Learning B&W portraits

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by Quinten, Mar 26, 2005.

  1. Quinten

    Quinten Member

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    I fell in love with B&W portraits, even changed from digital to film for it. And before using my 'new' MF I experimented with 35mm just to start learning. But still my portraits look a bit flat, wich is strainge since I know how to create dept with the light in colour.
    Instead of really BLACK and WHITE with gray in between my pictures would be better called "GRAYS" instead of B&W.

    Maybe I shouldn't 'light out' the faces like I would do for colour.

    BTW I have only tried 100iso films so far and I think the exposures are right, since I tried to underexpose a bit more to get more contrast but I only lost detail in the dark parts without improving the general feel.

    Any suggestions would be great, I learn a lot by just trying but some tips wouldn't mind. Also a good book suggestion for B&W (portraits) is welcome (there seem to be millions of books, while most don't go very deep)

    Have a nice easter weekend!
    Quinten
     
  2. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Underexposing in a normal light situation will give you flat negs. Are you developing yourself, or sending it out? Are your portraits evironmental, or posed? there are a number of different approaches. I usually use HP5 or Tri-X and rate it at 200, then spot meter on shadow of the skin (a good zone V placement), and let everything else fall where it may. I usually shoot kids on the move, so I need the faster film. Try Les McLean's "Creative Black and Whtie Photography", not just for portraits, but his exposure and development tests are very useful. Once you find a good way to work, you'll be able to make great negs! ... and prints!
     
  3. noseoil

    noseoil Member

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    If you are able to control lighting for your sessions, try using zone VII for high values and zone V for shadows. Don't be afraid to give enough exposure (you did do film tests already, didn't you?) for full values. Try printing on warm tone paper and neutral tone to see the difference. You may need to bump up to grade 2 1/2 or 3 to get better separations in skin tones, depending on your development. You might also want to give Efke 50 or 25 a try for a different look.

    There's more to this stuff than meets the eye, isn't there? The good guys make it look so easy, so get a copy of Ansel Adams book 5 on artificial lighting and see how he did it. He was very generous with his knowledge. More film and more paper! Good luck, tim
     
  4. jim appleyard

    jim appleyard Member

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    There are many things you can do to help yourself. Processing the film yourself, like Suzanne says, is really the only way to go.

    I often shoot portraits with a solid black background. This makes caucasian skin really jump out at you. I work in tight quarters so my lights (monolights) are fairly close to the subject and usually use APX 400/Tri-X at ei 200 or APX 100 at ei 50. I then take an incident flash reading. This makes the background come out good n black, not gray, and then I print in a home darkroom, exposing for the face.

    Play around with the angle of the lights and good for you for going back to film!
     
  5. m_liddell

    m_liddell Member

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    I've experianced a similar thing with b&w portraits looking a bit flat. Depending on your model's skin you might want to try harder light or a higher lighting ratio. Really soft lighting usually looks ok in colour but often flat in b&w. You can see it if you have a digital shot and convert to b&w quite clearly.

    You might want to try longer dev times (expansion development) since portraits are usually a lot lower in contrast than say landscapes with sky. As others have suggested do some film/dev testing, this is something I really need to do myself...
     
  6. Bob F.

    Bob F. Member

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    Who is developing your film and who is producing the prints?

    In general, low contrast in the negs will result in a grey print unless account is taken of this and the print contrast increased. Ideally, you want to produce negatives that print at grade 2 with the contrast that you want. This is essential if you are getting your prints made by a lab, less so if you are printing yourself as you can then change the paper grade to suit the negative (within reason). Two things determine the ability to print at grade 2: negative exposure and development time.

    The Les Mclean book Suzanne mentions, although not big on formal portraits (there are a few) will show you how to spot under/over exposure and under/over development and is a great general introduction to serious B&W photography.

    The general rule with B&W is, when in doubt, to overexpose rather than underexpose (you tend to lose the shadows as you found out) so try rating the 100 ISO film at 50 and take it from there. If you are still getting low contrast, try a 15% increase in development time. Better still, forget everything I wrote above and just get Les' book...

    Cheers, Bob.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 26, 2005
  7. Quinten

    Quinten Member

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    Thanks for all info in the replies, they will keep me bussy for a while:wink:

    I do the developing and printing myself but only started doing it very recently so maybe I am not a very constant factor.
    Also I didn't do film tests with a graycard, just with some static objects and different exposures and judge with the eye.
    But things like the dark background and more attention to shades and metering for them are probably the things I should look at since I get this flat GRAY with slight under and overexposure as well.

    Okay I am going to take some of your tips to the test and hope I'll learn, Thanks very much!
    Quinten

    BTW 90% of the time I shoot in natural light, I might use some refecting plates and sometimes a big cotton sheet in case the sun is to direct, hardly ever use flash.
     
  8. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Normal exposure (incident meter) and 20% extended development has always given me good results - with one exception, a former "Miss Gambia". Pale Nordic skin was not the correct experience for that job! Still, even then I managed to get good prints...

    I used FP4+ and Ilfosol-S when I did this semi-professionally, and occasionally EFKE R14 (now R-50) in Neofin Blue.

    I borrowed a model and shot 3 rools of film with bracketing in full stops - 2 under to 2 over, and developed -20%, normal and +20% (NOTE: "Normal" is +20% from manufacturer's recommendation). This was a very, very useful thing to do!
     
  9. rbarker

    rbarker Member

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    Using natural light, rather than studio strobes, makes it a little more difficult to control lighting ratios to get the extra measure of "drama" in the lighting you might want for B&W. Still possible, however.

    I like to think of it as working with whatever highlight values the natural light provides, and then manipulating the shadows a bit to gain contrast and drama. A black reflector panel (e.g. black foamcore) is handy in this regard - essentially working as a negative reflector.
     
  10. eric

    eric Member

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    Practice, practice, burn film, print, practice, practice, read, practice, practice, learn, burn film, read, practice..... :smile:

    Then one day....it all just "clicks". Its kinda like learning to ride a bike. You don't learn from what trying to get it right...you learn from doing it all wrong and then it clicks!
    Have fun! And show us your mistakes! You can't learn withought making mistakes.
     
  11. BarrieB

    BarrieB Member

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    In my view the softer the lighting the better the portrait.
    Cheers BarrieB. :smile:
     
  12. Quinten

    Quinten Member

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    back light different in B/W

    A thing I noticed while comparing some colour portaits with B/W. The lighting was both evening sun behind the subject and a soft reflection of light in the face of the person I made the picture of. The effect in the colour picture is great though this type of lighting doesn't seem to work in B/W. Why is that the sun gives this dramatic effect in the shapes, shadows, the light thruw the hair and on the shoulders in colour but the same light looks rather dull in B/w?
    This is something I just won't understand in B/W.

    So is the light setting (mainly directions) that much different for good B/W than it would be for colour?

    cheers!
    Quinten
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 28, 2005
  13. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Not really - but colour differences don't work.

    And backlit hair looks burned out instead of "glorious".

    Rembrant's lighting setups (which is NOT what is called "Rembrant lighting"!) tend to work regardless; he's a great master to learn from.

    In the end it's all down to wasting some film, and learning what works and what doesn't the hard way.