12 min read

What Makes Good Black and White Portraits?

12 min read

Last updated:

A good black and white portrait photo will attract our attention sometimes more than a color portrait will. What is it that makes a good black and white portrait? Why is this medium so timelessly alluring?

Black and white portraits can be refreshingly simple. Limiting the color information the eye has to perceive, the subtle shades of gray leave us room to interpret what we see more emotionally.

The whole world is color. People are colorful. When we remove the color from a portrait image we are left with a fresh representation of a character.

Making Good Black and White Portraits with Digital Cameras is Easy

Whenever you take a portrait images on your digital camera, you can choose to render it in black and white or color. Simply with editing software a digital photo that’s been taken in color, can become black and white photography.

Portrait of a senior Akha hill tribe man against a dark background.

Choosing to capture your photos as RAW files affords you far more flexibility when you are post-processing. This goes for whatever kind of edits you want to make, whether or not you’re converting a photo from color to black and white.

This was something that never worked well with film. When I took portraits on film, I had to make sure I used a black and white film, unless I wanted a color portrait. Converting a photo of a person to black and white from a color film was always disappointing.

The tone range was always flat and dull because the negative was too dense.  You have an enormous amount of control when converting color images to black and white photography . You can manage the tones in each of the colors in your photos, darkening or making them lighter to suit the feeling you want.

But there’s a lot more to creating good black and white photography portraits. Being able to manage the technical side of converting from color to monotone is only part of the process.

Young woman practicing her ballet dancing.

Think in Black and White for Portrait Photography

The best tip I can give you about making good black and white portrait photography is to think in black and white. This might seem like a weird concept at first. But the more you can learn to see everything the same tone values as a black and white photo, the more compelling monotone images you’ll be able to make.

Black and white portrait photography relies on tone to convey feeling. It’s not only up to capturing the person’s expression that infuses portrait photography with emotion, it’s also the use of tonal range and levels of tone.

Learning to see in black and white involves knowing how different colors will reproduce as monotones in your photos. How does red look in a black and white photograph? What about pink? Or light blue compared to dark blue in a monotone image?

Generally, blues and reds will appear darker when desaturated than greens and yellows in a photograph. The tint and shade of a color also affects how it converts to black and white. A darker color will produce a deeper tone than it’s lighter equivalent of the same color.

YouTube video

Luminance also has a direct influence on how colors are converted to black and white. Take a photo of the sky on a clear day with your back to the sun. Depending on your settings, you can end up with a monochrome sky looking almost black. If you photograph the sky where it’s lighter, closer to the sun, the monochrome image of it will be much lighter at the same exposure settings.

To be able to think in black and white you must train your eye to see variations in color, tint and shade, and light. This might sound complicated, but, like anything, as you practice it becomes easier. Look at a black and white photograph for inspiration. Try to think of how the photograph would look in color.

Close up of a teen boy outdoors in b&w.

Switch Your Monitor/Viewfinder to Black and White

Digital cameras provide a huge help when you’re learning to see in black and white. You can switch your monitor to monotone. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder, you can also switch this to monotone. Adjusting these settings you now only see through your lens in black and white.

You may also be able to save only monochrome .jpg files of the photos you take. When you are capturing RAW files all the color information is retained in the file. Even if your monitor or viewfinder are showing you a monotone image.

Making use of this feature on your camera will teach you to see in black and white. The more you only look at a monochrome monitor or viewfinder, the easier it becomes for you to know how the images will look in black and white.

Practice with only seeing black and white on your camera. Study the difference in how you see colors when you’re not looking at them through your camera. Then compare how the live view image looks in monochrome on your camera.

When you’re photographing in low contrast light, the image of your portrait in black and white may seem flat. This will depend somewhat on your monitor/viewfinder settings. However, once you begin to edit your black and white photography you’ll discover you have a vast amount of control. You can manipulate the contrast levels and tone values in them.

Each camera manufacturer calls this feature something different. Search in your camera’s menu and look for something like Picture Style or Control. If you can’t locate it in the menu system, do an online search including your camera model. This is is often easier than trying to find the information in your camera’s manual.

Studio portrait in black and white.

Choosing the Light for a Creative Feeling

With any types of portraits, feeling is important. How your model looks, what their expression is and the location they are in can all contribute to the mood of the portrait photo you take. Lighting also has a strong influence on a portrait photo. Whether or not the portrait is in black and white, the style of lighting impacts the picture. Lighting often makes more of an impression with black and white portrait photography.

