In the acting and modelling world, black and white headshots are commonplace in portfolios, and if you want to diversify your own photography portfolio then it would be a good idea to add this skill to it. Headshots are laid back and can be a lot of fun as you play around trying to come up with something creative.
Why Black and White Headshots?
This is a question I asked myself when I was approached to take the photos and it’s a very good question really, with a variety of possible answers. Firstly, there’s the idea that because the majority is shooting in black and white then you should too, which spawns more similar looking headshots for very little reason.
Secondly, it could date back to black and white film photography, where black and white was your only choice, but I’m not sure that either of these are particularly good reasons. Whether this is the real reason or not, I think that the most likely reason is because of the effect that black and white has on a photo.
Most of us can assume what the skin colour is going to be like in black and white so colour isn’t that important, what is important though is the effect that it has on form and structure of a face – you can see these details much more clearly.
Black and white depends so much more on form for good photography then colour does so it’s important to include texture into the photo. Texture provides a contrast that shines through in black and white and is a great tool to make your photo more interesting. In the photo that I produced for my client, I added texture to the background, the hair, beard and shirt, and contrasted that with his soft skin.
To produce texture in the background, I used a wooden door compared to the plain white backgrounds that you’re probably used to seeing, and you’ll see exactly why I did that in the section below. We played around with his hair for quite a while, trying to find where it looked best, and we maximised the look of texture be playing around with the lighting which you’ll see further down this post. The beard was simple, but the shirt was a little bit more diffucult. For the shirt to rest the way is did, I had the subject sit down on a stool with his left arm up so that small ruffles would appear.
When my client first approached me, he asked for a set of headshots, in black and white, on a plain background and immediately, alarm bells started ringing. I find plain white backgrounds to be boring, and would never choose to use one personally, but I do see why he asked. It seems to be the norm with a lot of studio photographers who don’t want to invest time in finding interesting and relevant locations, it’s much easier to just churn out photo after photo on a boring white background.
We took some test shots on a white background, but it really wasn’t doing anything for the photos as you can see from the comparison below. We experimented with different textures from various walls and and plants in the background, but eventually decided to go indoors and use a door because it would be easier to control the ambient light. I’ve written in depth before on producing an interesting background and why it’s important, so if you’d like to know more, I suggest you read this.
Hiding Certain Features
As with all commissioned photos, there’s going to be a degree of vanity involved that you’ll have to cater for, which in this case, was the subject’s hair. He was growing it for a movie role that they had coming up, but didn’t like how it looked, particularly the facial hair.
As the photographer, it was my job to hide the unsightly parts and I did so by having the light source point down on the subject, which cast a shadow over the neck, hiding the majority of the hair. We positioned the hair so that the hair on the head revealed a nice texture, without being too dominating, and the facial hair outlined the face, making it stand out from the background.
The lighting was the biggest part of this shoot, as I was stuck with working in an unimaginative setting, I wanted to be creative with my lighting. First of all, I thought about how I wanted to light my subject, and after only a small amount of playing around, I decided to use a beauty dish with a grid on it, point downwards on my subject. For those of you that don’t know what this is, the beauty dish is a lighting modifier that’s commonly used when shooting models because of its flattering results, and the grid which I attached to the front, forces the light to go forward, rather then around the side, which creates a vignette like effect. This is a really creative way to play around with the lighting and minor adjustments can make a huge difference.
Next, I had to set up my camera in manual mode so that all of the ambient light would disappear and I could use only my flash to illuminte the subject. This is easier than it sounds and I knew from experience that if I set my aperture to f/8, then my lens would at it’s sharpest, so from there, I only had to adjust the shutter speed. I settled on 1/800 of a second and the flash set to +1.67ev which combined in a natural looking light without having to deal with any ambient light.
As you can see from below, placing my flash at an angle meant that I was able to produce natural looking shadows on the subject’s face, while still lighting the background in a flattering and interesting way.
I always recommend that you shoot in colour and RAW when you’re trying to take black and white photos as it leaves you with more possibilites in post. Rather then going into massive detail about what I do to photos of model after I’m done with them, have a look at this tutorial which I wrote two days ago. Saturation isn’t really relevant, but there’s a lot that you can learn from the rest of the post.
For black and white post production, you can afford to get a little bit more creative as it’s easier to hide your techniques, such as boosting the contrast like I’ve done below. I also boosted the green channel when I converted the photo to black and white, but other then that, I’ve not really done anything to the photo.