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Creating Dramatic Black & White Portraits

In today’s digital world, we have the ability to capture an image in amazing quality, even on our mobile camera. Take the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra as an example, with its amazing 108 MP camera, YES 108 MEGAPIXEL camera, this phone can capture an unbelievable amount of colour detail. So why would you want to create a portrait in black and white?

I know I've said it before, but I just love this caption by Ted Grant. “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”

Portrait photography is about capturing a persons mood, their joy, their heartbreak, their emotions and letting the viewer connect with the subject, feel what the subject is feeling.

The best way to do this is in black and white. To create a powerful, dramatic portrait concentrate on both your lighting and post image editing.

Natural Light

The general rule is to use soft lighting when you create a portrait. However, if you want to create a dramatic portrait look for a high contrast created by harsh lighting, like direct sunlight.

The contrast between light and shadow will create a sense of mystery for your subject. Position your model to cast the shadow through 1/3 to 1/2 of their face.

A silhouette is great way to create mystery in your portrait. Shoot into the light and expose for the light. Adjust your exposure compensation until your subject is silhouetted.

If you're looking for something a little more contemporary, try window lighting. This softer lighting is perfect for capturing images with a more cinematic feel. For a more inviting image, try diffusing the light through lace curtain or create a silhouette using the window blinds.

Artificial Light

There are many ways to illuminate your subject when using artifical lighting. The best part of black and white portraits, is you don't have to worry about the colour costs created by artificial lighting. When you convert to black and white this removes any colour distractions in the photo.

When using artificial lighting, keep your model close to the light source. Pay special attention to how the shadows fall on the face. Try experimenting with different lighting, for example, street lamps, candlelight, flashlights, car headlamps, etc. You can get very creative with your light source.

Be mindful of how your light source creates reflections in your image. You want to keep your subject as the main focal point, and normally your eye is drawn to the brightest point in the image.

Editing your Images for the Best Results

You don’t need to own an expensive program such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop these days to convert your images into black and white. Most native camera apps and free editing apps allow you to do this.

Most of these have a variety of filters that can be used, so literally, it’s one step to create your black and white image. Apple photos has options for Mono, Noir and for a more monochrome style image, Silvertone.

Snapseed by Google is a free app with a variety of other options called, Fine Art, Push, Structure and Silhouette. The black and white option in Snapseed allows you to change Neutral, Contrast, Brightness, Darkness, Film and Darken Sky in one swipe.

The standard settings work well, but for creating more powerful portraits, experiment with brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights and grain. You can find all of these in most editing apps.

As with any type of editing, consider cleaning up your portraits. Use the healing brush to clean up any unwanted parts of the background, or to remove blemishes from your models skin. Be careful not to go to far. The “Magazine Cover” look is not something for everyone.

In summary, when you want to create a dramatic black and white image, consider your lighting and editing. Capture good contrast between your highlights and shadows. Direct sunlight can be used to your advantage. Experiment with a variety of light sources. When you’re done capturing use the full extent of your editing tools to create that mysterious and emotional portrait.

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