to retain all the color data in the images you shoot and gives you the most control over editing — whether you’re keeping the color or converting to B&W. Shooting in RAW will preview your image in color, and you’ll have to convert it to black and white in post-processing using a program like Lightroom or Photoshop.

What is the best lens for black and white portraits?

The lens you choose will largely depend on your photography style, but there are a few lenses that are better suited for portrait photography than others. Avoid ultra-wide angle lenses as they tend to distort faces. Long telephoto lenses will put you too far away from your subject in most cases. 

The sweet spot for portrait lenses is in the 50-85mm focal length range, with 85mm being a favorite among portrait photographers. Look for a lens with a wide aperture (a low f-number of f/2.8 or lower) to help separate your subject from the background and create soft bokeh

black and white portrait
Photo by Samuel Zlatarev

Other photography gear for black and white photography

Since black and white photography relies so heavily on lighting and contrast, investing in some photography lighting gear can vastly improve the quality of your black and white portraits. This could be as simple as some reflectors and a Speedlight or a complete studio lighting setup. 

We will touch on some basic lighting information later in this guide. When you’re ready to invest in studio lighting, check out our comprehensive guide to help you get started.

Camera settings for black and white portrait photography

Your exposure settings will always vary depending on what you’re shooting and the lighting conditions, but here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Aperture: Use a wide aperture such as f/1.4 to f/2.8. This will help draw the viewer’s attention to your subject and away from the background. It will also soften the background and eliminate potential distractions.
  • ISO: Experiment with higher ISO than you normally would when shooting for color. In black and white, the digital noise will appear like classic film grain, giving your image a classic look.
  • Shutter Speed: Your shutter speed should always be at least as fast as the focal length of your lens to avoid motion blur from camera shake. For example, if you’re shooting with a 100mm lens, make sure your shutter speed is at least 1/100th of a second. 
  • Shoot in RAW: As we mentioned above, shooting in RAW gives you the greatest ability to manipulate your photos in post-processing.

Tips for black and white portrait photographers

Shooting black and white portrait photography isn’t as simple as taking a color photo and converting it to grayscale. To make great black and white portraits involves planning and skill. Here are some tips and tricks:

Start with BW in mind
Photo by Janko Ferlič

Start with black and white in mind

Black and white portraits are more than just a creative choice made in the editing process. The best black and white portraits started as black and white portraits in the photographer’s mind well before the shutter button was ever pressed. 

Plan to take a black and white photograph from the beginning, so you can perfect things like tonal contrast, lighting, and expression — things that can’t be corrected in post that are so important in black and white images.

Photo by Samad Ismayilov

Make use of negative space

Black and white portrait photographs are all about the subject. One striking and dramatic compositional way to make the image all about that person, without any distraction, is to put your subject in front of a solid background and surround them with negative space. See the example above. With the lack of distractions, notice exactly where your eye goes? 

Photo by Mishaal Zahed

Use lighting thoughtfully

Light is important with all photography, but with the absence of color, there’s nowhere to hide errors in lighting. Not only that, but lighting helps set the mood for your image. Is your portrait lighthearted, fun, moody, dark? Whether it’s dark and moody with high contrast lighting or light and airy with bright, soft lighting, the way you light your black and white photo makes a huge impact on the overall feel of the image.  

black and white portrait texture
Photo by Ales Dusa

Look for textures and patterns

Since there’s no color to create visual interest, you need to rely on texture and patterns on the subject or in the background to enhance the composition of your image. Textures and repeating patterns can be founds in clothing, skin, bricks, clouds, ripples in water, grass, anywhere. Highlight these textures and give your photo interest.

black and white emotions
Photo by Kat Jayne

Capture emotions and expressions

When not distracted by colors, the viewer is more easily drawn to the subject’s facial expressions and can easily tune into their emotions. If you take a series of shots, you’ll notice that even the tiniest changes in expression from one image to the next can make a world of difference in the photo. So be sure your model’s expression accurately portrays the emotion you want to get across to the viewer.

Photo by Samad Ismayilov

Focus on the eyes

This is true with the majority of portraits, and especially with black and white. Since we don’t see the image in color, we are seeing it in graphic shapes instead. And, eyes are a shape that everyone recognizes — so we are immediately drawn to the eyes. Be sure they are well-lit and in focus.

BW Portrait lighting
Photo by Anna Shvets

Lighting for black and white portraits

There are no rules for lighting when it comes to black and white portrait photography. You can use natural light, you can shoot at night and use the light from street lights, you can use a simple external flash, or you can use a complete studio lighting setup. 

Lighting techniques:

If you opt to shoot with lighting, here are three common setups that are very effective for portraits:

  • Rembrandt: A classic lighting setup. Uses one light at a 45-degree angle to the model and a reflector opposite at 90-degrees.
  • Butterfly: Extremely flattering for female portraits. One light aimed at the model from above at a 45-degree angle and an optional reflector from below.
  • Split: The most artistic and dramatic of the three. Light source is at a 90-dgree angle from the model, so one side of the face is brightly lit while the other side is engulfed in shadow.

Editing black and white portraits 

Post-processing, or editing, is when the magic happens for most black and white photography. So, don’t get discouraged if your images seem a bit bland when you first convert them to black and white. Everyone has a different editing style, but here are six tips to get the most out of your newly converted photos.

  1. Start with the color version. Before you convert to black and white, make basic edits and corrections, like straightening, adjusting exposure, correcting for the lens. When you look at the image in color, it can help you see problems that might be hidden after it’s changed to grayscale. Then convert your image to black and white.
  2. Make sure your image has a true black and a true white. This will ensure you have the most dramatic contrast. There are different ways to do this, depending on what editing software you use. 
  3. Play around with the Curve and Clarity tools in your editing software. They will help you adjust contrast, deepen shadows, and brighten highlights. 
  4. It’s easy to go overboard with contrast. Make sure your adjustments enhance the photo instead of taking away from it.
  5. Add grain by using the “add noise” filter or some other film camera effect. (Only do this if you didn’t shoot with a high ISO that gave you digital noise!) The grain texture lends itself extremely well with black and white portraits.
  6. Experiment with Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions made specifically for converting photos to black and white. There are literally thousands of them available for free or for purchase. Some of them are absolutely fantastic and can be tweaked to fit your preferences. Why reinvent the wheel?
black and white photography
Photo by RODNAE Productions

Final thoughts

Once upon a time, black and white photos were the only option we had. Today, however, it’s a style many of us willingly choose for its simplicity, drama, and ability to grab the viewer without distraction. Hopefully, this guide comes as a perfect starting point to inspire you to experiment with black and white portrait photography.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

Leave a Comment