I've been working diligently on making black and white portraits my specialty for the last three years. I've been studying the artistry with Master Photographers and Master Artists learning how to use "The Zone System", developed by famous photographers Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, to my advantage.
The Zone System is a scale of 10 tonal values ranging from pure black to pure white and 8 values of grey in between. It is used for determining optimum exposure and development. Photographers use the information to make exact adjustments as needed, today in darkroom simulating software, to create a rich black and white photographs - in our case portraits.
A black and white photograph is more than just adding a filter to a pic. The filter on your phone is just a flattened gray scale transformation. Most phone filters try to get everything in Zones 3-7. It's a safe middle ground. I'll show you the difference below. There's nothing wrong about having fun with those filters - don't get me wrong! They're perfect for social media snapshots, which is what they were designed for!
There is a lot of technical difficulty behind the art of creating a black and white with impact. A successful, richly detailed, black and white has a solid foundation of controlled exposure across the image. It takes knowledge of were to put light, where not to, and how much light is needed to extract details without "blocking up" shadows or "blowing out" highlights. There's a science to the madness!
In my beginner class, Tips for Better Pics, I explain how the different settings in your camera can help you get better at this. In my professional lighting workshops, I discuss and explain controlling exposures and sculpting with light in great detail by using ratios and different modifiers.
For my photographer people who are interested my typical camera settings... I start at F/8 with a 3:1 ratio. I like the depth it has when working in character studies. I set desired aperture then add and subtract light power from there. I USE A LIGHT METER - you can get them for a couple hundred bucks from a used camera gear shop. People buy them, get frustrated by literally pushing 4 buttons - on/off, camera settings (SS and ISO), environment settings (strobe or ambient), and the button held down to meter - then sell them! "Close enough" isn't good enough when people are paying you to be perfect in your craft.
Check out Larson's Studio in a Box as a great starting point! The quality of these modifiers are top notch. The billows will not color shift, have large edges for more control, and they are STURDY. Tell John I sent you when you place your order. I do have tell you, I've been part of the Larson speaking team since last year but used their system many times prior to meeting John while I was speaking at DevelopMOPPA. He's a outstanding fella with an outstanding company who supports our industry to the max!
When I start a Black and White session I go into it with a plan. The client and I have had a consultation about what to wear, what they're bringing and/or what props I'm providing, and what they want in heirlooms. I'm only shooting 15-20 images, showing 10-15. A plan from beginning for the end is a must.
A majority of the time they are after wall portraits - I send a ton of wall portraits to their forever homes every year. I'd venture a guess that 80% of our clients have at least one piece of wall art from us in their home, and many have many.
Every one of my black and white portraits starts is shot in color. In my head, I "see" what the final print will look like before I release the shutter for the first time. I see the details that will be removed, lightened, darkened, refined. I observe the light patterns skipping on the face and body, lights fall of from the hair down the shoulders. I meter the amount of light reflecting off the skin to insure detail and dimension - flat light is fat light. We are 3D objects, we should have a shadow side of our face! I make sure my subject is separated from the background by light and shadow. The camera and light setting calculations have been drilled into my brain. By now they are second nature. The "photographer math" mixed with physics of light, and artistic vision floating around in my head during a session plus posing and communication is crazy multi-tasking - on top of my "MS Brain" it really is amazing to me that I do what I do.
All of this is going on is why I prefer sessions in studio vs. outside. When we shoot outside I'm having to add more calculations in constantly as the sun moves across the sky, the clouds move across the sun, the environment bounces light. It's mass uncontrolled chaos. I can shoot higher quality portraits in studio in 30 minutes with a higher "keep" percentage than I can outside in 3 hours. My outdoor work is top notch too, I've fought with Mother Nature for 10 years and have a handle on her, but it's a lot more work to keep the portraits at our high quality.
The clients who are booking black and white sessions LOVE that it's not an all day event. They are getting stunning portraits full of the personality they want and still have time to do family stuff the same day.
The printing process is closely controlled as well. I've been using Miller's Professional Imaging for 10 years; they're my heirloom experts! I've never had a client's heirloom come in that I wouldn't proudly put my name on. The Black and White Artisan Portraits are all artist signed in gold on the bottom right corner and numbered on the back. I choose every upgrade available even for the "little" 5x7s; they're not your typical print by far and they are not cheap to order.
After many trials and errors on different papers and processes I choose to use Kodak paper coated with a protective matte laminate finish then flush mount on acid free artist board. The Signature Wall Art gets the same treatment but mounted on Masonite and framed. They are beautiful, true to tonality and luxurious. They carry a 100 year guarantee from Kodak not to fade or color shift with normal display away from direct sun and 200 year archival value in dark storage.
Each one is delivered framed and ready to display. I've added a step into the ordering process. When you place your order and the payment (or final installment of a payment plan) clears the bank I will order your prints. Once they come in, we'll meet again and choose your frame - I have 10 standard frames that are complimentary with the print and 10 upgrade options. I think it's important to choose the frame that compliments your portraits; it's hard to choose one without seeing the two together. Once the frame is chosen, I'll get it ordered from our master moulders at Magnolia Frames in SC.
So why do I choose to do all this "extra" work? For me it's not extra, it's what a professional photographer should do. Before digital we worked in dark rooms, we developed our own photographs, we had customer service, we were artists. This is what I still do in my studio. I'm not just a photographer, I'm a print artist as well. I understand how different papers will shift colors, change tonality, change the entire mood of an image. I don't trust my name, my reputation, my art in the hands of a minimum wage worker behind the kiosk at a drug or super store. My clients, YOU, deserve better than that. Remember me fussing earlier about metering and how close enough is not good enough - this applies to printing as well. So - Photographers learn to print, invest in the process of testing papers. Our clients - trust our artistry, invest in your photographers. You wouldn't ask a baker for the raw ingredients for their cake would you? It's the exact same with digital files - they're not "free" to make (that's a whole future blog rant LOL) and shouldn't be cheap to buy.
Below are comparison from different consumer kiosks. You can clearly see the shifts from cyan, blue, red/magenta, and green vs. the pro lab which is rock solid like the original.