Creating Monochrome Portraits

by | Sep 20, 2018

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

Black and white is a wonderful media for creating portraits because it produces such a classic look and portrait photographers around the country have told me that more and more high school senior portraits—the ones they buy, not the required yearbook shot—are sold as black & white prints.

The lack of color immediately simplifies an image, causing you to focus on the person, who is the 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 classic portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky sitting at a piano could never have been made in color and have the same impact that it has as a monochrome image.

(At right) This is what the original unretouched, unedited color file—Straight Out Of the Camera—looks like. It was made with a Canon EOS 50D and EF 28-105mm lens and an exposure of 1/60 sect at f/5 and ISO 200. An EX550 speedlite was used as fill, although it could have used a little more fill. Overall, it’s a busy portrait with lots of distracting foreground and background elements.


The original portrait was shot in color and converted to black and white using one of the best software emulation tools available, Alien Skin’s new Exposure X4. One of the upsides of converting a color shot to black & white is that color images are much easier to retouch than monochrome files because there are so many more color tones to work with. Tip: So retouch first before conversion.

Using the powerful Exposure X4 (look for a detailed review of this product real soon now) I applied their only Cinema effect for black and white—Wizard of Oz—backing down the Overall Intensity slider to 50% to keep Jessica from looking too much like Dorothy.

The finished, (converted) monochrome image has more of a gritty urban look and minimizes some of the clutter, such as the green hose laying on the ground and puts the focus on the subject. It was converted to monochrome, not just  black-and-white, since it has an ever-so-slight warm tone that’s reminiscent of Agfa’s Portriga paper that was popular in the traditional wet darkroom.


If you’re interested in learning how I shoot portraits and use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio and on location, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere which is available new from for $22.44 and $13.74 used, as I write this. Interested in learning how to shoot better portraits and want hands-on training, check out my one-on-one workshops.