Welcome back to my blog series on black and white photography. The fifth reason I choose to turn a photo black and white is to get more flattering portraits. It can be used to smooth skin tone and texture, which has the side effect of bringing out the eyes.
To be honest I don’t do this very often as I no longer shoot many portraits. I’ve already blogged about my lesson in portrait photography but I didn’t explain why that shot ended up black and white. It was mainly because of skin tone. The shot was a bit dark and the model’s face was very pink with a red shirt below. He just looks more natural in monochrome, particularly his skin.
What does black and white change in skin tone?
The most obvious changes to skin tone by switching to black and white are changes to blemishes and other marks. Spots are usually a bit red, so these recede when colour is gone. Freckles on the other hand are usually emphasized in monochrome, unless the lighting is very bright. I think freckles look fantastic in black and white.
Dark circles under the eyes are usually improved in black and white but not always. If the face is in a bit of shade, they could look worse. The eyes themselves can stand out beautifully in monochrome and that’s one of the real joys of black and white portraits.
Alternatively black and white works to emphasize wrinkles for an interesting craggy effect in a character portrait. I’ve seen other photographers do this but I’ve never been brave enough to ask a really wrinkly person to let me take their photo this way. They might not be keen!
The Timeless Art of Black and White Portraits
Even plain, clear skin can look better in black and white and I struggle to explain why. I think it is partly because a portrait is a timeless record of something personal, and black and white styling is always associated with timelessness. Although considered old fashioned, at the same time black and white photos are immune to changes in fashion. It’s as if it will always last.
Flattering portraits – more than anything – are the kind photos which people want to endure as they are. Your own face may age (apologies for the reminder) but you don’t want your portrait to do the same. As the saying goes “fashion may come and go, but only style remains”. I believe this truth applies directly to the enduring style of black and white portraits.
Tips for flattering portraits in monochrome
My own personal method is strong full-face lighting. That’s not the usual wisdom for portraits but I like to get the skin several shades lighter than the hair. That will get the face nicely framed and smooth the skin. The light must be diffuse like on a cloudy day, otherwise there will be unpleasant shadows.
If you follow some conventional wisdom for portrait lighting and use a sideways lighting angle, then it will make for a stylish portrait. You would impress a professional judge in a competition. However it will be an unforgiving black and white portrait. Do it well and it will be a photo you can be proud of. The more you practice, the more you will recognize the type of face which needs a certain type of lighting before you start.
The point at which I choose black and white
As I’ve said before, colour photography is my preference and I always start out planning to shoot colour. I tend to choose black and white during the edit. It’s different for portraits where I always aim to produce two versions – one colour and one black and white.
It is an art form itself, to aim for black and white before pressing the shutter. There’s a lot more to say on this and I’ll perhaps when I’ve experimented with more pictures I will write another blog post. When I have tried out my ideas, I’ll continue to share my monochrome journey with you. This series about my own personal reasons for shooting black and white ends here, but I’ll still be writing weekly about photography, so please follow me.
Have you ever achieved more flattering portraits or better skin tone when you’ve switched a portrait to black and white? Let me know in the comments.
Read this five-part blog series on black and white photography from the start.
Read the previous series on judging a photo from the start (30 blog posts).
Read about my much-loved Sony camera.