Managing the light you use to illuminate your model and the background can make or break a black and white portrait. Using soft light produces a more mellow look. Hard light, with dark shadows and bright highlights, produces a more dramatic look. Try to match the lighting and expressions of your subject.

Related Article: Using Low-Key Lighting for Stunning Black and White Photos

Crafting how the light and the shadow fall on your subject for black and white portrait photography is one of the most critical aspects of powerful black and white photos.

If your lighting is set up contrary to the style of portrait you want to create, you will not be so successful. Matching the style of lighting to your model and their surroundings helps to complete the feeling you wish to convey. Having the model pose with an appropriate expression is also important. I’ll get into this later in this article.

Female ceramic artist portrait.

Using Hard Light for Powerful Black and White Portraits

Hard light makes for a higher contrast portrait with darker shadows. The shadows are more clearly defined with harder edges than when you use a diffused light. Many photographers shy away from using hard light for photography because of the high contrast. Used well, bright light and hard shadows can help create wonderfully dramatic portraits.

Hard light is unfiltered. Like the sun on a cloudless day. It’s easy to see how hard the light is by looking at the shadows it produces. The more clearly defined the shadow edge is, the harder the light is. Bare, direct flash produces hard light. It mostly from a small, bright light source.

It’s essential when taking portraits and using hard light to be aware of where the shadows fall. Especially when you are taking a fairly close up portrait, the position of shadows on a person’s face must be controlled to achieve the look you want.

Position the lights carefully will help determine how shadows fall. If you have lighting you can more around, experiment with it. Shift it closer and further back from your model. How does this change the appearance of the shadows on their face?

Moving your model in relation to the light direction also influences how the shadows will appear on their face. With them facing a hard light the shadows will look different than if they are turned to one side. Think about how their eyes look. Are they squinting too much for your liking? If they are you might have to move them or the light.

To create deep, rich contrast in your black and white photos a certain amount of post-processing is necessary.

Ceramic artist portrait with clay.

Beautiful Photography with Soft Light

Soft light is often preferred for portrait photography because it’s more flattering and easier to work with. Soft light is diffused and produces lower contrast shadows with fuzzy edges. You are far less likely to blow out your highlights or lose detail in the shadow areas when you’re taking portraits using soft light.

Working with studio lighting or flash, adding a softbox, umbrella or some other light modifier will soften the light. On a cloudy day, the sunlight is scattered by the clouds and is soft. Anywhere in the shade the light is soft.

Outdoors on a sunny day you can make good use of shaded areas for black and white photography. The quality of light differs depending on how near to the edge of the shade you place your subject.

When your model is deep in the shade, the light will be flatter and softer. Positioning them in the shade but neat to where the sun is, the light will be brighter and more lively. Doing this you can often make use of light bouncing off the ground to help illuminate the person you’re photographing.

black and white portrait of a Kayaw woman.

For the portrait above I had my subject stand near the front of her home. She was shaded by the eaves of the house. The ground in front of her was in the bright sunshine. This acted as a large reflector bouncing light back up into her face to soften the shadows. I added some contrast during post-processing.

If I’d asked her to take a step forward she would have been standing in full sunshine. That would change the whole atmosphere of the photo. The hard shadows and bright highlights would not fit so well with her contemplative mood that I wanted to capture.

Post-Processing for Stunning Black and White Photography

During editing, you have a huge amount of control over how your black and white photography looks. Using Lightroom or Photoshop you have many creative ways to convert your color images to black and white pictures.

The easiest way to convert color digital portrait pictures to black and white is to simply desaturate them. This rarely produces the best results. By manipulating the tones in each color channel in your RAW files you have an immense amount of control. It’s possible to completely alter the tone of a particular color when you manage the settings well. This can dramatically change the appearance of a monotone portrait.

Both Lightroom and Photoshop provide you with sliders or other controls to manage how each color appears as a monotone. Knowing how to be creative in your control of tone and luminance values you can manipulate portrait images until you reach a good result.

Having a clear idea of how you want your portrait image to look will often reduce the amount of time it takes to come to a pleasing conclusion. It’s possible to spend endless hours experimenting with how you edit your black and white photography if you are not sure of how you want them to look.

