Lighting For Black And White Portraits
The Black And White Thing

For this headshot of model Becky Hanson, we wanted a very soft look, accomplished by using soft lighting, a low-lighting ratio, and a Mamiya RB67 camera with 150mm soft focus lens with the f/6.3 disc. (Kodak T-Max 400.)
Photos © 2000, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

I get a whole new way of seeing things when I put black and white film in the camera. It seems like I have a little Photoshop Desaturate command that goes off in the back of my head and suddenly I see everything in shades of gray. Anyone who's been shooting for a few years and who uses black and white film knows just what I mean. Being a good photographer means being able to previsualize what your final image will look like, so this is an absolute requirement.

Black and white images are by their very nature abstractions since we see everything in color and are faced with a photo where color is absent. Armed with that glaringly obvious fact, what can you, the photographer, do to assure that the gray scale images you create will be satisfactory? Going to a John Sexton workshop may be one answer, but short of that, here are some guidelines about producing quality black and white portraits, with a special emphasis placed on lighting. As is usually the case in my articles, I place more stock in what's between your ears than on what equipment is in your bag, so "gear challenged" readers please continue with the rest of us.

One of the great assets of black and white film is the amazing amount of information it can hold, from deep shadows to brilliant highlights. Couple that with the fact that you also have the ability to control exposure and development to render a given look you're after, and you can see that black and white photography, even in this digital age, remains a remarkably rewarding and challenging experience.

This portrait of Chase Anthony Fortune was executed on Kodak T-Max 400 film using a Bronica SQ-A camera with 150mm lens at f/8 and a Pro 4 lens shade/vignetter. The fill light is to camera right, just like the main light, so there is very little light on the shadow side.

Beautifully crafted black and white prints often command the most respect from viewers and the highest auction prices in the fine art market. Maybe your prints won't sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but emulating the work of previous masters is not altogether a bad thing. So let's go.

Lighting Considerations
Should you light differently for a black and white portrait than a color one? In two words, yes and no. Let's say you're in the studio and have a client who wants a rather basic publicity portrait and wants to have both color and black and white prints. You've got a couple of options. First, shoot it in color, change the film or magazine, and shoot it in black and white. If you're even lazier or the job rates a two on a 1-10 scale in terms of profit or artistic ability required, just make a black and white print from the color negative. Good enough for the newspaper, right? Supposing you went the first route and changed film. Would I change my lighting? On a publicity job, not a chance, it'll be just fine. Could I change my lighting? You bet.

You bet I would if I was being commissioned to create a nice portrait instead of a newspaper publicity shot. Then I'd take all the time I needed. If I was going for a very soft look, I may keep my lighting very even and maintain a rather low ratio of main to fill light with the main light with twice the power of the fill light. Knowing that black and white film can handle a greater range, I may choose a much higher lighting ratio, with maybe a three stop power difference between my fill and main light for dramatic effect. Look at the powerful effect George Hurrell created with his dramatic portraits of some of Hollywood's biggest stars. He combined "hard" lighting with high ratios to create his memorable work.

This dramatic portrait of Jennifer Gilcrease and her new baby was created by north facing window light. The light is striking her pretty much face on but by shooting from the side the background goes dark and the attention is kept on her face and the baby. The corners were printed down.

Light's Aspects
Which brings us to consider the other aspects of lighting. Light has three main characteristics--color, intensity, and quality. For purposes of this discussion, we can throw out color. Intensity is pretty simple--you just meter it. I've used an incident meter for both flash and natural light pretty much since the dinosaurs roamed the earth, so I'm sold on that method.

Quality is a whole different story. I like to call it the "shape" of the light. It means whether the light is hard or soft. It's relative to the size of the light source in relation to the subject and the shape of the light or light modifier, e.g., softbox or umbrella.

Other factors that will have an impact on the final result include the size of the room you're in and the color of the walls and ceilings. Color is a factor here because we're talking about the amount of reflectance. A white wall close to the subject will reflect more light than a dark wall far from the subject. Experience and testing are your best friends in this situation, which seems to be true in just about all photographic endeavors.

I like to do portraits that show the relationship of the subjects. This portrait of Alice Wang with her 1-year-old daughter Colena casts mom in a supporting role. I kept the softbox lighting pretty flat because I didn't want to aim more on Alice's face by moving the light to camera right. The dark clothing keeps the attention on the faces, and I like the innocent expression and small hand.

Hard And Soft Light
Another factor to consider when you are determining how "hard" or "soft" you want the light is diffusion. As a general rule of thumb, increase the diffusion when you increase the harshness of the light. Parabolic and pan reflectors will give you a very hard edged light with a well-defined edge shadow from highlight to shadow. Umbrellas and softboxes are softer and the edge shadow is less defined, creating a "wraparound" look to the lighting.

Again, it depends upon the effect you're after. I'm not big on hard and fast rules. The same applies to natural light, one of my favorite options. Even though the sun is a pretty large light source, being 93 million miles away makes it a relatively small hard light. Use it directly and it's hard as nails. Bounce it off an open sky and that becomes your light source, much bigger and much softer.

This is a proof from a session with Abbey Raiche. I kept my main light rather flat on the subject, probably only about 20° off camera right because I didn't want deep shadows and wanted to keep detail in the set. The corners were darkened in the finished print. (Background by David Mahue.)

Rules Of The Road
I love doing black and white portraiture, even though I haven't had a darkroom in over 10 years. A couple of old "chestnuts" that have been around since about the beginning of photographic times still hold true today. They are, "Get it on the negative," and "Expose for the shadows and print for the highlights." While digital may now be able to save you if you mess up, why not get it right the first time? Creating good black and white negatives means ensuring that you have sufficient information in the shadow areas and then making the print so there is detail in the brightest highlight. With today's films, that's not a difficult task.

I hope to continue producing "real" black and white portraits for my clients for some time. There is a timeless appeal to their classic beauty.