Black-and-white family photos are an amazing way to showcase the beauty, personality, and emotions of your clients. This monochromatic approach isn’t just a trendy throwback to days gone by; it’s also an elegant way to focus your portrait photography on the bare essentials of light and shadow while showcasing your clients in stunning new ways.
While black-and-white portraiture might seem simple on the surface, it requires a lot more subtlety and nuance than most people realize. These 11 tips will help you get the most out of your images – and it’ll elevate your knowledge of this type of photography in the process.
1. Shoot in RAW
If you are new to black-and-white photography, one of the best ways to get started is to shoot in RAW. This format offers the ultimate editing flexibility, which makes it a great option for people who just want to experiment with monochrome.
When you photograph in RAW, your camera saves all the data from the moment of capture. This is in contrast to formats such as JPEG and HEIF, which discard data to keep the storage space low. All of that image information means you can easily test out different black-and-white edits when working in Lightroom, Luminar, Affinity Photo, and other non-destructive editors.
RAW files take up much more space than JPEG images, but the trade-off is well worth it, especially if you plan to convert to black and white. When you convert RAW files to black and white, you get to decide which colors are brighter or darker, and you can heavily manipulate the overall exposure. You can recover bright portions of images that are a bit overexposed, and you can lift the shadows to bring out parts of your images you might have thought were lost.
The RAW format also lets you make subtle adjustments to skin tones, clothing textures, and other areas that are crucial when dealing with monochromatic light and shadow.
2. Embrace high-contrast backgrounds
When taking pictures in full color, you have a great deal of flexibility when it comes to all the elements of your compositions. Things are a bit different when handling black-and-white family photos, however.
Since you are dealing strictly with light and shadow, one of the best ways to make your subjects stand out is to work with backgrounds that offer a great deal of contrast. Uniform tones work great and help to eliminate distractions, but any background that stands apart from the people in the frame will help.
The infant photograph displayed above works well because the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to the baby and not the background. You can create similar compositions with a variety of backdrops, and even if you’re not shooting in a studio, you can still work with high-contrast backgrounds. Find a wall or even some foliage that stands out from your subjects, and your black-and-white photos will turn out much better.
3. Photograph in black and white
While shooting in RAW and converting to black and white afterward can work well, another way to get great results is to use one of the black-and-white modes built into most cameras. If you shoot with a mirrorless camera or work with a DSLR in Live View, you can use these built-in monochrome effects to preview your final image and adjust your compositions accordingly.
In my experience, when you can see your shots in shades of gray as you compose, you’ll pay careful attention to lights, shadows, and various elements in the frame that you won’t always notice when shooting in color.
(Shooting in RAW is especially important here; if you switch your camera to monochrome and capture RAW files, you can always convert back to color when editing. However, if you shoot monochrome JPEGs, your camera will discard the color information at the moment of capture.)
Some cameras even include film simulations that mimic the look, tonal quality, and grain structure of traditional black-and-white film. For example, the Fujifilm X100F that I used for the image featured above has a mode that simulates ACROS film. It does an outstanding job of replicating the complex and nuanced look and feel of this analog process, and it’s not an effect you can achieve afterward with a simple filter or preset.
And even if you are capable of recreating film simulations using editing software, shooting using these effects and simulations can help you create stunning compositions you might never capture when working in color.
4. Be mindful of light and shadow
Photography is all about capturing light, but when shooting black-and-white family photos, this basic principle is even more important than ever.
Before pressing the shutter button, consider where the light falls on your subjects, how the background colors interact with one another, and the overall sense of emotion and context that you are attempting to convey. Use shadowy areas of the frame to create a specific mood, and think about how the shadows look on faces, hands, and clothes.
I composed the frame featured above with the young woman fully illuminated by the late afternoon sun. I knew that the final shot – when converted to black and white – would immediately draw the viewer’s attention to her face. The background was a mix of light gray, dark gray, and red bricks, but thanks to a monochrome treatment, all the viewer sees are shadows, which works very well to accomplish the goal I had in mind.
Use similar techniques with your black-and-white photos to get results that will surprise and delight your clients and go beyond what they might be expecting!
5. Utilize editing presets
I used to think that presets, such as those found in Lightroom, Luminar, and other editing software, were a bit of a cop out. Real photographers wouldn’t use presets, I used to tell myself. They would edit every single image by hand.
Wrong! Real photographers know that their time is valuable, so they take advantage of the tools they have at their disposal. Editing presets are an essential component of many photographers’ workflows and can work wonders for black-and-white family photos.
Lightroom comes with several presets that can transform your images into beautiful black-and-white shots with a single click. But they aren’t simple hacks; instead, they use adjustments created by teams of professionals who understand color science on a deep level. And if you don’t like the results, you can tweak them by adjusting sliders and even save new presets to use on future images (or to share with your friends).
Whether you’re just starting out with black-and-white family photos or have been taking portraits for years, these presets can save you a huge amount of time while offering outstanding results.
