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Black and White Portraits


Black and White Portraits
Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film
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As part of my recent photo shoot with my brother using 35mm and medium format film (see part 1 here and part 2 here), I decided to try something I've never done before: black and white portraits. Okay, so maybe I've converted a few digital color portraits to black and white in the past, but I've never done true black and white portraits using black and white film. I've spent the past year or so getting comfortable with black and white photography so I figured it was high-time to apply my new experience to the world of portraiture.

I think the toughest part about black and white photography is learning to "see in black and white." With our full-color vision of the world, it's difficult to imagine what something will look like with all the color removed. Sometimes, when the color is sucked out, an otherwise gorgeous subject looks terribly bland. For example, early on in my black and white ventures, I decided to photograph a landscape that consisted of a crisp blue sky over a lush rolling green hillside. In color, the scene was gorgeous. But I found out quickly that the tonal brightness of the green grass was nearly identical to the tonal brightness of the sky. That meant that both the grass and sky desaturated to almost exactly the same shade of gray in the resulting b&w photo. There was virtually no separation between the two! Without color contrast, I had to learn to rely entirely on tonal contrast.

But this lack of color contrast is also what makes black and white photography so beautiful. Without the distraction of color, the tones and shadows can pop out and reveal a whole new beauty to the scene. In these black and white portraits, I utilized lighting that created deep, dark shadows and bright, contrasty highlights so as to add more tonal contrast and interest to the image. And when I didn't have the right light source for dark shadows (like in the photos out in the open field under diffused light), I created the necessary contrast using wardrobe. A jet-black coat over a stark white shirt helped create more tonal interest in this flat lighting.

I have a new appreciation for black and white portraits. The look intrigues me and the challenge makes the successes very rewarding.

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Shooting Film in Death Valley

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

I was fortunate enough to work with a student this past week in Death Valley National Park for a 2-day, 2-night, 1-on-1 photography workshop. We met in Stovepipe Wells, shot 2 sunrises, 2 sunsets, and spent the daytime discussing techniques, reviewing photos, and covering topics to apply for the next outing. We were lucky to get stunning sunrises and sunsets.

My student was a blast to work with and it was really amazing to see how much his photography progressed over a mere 2 days. It was actually quite unbelievable that one person's entire approach to landscape photography could change so dramatically in such a small amount of time. His dedication and passion for the craft paid off with excellent photos. I'll be sharing one or two of his images with you in the coming weeks.

As for me, with my recently re-discovered passion for film, I decided to shoot film exclusively on this trip. Although I would have loved to bring my 4x5, I opted instead for a lighter, quicker system so as to not hinder my student. So, I "Galen Rowell'ed" this trip by packing light with a 35mm film camera and my split NDs.

I shot Fuji Provia 100F color transparency film and Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. All in all, 1 roll of color, 1.5 rolls of B&W. This post is only about my color photos, which I shot with my trusty Canon EOS 1V.

Canon EOS 1V 35mm film SLR camera

The Canon EOS 1V is a beautiful camera with top-notch electronics and ergonomics. The viewfinder is big and bright, the meter is dead accurate with a +/-3 scale, the viewfinder blackout time is practically non-existent, it's weather-sealed...it's a very nice machine. Truthfully though, this camera is a bit much for shooting landscapes. The EOS 1V was Canon's flagship film camera for years and was built to accommodate the rapid-fire shooting and lighting fast auto focus required of sports shooters and photojournalists - stuff I don't need for landscapes. But the weather-sealing can sure come in handy, and even though I don't need all the bells and whistles, it doesn't hurt to have 'em.

I also used an all-manual Nikon from the 70's or 80's, too, but only for my B&W stuff. That'll come in another post. This post only includes my color images on Fuji Provia.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with the results. We had excellent light to work with, interesting terrain, I metered just about every picture correctly - no major errors or hiccups. And I tell ya, the more I shoot film, the more I realize why I'm shooting film. It's so much fun seeing those color transparencies on the light table in all their pure, untainted, un-digitized glory.

And as I look at more and more pictures taken on film, I'm remembering more and more how much better I like the color rendition achieved with film. I'd forgotten how much more beautiful the purples and blues look compared to digital. Provia especially leans a little bit towards the magenta/purple end of the color spectrum (as opposed to the slightly greener Velvia) which matches my taste in colors nicely. For sunset and sunrise images, especially at the coast and the desert, I prefer a little more magenta than green. Gives the sunset colors a nice glow.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Oh, and as a nice little bonus while were out shooting the sunrise, the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber happened to fly over us several times. Not sure why it was out, but I used to be obsessed with this amazing jet as a kid, so it was a treat to get to see it in flight. Managed to fire off a few photos of it (which ended up being my only digital shots from the trip).

B-2 Bomber Over Death Valley