Classic Qualities of Black and White

A good black and white photograph can have a timeless, classic feeling to it.

Subconsciously, we’re drawn back to images of the early days of photography – Matthew Brady’s pictures from the Civil War era, for example.  More recently, the fashion and portrait photography of greats like Karsh, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon were mostly in black and white.  Photographers today who shoot in black and white are, in some sense, standing on the shoulders of classic works that were created in the past.

Here’s a recent photgraph I took. This subject’s name is Gena.


I like the image a lot. The look and feel could be from the 1960’s or 1970’s as easily as today. Because we don’t see any clothes (she was wearing a tank top that is covered by her hair), we don’t have any clues about fashion or style that might tell us when the image was made.   The somewhat enigmatic expression, with her mouth slightly open and a direct gaze by her eyes, echoes some classic images from fashion and portrait photographs of recent decades. The hair style could be from any period.  And, to be sure, Gena is a natural and classic beauty.  In addition, she really knows how to pose.  While not a professional model, Gena worked as a photo editor for a fashion magazine and thus knows intimately the ingredients of a successful photograph.

My good friend, Maria Dominici (see Maria’s website) did the makeup for this shot.  Maria’s wonderful and careful work brought out Gena’s natural beauty without getting in the way. We don’t notice the makeup, the sign of a truly professional makeup artist!

The lighting is coming down at about a 45 degree angle, from straight ahead and above. (Notice where the catch-lights in her eyes are). This is a classic lighting setup that usually renders a flattering image. Overall, this lighting is soft, but we definitely see the contours of Gena’s face.

In the early days of digital photography, black and white images could not compare with the look and feel of photographs made from film. In the last few years, digital has improved to the point where it’s impossible to tell the difference.  (Some purists and Luddites may disagree with me!)  In converting this image to back and white, I used a “plug-in” software for Photoshop that mimics the look of a specific old black and white film.

here’s the color version of this image.


Even the color version has a fairly narrow palette of colors. Still it’s a very different photograph, don’t you think?

Look carefully at the two versions. Which one appeals to you? What feelings/emotions are triggered by each one? 

In future posts, we’ll talk more about color versus black and white.


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May 2009
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