Powerful Black And White Portraiture Tips

Peter Finnie shares his top tips for great black and white portraiture.

| Portraits and People
Powerful Black And White Portraiture Tips: Biffspandex 1
Image © Peter Finnie

Black and white imagery is a timeless carry-over from film shooting days. There’s something about the 'ageless' quality of images in the black and white format. It’s a look and feel that is quite satisfying when you view the finished image. I am often asked about how to get powerful results when shooting black and white portraits. When shooting portraits of people that will resonate long after the shot, there are a few tips to keep in mind when shooting.

First: Shoot Your Black & Whites In Colour! Huh? read that correctly. Your camera will actually capture a more complete tonal range when you first shoot your image in colour. When you later convert to black and white in your post-processing stage, your software has more intermediate tones in the range from pure black to pure white to work with.

Second: Be sure to clarify your shot concept. Ask yourself before you shoot, what am I trying to capture?Are you looking for an image that is dramatic? Passionate? Romantic? Perhaps you’re looking to capture a certain mood or a ‘naturalness’ in your subject? Maybe you want to make a statement about the subject’s character? Is the environment critical to the presentation of the concept? Being clear about the intent of your session or specific portrait will lend itself to better results.

Powerful Black And White Portraiture Tips: Biffspandex
Image © Peter Finnie

Always Be 'Real' With People: Help your subject relax! Take responsibility for this! If your subject is timid or nervous, this is your fault for not setting reasonable expectations for the shoot. Be real as you talk to your subject before and during the shoot. A mute photographer often makes for an unnecessarily nervous subject.

People relax and let their personalities show when they are able to relax and be less concerned about their 'performance'. Helping your subject relax goes a long way to making natural portraiture possible. Keep things light on the shoot, unless a particularly heavy mood is called for by the shoot concept. And, if so, you can still work to keep your rapport light, and call for the mood you need when the time comes. People appreciate a lighter mood from their photographer! No one likes working with anyone who is ‘uptight’ in a big way!

Use A Before, During And After Shooting Technique: Give your shots a chance to 'breathe'. OK...I can almost hear you thinking... what on earth does that mean? A huge help when shooting portraits, is to not only try to anticipate the moment you are looking to capture, but to also be ready to shoot a frame or two early, and then again right after the magic moment.

Sometimes the best shots happen right after the moment you think will be the key shot you are looking for. There are many photographers that will speak to the fact that they got their best frame of the shoot just after the shot they thought was the best of the day!

I can’t count the number of times that the best shot has come right after the silly joke you tell. The subject may groan at the joke, but when they offer a comment afterward, they usually have a real laugh at their own comment. This is why friendly banter is so critical when shooting. This eases tension and you can be ready for anything with this before/during/and after habit of shooting.

Powerful Black And White Portraiture Tips: Biffspandex 3
Image © Peter Finnie

Crop To Isolate Your Concept: Be selective in your choice of 'in-camera' composition, or in your cropping later on in post. Be conscious of the rules of composition and be sure you are highlighting your concept as you crop your shot. Many portrait photographers make the mistake of shooting all of their portrait subjects with a 'dead-bang-centre-of-frame' sense of composition. Experiment with negative space and compositional rules. Break out of the mold of simply shooting what is straight in front of you!

Edit And Post Processing: So you’ve taken a series of shots and you now are looking over your shots. Looking critically at your shots at this stage, and really examining the elements of the shot that say something about the subject, is what will separate a great from an average portrait.

Is there: A twinkle in the eye that matches the subject’s mischievous streak in their personality? An angle that shows off a look in the eye, or their signature smile? A frame that just screams out their personality or the concept you were looking to capture? This is often the biggest difference maker when people view your photographs later on.

Powerful Black And White Portraiture Tips: Biffspandex 4
Image © Peter Finnie
Less Is More: Now that you have your shot selected, work up your desired black and white conversion method. I tend to favour a high contrast look, but you can edit to your taste using the software of your choice. The key is to identify the shot that says the most, and then let that be it. Why is this important? One mistake I used to make, and I still see a lot of photographers making regularly, is to release several shots from a segment of a shoot that are virtually identical. The net effect of releasing a series of shots that are not distinct, is that the ‘best shot’ (as described above) gets extremely watered down in the mix. The result is a bland presentation of slight variations on a theme.

Ask Yourself: How do you get a ‘WOW’ from something that cannot stand out from a flawed and lukewarm presentation of virtual sameness? Be selective in your edit stage, and utilize some of these suggestions that have helped me, and your black and white portraits will stand out in ways that will have people commenting on your shots for years.

Powerful Black And White Portraiture Tips: Peter Finnie 

 Peter Finnie is a portrait, wedding and commercial photographer, author  and trainer based in Tottenham, Ontario, Canada. He is author of  'Photographer’s Mental Gear - The Mindset & Business Side of the Lens.'
 Take a look at his website:

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