Black and White Portrait: Seeing the World Without Color

black and white portraitOur eyes see in color, so it can be difficult to try to take successful black and white photographs. Since color isn’t relevant, you’ll need to focus more on the lines, contrast, pattern, texture and shadows. By understanding how to think in terms of black and white instead of color, you’ll be able to take successful black and white portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Here, we’ll be focusing on taking a beautiful black and white portrait.

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In color photographs, pops of color around the image can help guide the viewer’s eye throughout the photograph. When the image is black and white, you’ll need to use other means in order to create a sense of movement. This is where lines come in. Through the use of horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved and leading lines, you’ll guide the viewer’s eye without needing a single pop of color. The most widely used line in portraiture photography is the leading line. Leading lines can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal or curved, and are lines that lead the viewer’s eye directly to the subject. These lines can be natural or organic, and can be created by a person’s arm, a brick wall, a set of stairs, anything!


A common problem with black and white photography is that the images tend to look flat straight out of the camera. Having lackluster previews on your LCD screen can cause you to lose hope and switch back to color. However, black and white photographs pop as soon as you increase the contrast. Contrast is more pronounced when your photographs have a wide range of light and dark values, so try to focus on the actual lights and darks of your image instead of the contrast in colors. If your camera allows it, shoot in RAW. RAW mode keeps all of the data in the shadows and highlights, so you can increase the contrast without worrying about blowing out your whites or losing information in your blacks. Once you have uploaded your photographs onto your computer, you can open up your images in Photoshop and play around with the contrast through levels and curves.

Pattern and Texture

Texture is one of the most important aspects of black and white photography, and the pattern and texture of the background is just as important as the pattern and texture of your subject. If your subject is wearing a lot of plain clothing, setting them on an interesting, busy background can be a wonderful contrast. If your subject is wearing a lot of patterned clothes, placing them on a plain background can help keep the focus on your subject. While following these rules will often create the best results, all rules of photography are meant to be broken. Patterns on patterns can often be too busy, but when done the right way can be extremely effective. A subject wearing all white on an all white background can be equally as effective.


Shadows are a big part of the contrast of an image, and are much more dramatic when the photograph is taken in black and white. Think of a subject standing in front of a window, the light shining through the slits in the blinds contrasting with the shadows of the blinds themselves. The contrast between light and shadow also creates a beautiful pattern of lines throughout the subject’s face and body, leading to a more interesting overall photograph. You can also play with shapes within shadows, such as placing a subject under the shadow of a leaf or flowers, or leave one side of your subject’s face in shadow while the other side is bathed in light. Play around and don’t be afraid to experiment! You’ll be surprised how interesting and mysterious your photographs become when you begin to play around with light and shadow.

To Convert or Not to Convert?

If you’re using a digital camera, most cameras can take the photograph in black and white right then and there. If you’re shooting in film, you’ll need to use black and white film unless you plan on scanning your negatives and processing them digitally. Black and white film comes in traditional black and white as well as black and white that you can process in color chemicals. While being able to process the film in color chemicals makes it easier on you since many drugstores are still processing color film, these types of black and white film tend to have a lower contrast than those that are developed in the traditional black and white chemicals.

We’ll focus on digital, since that’s where the future is headed. However, if you’re interested in trying out traditional photography, I’d highly recommend shooting at least one roll of black and white film during your lifetime – it’s hard to get the same results through a digital camera. If you shoot in RAW black and white mode, the camera will automatically save the color image as well as the black and white image. I would highly recommend going this route. When you’re shooting in color, it can be hard to imagine how the photograph will look when converted to black and white. By shooting in black and white and being able to preview the images the second you take them, you can see how all of the elements are working together and what you need to change in order to create a more successful photograph.

Photographer – Subject Relationship

In order to create a successful portrait, you’ll need to know how to really connect with your subject. Having a personal connection will help the photograph appear more natural and realistic, and will help create a more emotive image. Engage in conversation and make them comfortable in front of the camera before photographing them, as an uncomfortable subject can appear stiff and uncomfortable in the final image. Oftentimes the eyes are the main focus of the image, as they can say more than any other part of the body. Try to get your subject to express an emotion through their eyes, whether it be happiness, sadness or frustration. When you aren’t focusing on color, the true emotions of the subject can be seen more clearly.

If you’re ready to learn even more about successful black and white photographs, Udemy has a course that will help you understand how Photoshop can enhance your images to make them even more compelling.