How to effectively light black & white shots for a dramatic look

Jun 25, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How to effectively light black & white shots for a dramatic look

Jun 25, 2018

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Lighting scenes for shooting in black & white is a little different from working with colour. For a start, you don’t have to worry about colour. Brightness, direction and quality of light come into play a lot more. This can simultaneously make shooting for black & white both easier and more challenging at the same time.

In this video, Nerris from the A-Team gets together with cinematographer Justin Jones to walk us through the thought process of shooting for black and white.

YouTube video

While this is primarily aimed towards video, the same principles also apply to photography, too. Especially if you’re shooting a series of images to convey some kind of gradual story.

Justin offers four tips that you can use on every shot you approach.

1. Don’t worry about colour temperature

The thing with black & white is that colour temperature really doesn’t mean a thing, just the overall brightness. Although we’d deal with different colours using filters when shooting black & white film, digital is a little different. Of course, we can still use filters if we wish to help add contrast in skies or lighten up skin, but we have more options now in post for mixing colour and getting that perfect black & white than we ever had with film.

2. Quality of light (hard, soft, or a mix)

Probably even more important in black & white photography than colour is the quality of light. How hard or soft it is, or whether you want to mix hard and soft light sources. Of course, quality of light is important in colour work, too, but when you remove the distraction of colour, it can become somewhat more critical to help convey the mood.

3. Texture of Light

Texture isn’t something we often really consider. Because how can you give a light texture? Well, you can shoot it through a gobo or cookie. Or you can fill the room with fog to help simulate early morning or late night haze. Texturing the light helps add to the atmosphere and overall mood of the light. And, again, while this can be important with colour, too, it can make a much bigger difference when it comes to black & white.

4. Intensity

As we don’t have colour to help lead our viewer’s eye or highlight certain objects, we need to do it with the brightness levels. To make your red-haired subject, for example, stand out against a lush green natural background is easy in colour. The two colours easily separate themselves from each other. When you go to black & white, though, they can both appear to be the same level of brightness, requiring that the hair light on your subject be brighter than you might normally use.

Again, there are things we can do in post to individually control various colours that we couldn’t do with film. But, if you’re actually shooting black & white in-camera, then you’ll need to take this into account when you light your scene and get it correct before you hit record.

Personally, I tend to still stick with film for black and white shots. Digital black & white conversions (for both stills and video) have been growing on me, though. The tips mentioned above are some of the ones I always think about before hitting the shutter if I know it’s going to be a black & white final result.

Most of the black & whites I shoot aren’t on a set where I get 100% control over the lighting. They’re often out on location in woodlands, rivers or lakes. So, as well as the tips above, watch your backgrounds and pay attention to the lighting on things that are outside of your control, too.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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One response to “How to effectively light black & white shots for a dramatic look”

  1. Sean Avatar
    Sean

    One tip I’ve used is to switch your camera to B/W mode if it has it. Take the shot and see how it looks. If it looks good, switch back to color mode. That way you have the color is needed but you know that the BW will also look good.