Black And White Portrait Photography

Last Updated on April 26, 2021

black and white portrait of young woman

Black and white can add a sense of intrigue and mystery to a portrait. Understanding when and how to use black and white in your portrait photography is very important. This article focuses on the basics of transforming a color portrait into a black and white photograph and explores some techniques that can be applied to these portraits.

Black and white photography can have a subtle but powerful effect on your subject. Black and white photographs don’t use colors, so the tonal variations within the image are used to show contrast between dark objects and light objects in order to create stunning images.

What Gear Do You Need For Black and White Portrait Photography?

The equipment needed for black and white portrait photography varies from subject to subject. Lighting can be the most important factor to consider when you are looking for a black and white image.

As with all photographic techniques, different light sources produce different tones in your photos. Older portrait photography used to use a silver reflector to fill in the shadows that you would get in your subject’s face or body.

The silver reflector produced a warm tone in the image and was easier to control than natural light.

And black and white portraits still rely on hard light sources for bright tones and soft lighting sources for dark tones.

A Camera With Manual Controls

The first thing you will need to take an amazing black and white portrait is a camera that has manual controls. I recommend an SLR camera.

Remote Shutter Release

The exposure setting on a camera can be changed with a remote release. Although this can be accomplished manually, using a remote shutter release means that you don’t need to worry about holding the camera steady. These units are also great at helping to prevent camera shake with long exposures provided you are using an SLR and not a compact or digital camera.

Portrait Lens

When looking to take a black and white portrait with a wide-angle lens, you need to be careful. This type of lens allows you to have more depth in your image because the subject is small, but it can also make it difficult to control the lighting and depth of darkness in your subject. As with any type of portrait photography, a wide-angle lens can also produce an interestingly bokeh effect when used at smaller apertures.

A prime lens is one that offers a fixed focal length. A wide-angle lens is usually a prime lens with a wider focal length than most, and can be adjusted for depth of field.


I consider a tripod to be an important part of my equipment roster.

When you are taking a black and white portrait, any small movement of the camera or subject will affect the focus.

A tripod will ensure that your image is sharp and well-focused. Tripods also allow you to get a good exposure because you are not trying to balance light meters with your hand-held camera.

Black and White Portrait Camera Settings

Shutter speed

In the exposure triangle, shutter speed is the slowest factor. If you want to produce a black and white portrait with soft lighting, you can ask your camera to use a high ISO (Image sensor sensitivity) setting. The higher the ISO setting, the faster the sensor can respond to light. This makes it possible for an image with very little light to be recorded in black and white.

Keep in mind that a high ISO setting can also cause camera shake if you are not using a tripod.

Aperture Setting: Manual Mode, Aperture Priority Mode or Program Mode?

The aperture setting is what affects the depth of field in black and white portraits. The aperture’s size is determined by the diaphragm inside the lens. Typically in portrait photography, the aperture is kept between f/4 and f/5.6.

The smaller the aperture number, the wider the diaphragm opening. This is what allows you to take a black and white portrait with soft lighting.

Black and White Portrait Tips

A bokeh effect is caused by the blur you get when out of focus points light up the image. Bokeh is caused by using a wide-aperture lens and putting much light in the subject’s face.

This technique can also be used to create a softness to the overall look of your portrait. Softness is created by using a small depth of field so that everything in the image besides your subject is blurred.

Consider using a filter to darken your main light source. A dimmer, or graduated neutral density filter, is great for these types of images. It’s very easy to get close while using this filter and then open it up when it comes time to take your black and white portrait. Some of the most popular filters are from Singh-Ray, vater and Lee Filters.

Framing the subject will dramatically effect how your photo turns out. It is especially important when taking a black and white portrait with a wide angle lens. I find that the best way to take a good black and white portrait is to turn your subject into the main point in the image.

White balance: In order to get great blacks, make sure that your camera is set for “daylight” or “cloudy”. These settings will make it easier for your camera to adjust for dark tones.

Lenses for Portrait Photography: An 85mm f/1.4 ƒ/1.4 is an ideal focal length – portrait lens that works well in low light situations. This lens was specifically designed to be used for portrait photography and is known for its flattering bokeh effects, soft focus rendering and manual focus functionality. The bokeh produced by this lens is amazingly soft with a very smooth transition from the focused area to the blurred areas of the image.

Bottom Line

With the right camera settings and equipment, you can take great black and white portraits. The key to making a good portrait is making your environment as flattering as possible so that your subject has the best chance of looking their best. And above all, take lots of photos!

Have you taken a black and white portrait? How did it turn out? Share in the comments below!