Think about the mood of the photo you’ve taken as you sit down to edit it. How can you process the image so you maintain the mood of the image? Make your edits to match the lighting and your model’s expression.

Consider how the background or surroundings look for black and white portrait images when editing. Do you want them lighter or darker? You can control the tone of the background with Lightroom and Photoshop so that it contrasts or blends in with your subject.

A senior Turkish man with a beard and wearing a cap.

Connect With The Person You Are Photographing

Connecting with who you photograph is imperative to creating good black and white portraits. Capturing a wonderful expression is so vital to a good photo. Many photographers spend more of their attention on their camera and not enough on the expressions of their subjects.

Don’t only concentrate on getting your lens in focus and your camera settings right. If you pay too much attention to these things and not enough to your subject, you’re not likely to encourage an interesting expression from them.

When a photographer spends most of their time with their head down looking at the camera, the subject can lose interest. By the time you are ready to make their portrait they’ll have become disinterested and bored. Then it’s going to be more difficult to capture an interesting photo.

Black and white profile portrait of an old woman.

Take time to set your camera as much as you can before you engage with your subject. Try to pay attention to them. Ask them questions. Show them you are interested in who they are. Even when it’s someone you know. This will help you capture much more interesting expressions in your black and white portraits. Try to create an atmosphere where they are comfortable.

Being able to communicate in such a way that your model is comfortable you’ll be able to take much more interesting photos of them. They are more likely to love the photos you take when they are relaxed and feeling confident.

If you are unsure of yourself and lacking confidence in what you’re doing, the people you photograph will pick this up. They will reflect back to you your uneasiness. This will not often present a pleasant expression.

If you’re interested to learn more about how to develop as a portrait photographer, please check out my book. In Photographing People – A Guide for Shy Photographers, I share my journey of how I overcame my shyness. This enabled me to become a photographer who loves to make portraits.

Kayan girl black and white portrait.


Black and white photography is timeless. There’s a classic feel to monotone images of people. You can often project more feeling from an image of a person with no color than one that is colorful.

Learn to think in black and white. Switch your monitor or viewfinder to enable you to see in black and white. This will help you learn how different colors and light values translate to monotone.

Lighting in photography is always important. It may seem more so in black and white photography. Be aware of the quality of the light source you use when taking someone’s portrait. Does the effect suit the mood of the photo you are creating?

Skillful editing brings out the best in a black and white portrait. Taking the photo is only a part of making a portrait. When you control the tone and luminance of the colors in your RAW files, you can achieve the best results when you convert your shots to black and white.

As always, the more you can engage with your subject when making a black and white portrait, the more interesting it will be. This takes as much practice and skill as learning to use your camera well.

Thai dancer.

Why do people use black and white portraits?

Black and white photography is timeless. It often conveys a greater sense of feeling than color portraits. This is because there’s more emphasis on tone and contrast than with color portraits.

How do black and white photographers pose?

Posing for black and white portraits can be the same as posing for color. However, when you make the most use of shadow and highlight areas in how you pose your models, the results can be dramatic. American photographer Irving Penn is one of my favorites. I love how he posed his models for his black and white portraits. He’s one of my main sources of inspiration.

Camera Settings for Black and White Portrait Photography

Setting your exposures well is critical. I’ll often make use of my spot meter to take an initial light reading. I’m always adjusting my exposures manually because this allows me to easily capture the exposure I want.


Share with friends

Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with aspiring and professional photographers

Learn how to improve any kind of photography

Get access to exclusive discounts, courses, rewards, etc
Find daily inspiration in a diverse community
Recommended Articles
Embark on a visual journey with Sarah & Cédric, masters of travel, lifestyle, adventure, wildlife, and creative photography, featured in our 2024 Trend Report.

Last updated:


Discover the natural wonders through the lens of Daniel Kordan, a renowned nature and landscape photographer featured in our Trend Report. Unveil his camera bag essentials, insights on gear innovations, and predictions for upcoming photography trends. Dive into Daniel's world and unlock his secrets for capturing breathtaking landscapes with finesse.

Last updated:


The World Nature Photography Awards is an annual competition open to nature and wildlife photographers worldwide. Explore the winners in 14 categories for 2024.

Last updated:


We have fantastic news: from April 2024, we will launch our 'Great Big Photography World' podcast again! Stay tuned!


Photo Karma 2024 - Free Trend Report