portrait of shirley collins with her hand in the air

Top Tips: Black & White Portraits

Tom Oldham

Plan to shoot in black & white

Converting a colour shot into black and white doesn't suddenly make it art. A combination of elements must align successfully to justify that conversion. There's an emotional target you want the portrait to hit, so creating a black and white image from the onset helps push towards that.

multiple shots of jack white holding his gibson guitar

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R IV + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/160s @ f/16, ISO 800

Setting your camera to shoot in a black and white creative style will help you visualise your final image and monitor your exposure.

I usually shoot with my Alpha tethered to a laptop. When I begin shooting, I'll set a suitable monochrome grade so that when the portraits appear on the computer, I can ensure the lighting is creating the target look and feel I want.

black and white portrait of a lady

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R IV + FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS | 1/160s @ f/4.0, ISO 100

If you are shooting using the in-camera creative styles or picture profiles, try adjusting them to get closer to your desired look. Remember, you will always have the raw file to fall back on; the black and white will only be applied to the JPEG images.

Be Bold

My current motto is 'bravery is usually rewarded'. So don't hold back. Colour leads the eye around the frame; different colours can also affect the psyche. You don't have these mechanisms in black and white, so you need to use contrast and form to lead the eye. With no distractions from colour, you can work with a simpler, cleaner approach; create bold compositions with sweeping lines, and use lighting and processing to pull it all together.

silhouette of liam gallagher standing sideways

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R IV + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/200s @ f/11, ISO 200

Push your directing

When it comes to directing your subject, don’t be afraid to challenge them. Get up close to create shapes and (if you must) drag a performance out of your subject, even on their most reluctant days. When shooting in black and white, these things all pay bigger dividends and create phenomenal shots. Don’t ever walk away from the shoot wishing you could have got more.

portrait of rick rubin smiling

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R IV + FE 35mm f/1.4 GM | 1/250s @ f/1.4, ISO 320

My photo of Rick Rubin is one of my favourite images. It’s a close up shot that showcases a sense of intimacy that just wouldn’t look the same in colour. I shot it with an FE 35mm f/1.4 G Master lens, about 50cm from his face. You have to be brave in your approach when directing to get that kind of reaction and then have courage in your processing to make it a successful image.

Watch the highlights

My number one rule when setting up my camera is to shoot raw, so I have total control over the image. I also never take a risk when it comes to exposing the highlights. I like to keep an eye on the camera's Histogram to check I am not losing highlight detail. Thankfully, the Alpha 7R V sensor has up to 15 stops of dynamic range, it’s impressive how much detail the camera can capture in both the highlights and the shadows.

poppy rockett holding her guitar

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R V + FE 35mm f/1.4 GM | 1/160s @ f/4.0, ISO 50

Light soft, add contrast later

Creating with hard contrast in-camera is a mistake. If you light hard, you are stuck with that contrast. However, if you keep the light soft and the ratio between light and dark under control, you can then choose how hard you want to process the image.

black and white portrait of paul simonon

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R V + FE 35mm f/1.4 GM | 1/160s @ f/4.0, ISO 100

I have a shot of Paul Simonon, and it's a hard, aggressive portrait but the lighting is very soft. On one side, I put a black flag, which is the opposite of a reflector, and on the other is a very close, soft umbrella. That light is so soft, but the ratio is right there for me to create the contrast in the image.

Use Eye AF

Eye AF is the biggest freedom that camera technology has ever allowed us. I appreciate it every time I pick up my Alpha 7R V as it allows me to concentrate on creating the portrait and not on controlling the camera.

portrait of a smiling surfer

© Tom Oldham | Sony α7R V + FE 50mm f/1.2 GM | 1/8000s @ f/1.2, ISO 50

My shot of surfer, Alan, was taken using just the setting sun. It was using the 50mm f/1.2 G Master lens at 1/8000th sec. With Eye AF I knew, even at f/1.2, the eye would be perfectly in focus. This would be a snapshot if I had taken it at f/8 or f/11. But shooting wide open directs the viewer to the exciting bit - his eye and expression. Alan’s portrait radiates health, positivity and his love of the ocean and the whole truth is there in this image.

Shooting in black and white allows me to capture the excitement in the moment that I couldn’t have achieved in colour – it’s simpler, more direct and always immediate.

Aim for a portrait that can arrest the attention, tell truths or just be a beacon of calm.

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Tom Oldham

Tom Oldham | UK

"Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence." Aristotle

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