Photographing People
The Black And White Portrait

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For this check presentation photograph, the author used a Hasselblad 500CM camera with 80mm f/2.8 Planar lens and Kodak T-Max 400 film. Film was exposed normally and metered with a Gossen light meter in incident mode. Weak fill flash was used so as not to upset the elephant. I remember what happened in "King Kong" when all those press photographers upset the big ape. The final image that the client used was cropped tighter than this version, which shows the elephants in the background.
Photos © 1999, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

There is much more to black and white photography than simply an absence of color. Maybe we wouldn't feel this way if the first photographs had been made in full color, but that didn't happen and, like many photographers, I grew up admiring the works of W. Eugene Smith and other black and white photojournalists who photographed people at work, play, or just being themselves. As a creative medium, traditionalists may call it "monochrome" and digital imagers may prefer "gray scale," but it's still black and white to me.

Black and white is a wonderful media for making portraits because the lack of color immediately simplifies the image, causing you to focus on the real subject of the photograph instead of their clothing or surroundings. Sometimes the nature of the portrait subject demands that the image be photographed in black and white. Arnold Newman's portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky could never have been made in color and have the same impact that it has as a black and white image. One reason that many publications use black and white is purely economical; it costs them less to produce their publication in black and white than to use color. This is especially true for small runs of brochures or newsletters produced by companies and non-profit organizations. There are also the trendy aspects associated with creating images in black and white. MTV, motion pictures, and fashion magazines periodically "rediscover" black and white as a way to reproduce photographs that are different from what's currently being shown. Right now, many professional photographers are telling me that they're seeing a higher than normal demand for black and white portraits than previously was the case. Individual and family portrait purchases like these are driven by these same trends.

Barry Staver photographed Jim Balog at the Denver Zoo emulating the techniques that Balog himself used to photograph endangered species. Photograph was made on Kodak Tri-X film with a Nikon 8008 and Nikon 35-70mm zoom used at the widest setting. As you can see, Dynalite flashes were used to balance the daylight exposure as well as making the seamless background glaringly white. Metering was done with a Minolta Flashmeter IV.

In this article, I'll take you behind the scenes to see several portraits of people who were photographed using beautiful black and white.

"Daddy" Bruce. This photograph of the late restaurateur and philanthropist Bruce Randolph was made by my wife, Mary Farace, as part of a series of portraits she did for a non-profit organization's newsletter featuring people in Denver who had made a difference to those about them. Randolph was affectionately called "Daddy" Bruce by everyone and was well-known for his kindness and generosity, especially for serving an annual Thanksgiving dinner for thousands of homeless and needy people. He was also known as a humble man of a few words. When interviewed by Jay Leno on TV he stated, "I'm a cooker, not a talker." Mary's portrait of "Daddy" Bruce was made in a corner of his restaurant and used only the natural light coming in through a doorway. No attempt to use fill flash or even a reflector was made in order to put "Daddy" Bruce at ease. She was only able to make a few exposures in the restaurant before they were whisked away to a ceremony changing the name of a street to Bruce Randolph Boulevard. While the images made at that ceremony were interesting and tell the story of the new street name, the natural light portraits made in his restaurant tell the story of the man. In this case, the use of black and white was originally made for economic reason by the newsletter's publisher, yet it created an image that works best in black and white form.

This portrait of a candidate for statewide office was made near the Colorado state capitol building using a Hasselblad 500CM handheld using Kodak T-Max 100 film exposed and processed normally. The lens used was a 60mm f/4 instead of a traditional portrait lens, like the 150mm, to show more of the background. A Vivitar 283 flash was used.

While photographed in a square format on a Hasselblad, the image shown is how it was cropped by the newsletter's Art Director, and in one of those rare moments of harmony when the photographer and the Art Director agreed. "Daddy" Bruce's portrait is an example of why I think there's more to portraiture than perfect lighting, exact exposure, and precise focus. All of those elements are important, but the most critical aspect of any portrait assignment is that your subject trusts you and relaxes long enough so you can make an image of them as they really are.

In The Mood.
When model Amy Cleary wanted to update her portfolio, she asked me to create images that had a decidedly vintage look to them. Cleary herself already had the 1940's look that we needed so all that was required were some appropriate costumes and the "right" location. The model supplied the vintage black velvet dress and jewelry that were used for part of the session and the "mini park" at a friend's portrait studio supplied the French bistro-like backgrounds to add the correct ambiance. The choice of black and white film, in this case Kodak T-Max 400, completed the vintage look that the model and I were trying to achieve. Natural light, filtered through the translucent, corrugated fiber glass roof of this particular "set" was used as the only source of illumination for this photograph. The light kicked back from the walls surrounding the area provided natural-looking "wraparound" lighting. Working in black and white also eliminated any problems with color that might have been reflected as well. The fiber glass provided a slightly green look for example. A few color images were made at the same time, but the model and I preferred the look of black and white for this particular series of photographs.