6. Experiment with Lightroom B&W filters
In the days of film cameras, black-and-white pictures could be manipulated by using color filters to adjust exposure levels. Different filters could be attached to camera lenses, and they would alter the incoming light so photographers could achieve various looks with a great deal of precision. Modern software such as Lightroom allows for this same level of flexibility but on a level far deeper than our analog forebears ever dreamt was possible.
When you convert a color photo to black and white in Lightroom, you can actually use sliders to adjust the exposure levels of individual color ranges. If your subject is wearing a red shirt, you can lighten or darken that color by dragging the red slider. The same holds true for orange, yellow, green, and more.
You can combine slider adjustments, as I did for the image above, to get a specific look in your black-and-white family photos. Alternatively, you can press the Auto button at the bottom of the sliders, which will have Lightroom take its best guess.
These sliders are not only helpful, but they’re also fun to experiment with and can easily take your B&W images to the next level with minimal effort on your part.
7. Use solid-color clothes
This isn’t a universal rule; instead, it’s more of a general guideline that I like to encourage folks to use, especially if you’re new to black-and-white family photos. Solid colors help draw viewers’ eyes to your subjects’ faces instead of getting lost in the myriad patterns and prints that are commonly found on clothing.
When shooting in color, you can end up with distracting arrangements thanks to the different hues and colors on clothes, but all of that disappears when you shoot in monochrome.
Solid colors not only help people focus on faces, but they also give you lots of flexibility when editing. You can use the black-and-white slider options to selectively adjust the brightness levels of individual pieces of solid-color clothing, which can give you a huge amount of freedom to achieve the look that you want.
8. Capture candid moments
When you do family photo sessions, always look for opportunities to take candid portraits in between formal settings and poses.
When you capture these authentic moments, monochrome showcases the results in a way that feels both wonderful and unique. Even if you take color pictures and convert them to black and white later, you will be surprised by how the removal of color can really bring out the best in your clients.
When I’m culling my pictures, I often flag the best and toss the worst, but I am consistently surprised by how a simple black-and-white conversion can transform a file from Rejected to Flagged. In my view, black-and-white family photos invite viewers to overlook flaws, appreciate the imperfect, and see your subjects for who they really are.
It sounds a bit silly and melodramatic, but it works far more often than you might realize. If you can capture candid, unscripted, natural moments of people just being themselves, a black-and-white conversion can elevate them to a whole new level (and your clients will love the results!).
9. Look for genuine emotions
There’s a purity to B&W photos that’s perfect for displaying the genuine moments of humanity. By stripping the images down to light and dark, you invite your viewers to focus solely on faces, poses, body language, and other elements that make people unique and special.
When doing family photography, seek out opportunities to take black-and-white pictures that capture your clients’ real, raw emotions. Look for tender moments between poses, laughs shared among children, and even just couples holding hands. When you create these photos and present them to your clients in black and white, they’ll be transformed into something truly special.
10. Use a wide aperture
While wide apertures are always great for capturing beautiful shots with beautifully blurred backgrounds, it’s a technique that can be especially useful when shooting in black and white. Since these monochromatic files contain no colors to direct the viewer to specific parts of the scene, shooting at f/1.8 to f/2.8 is a great way to put focus on your main subjects.
Shooting wide open also has the benefit of letting you use faster shutter speeds, which can be great for photos featuring lots of movement. If kids are running around, wind whipping through hair and clothes – or if you’re trying to freeze the motion of your walking, jumping, laughing, or hugging clients, using a wide aperture can help ensure your shots look tack-sharp!
11. Use a monochrome camera
While it’s easy to convert color pictures to monochrome, there are actually some cameras that only shoot in black and white. This might seem like a frustrating limitation, but when you actually use one of these cameras, it can actually be quite liberating.
Since you won’t have the option to shoot in color, you’ll be forced to take a more careful, considered approach to your portraits. This can help you develop a more artistic eye, and you may find that you capture family photos that are impressively thoughtful and nuanced.
There aren’t a huge number of black-and-white cameras available, but the ones that do exist offer excellent image quality. The Leica Q2 Monochrom is a great option to consider, as is the Pentax K-3 Mark III Monochrome, which costs much less and features an APS-C sensor compared to the Q2 Monochrom’s full-frame sensor.
For photographers who seek a unique shooting experience and want to offer their clients something unique, cameras like these are certainly worth considering.
Black-and-white family photos: final words
It might seem a bit anachronistic to think about black-and-white family photos when modern cameras can capture more color than ever before. However, monochrome images are perhaps more important than ever!
In a world that is oversaturated with colors, black and white offers a way to step back to a simpler time and create stunning shots that stand out from the crowd. So the next time you’re doing a family photo session, consider shooting in black and white – or, at the very least, converting a few images when you edit.
Now over to you:
What are some of your favorite tips and techniques for B&W family photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!