This portrait of "Daddy" Bruce Randolph was made by Mary Farace using a Hasselblad 500CM and 150mm f/4 lens. The film was Kodak Tri-X rated and processed normally by a local professional lab. There was no room for the photographer to set up any kind of lighting--even a reflector. There was not even room for a tripod, so this image was handheld with the assistance of a Hasselblad grip. Instead of setting up a lot of gear, the photographer took the time to get to know "Daddy" Bruce and get him to relax enough to make this and a few other exposures.

Something's Happening At The Zoo. What's the chance of two photographers shooting two different black and white assignments involving people and elephants at the same spot in the same place but at different times? That's exactly what happened to Barry Staver and I. People magazine assigned Staver to photograph James Balog in conjunction with the release of his book Survivors. (For more information about Balog and to see some of his striking wildlife images, see our November 1999 issue.) A noted naturalist, Balog wrote the text for a book that examined the survival of various animal species. His journey took him around the world photographing endangered species in a unique way. Instead of photographing them in their natural environments, he treated the images as studio portraits and placed the animals in front of a white seamless background and lit them using electronic flash. Consequently, the images in Survivors often included the lights, power packs, and stands along with the animals themselves, so Staver decided to photograph Balog the same way.

Staver's concept was to position Balog in a setting similar to what he had created for the animals that he photographed and also to include some animals in the portrait. The location that he, and later myself, selected was the elephant section of the Denver Zoo. Staver decided to use elephants instead of primates on the advice of zoo personnel because they were large enough to show up in the final image and the keepers could herd several of them into the final photograph. In addition, the elephants didn't seem to mind that Staver's lighting setup was near their habitat area. While the editor originally hated Staver's concept, the image was highly successful and was used as a large, lead picture in the magazine.

Model Amy Cleary was photographed on location with natural light; no fill flash or portrait was used. Camera was a Contax AX with Yashica 39-80mm zoom lens. Kodak T-Max 400 film was exposed using a plus 1/3 stop exposure compensation that the author typically uses with negative film.

My own zoo adventure began as a standard "grip and grin" assignment for a client involving the presentation of a check to a representative of the Denver Zoo. It is the kind of bread-and-butter shot that photographers get all the time, but my ears perked up when the client informed me that the representative of the zoo that was accepting the check was a baby elephant. We gathered for the shot in an area that I discovered (while writing this story) almost identical to the spot where Staver photographed Balog. As I soon found out, while the baby elephant was capable of holding the oversized check, that didn't mean he would do it. The elephant was quite young and acted much like a playful and frisky puppy. Only this puppy weighed almost 300 lbs. After a couple attempts to photograph the elephant holding the check, I decided the best thing to do was put the elephant in the middle between the client and a "real" zoo representative. Just as we made this shot, the little guy raised one of his feet in his best imitation of a puppy's "gimme a paw" gesture. In the background were several of his adult pachyderm friends walking around much like they were in Staver's photograph, although we didn't bother to herd them into the shot. They were just standing there watching us crazy humans.

In true photojournalist tradition, Staver's portrait was made with a Nikon 35mm camera, zoom lens, and Kodak Tri-X film. My "check presentation" photograph was made with a Hasselblad 500CM and 80mm f/2.8 Planar lens and Kodak T-Max 400 film in 120 format. The film from both shoots was exposed normally and processed by local professional labs.

Politics As Usual. Sometimes, as in the case of working with a baby elephant, you can't plan a shot in advance, but I always like to go into a shoot knowing what to expect. It's the philosophy of "prepare for the best, but expect the worst," that photographer Don Feltner instilled in me almost 20 years ago. The concept for this portrait of a woman who was running for statewide office for the first time grew out of a meeting held between the candidate and Mary and I. The best way, I thought, to show voters that the candidate belonged in the state house, was to photograph her with the state capitol building in the background. While the actual photograph was made by Mary, I drew a sketch showing the candidate in relationship to the background so that when Mary got on location she worked around that concept and was able to create an image that proved ultimately successful for the candidate. This image was not her "official" portrait, which was made in the studio, but this one was used in several forms of campaign literature. Black and white was chosen because of the cost savings when printing these kinds of brochures.

So the next time you decide to do some people photography or make a portrait of a loved one, think black and white. Grab a roll of film that's the same ISO speed as you've been shooting in color and see what happens--or be brave and shoot some of Ilford's ISO 3200 film. Slide shooters should try a roll of Agfa's Scala black and white transparency film and shoot a test roll or two. You'll be glad you did.

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Comments
crazymeme's picture
black and white photos

Thank you for providing this quality post!I like these copyright photos and I consider that the black and white effect gives a little bit of mystery to any photo.

crazymeme's picture
black&white

I enjoyed a lot reading this post and I consider it to be very useful. I am planning my quebec wedding and I've already talked with the photographer about our wedding photos.I want to have a black and white wedding album as it looks great.