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When we shoot in color, we do not depart from what we see everyday, so our eye expects certain details in order to fill out the image. Black and white photography gives us the opportunity to diverge from this norm and, in a way, view reality as an abstraction.

For certain situations, it is advantageous to use the black and white setting on your digital camera, as it is the only way to "see" without color; observing only the highlights and shadows. Professional photographers used Polaroids for years, but now we can use our camera's LCD screens!

In this lesson, we will use the First Studio Portrait Kit to create dramatic black and white portraits that may not have worked in a color setting.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Black and white portraiture
  • First Studio Portrait Kit
  • First Studio BackDrop Support Kit

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


Before we do anything, let's get the camera set up properly. You may have heard people say "I would get a digital camera, but I just love black and white photography." Well with the Olympus EVOLT E-500, not only is black and white possible, it's a snap. This camera can be set to capture black and white images.

First turn on the camera and press the OK button once to view the main menu on the back screen (figure 1). Then, using the right directional key on the arrow pad, select the Picture Mode field (figure 2).


Figure 3

Once the Picture Mode field is highlighted, rotate the Control dial to the right to change the mode to Monotone (figure 3). Monotone mode will produce black and white toned images.

If you know your final result will be in black and white, it is important to shoot in the Monotone mode so that you see how certain colors will read tonally in black and white. While it is possible to take a color image and later change it to black and white on your computer, you will better be able to modify certain tones through lighting or reframe the shot if necessary to capture what you're envisioning.


Here, we set up the Photoflex First Studio BackDrop Support Kit and a 10'x12' gray BackDrop. For detailed information on how to setup this kit, we recommend that you view the lesson on Photoflex Lighting School entitled "First Studio BackDrop Support Kit".

There is also a lesson entitled "The First Studio FirstStar" that goes into detail about how the lights and umbrellas that come with the Portrait Kit are used.

After the BackDrop Support Kit was in place, we had the model sit for some poses. We took one of the First Studio lights and set it up at eye-level with our model and about 3 feet away (figure 4). We positioned the light deep into the umbrella (figure 5) to create a smaller, reflected light source that would help with creating a more moody atmosphere. We also set the light parallel to the backdrop in order to keep light off of it and directed at our subject.

Finally, we had the model turn slightly into the light so that the shadow from her nose left a slight upside-down triangle of light on her left cheek. This is known as "Rembrandt Lighting", and serves to give the model a more three dimensional appearance. If properly positioned, a nice highlight will show in the model's left eye.


Figure 6

In our result (figure 6), we see nice highlights and shadows on our subject's face without any background detail. This is a very nice effect, but limits the amount of detail information we get from our subject.


While we liked the first result very much, we thought it was a little on the "arty" side and not really a "classic" portrait. By adding gradated light to the background, we can render more tonal information about our subject and still maintain our original lighting scheme.

In figures 7 and 8, we added the second light behind our subject, raised it about two feet over her head and moved it a foot closer to the backgound than the other light. We then positioned the light in the umbrella to get the maximum reflection and no light leak. Then, by changing the axis of this light, we achieved different levels of gradation across our background.


Figure 9

While the strong key light we liked on the face remains, we've now added new layers of dimension to the image (figure 9). The highlights on her face contrast nicely with the black background, and the gradation gives us a nice silhouette to define her form. Instead of a disembodied head, we now have a very tangible person.

Note that we have also added a nice little "Rembrandt" on her left cheek, the small upsided down triangle of light that occurs when we turn the model's face just enough to let light spill over the bridge of her nose. This light is also reflected in the right eye of our model, giving her more "life".

(The Dutch Master and famous portrait photographer Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn popularized this style during the middle 1600's and the style carries his name to this date.)


Afterward, we realized we liked both images for different reasons and applications. Perhaps a more intimate portrait mood for figure 10 and a professional resume shot for figure 11. It is important to think of the end usage for your image, but is also important to experiment. Photography provides for many "happy accidents", so don't be afraid to color outside the lines. Especially in black and white.



Using Filter Modes

And speaking of "coloring" outside the lines, there is another great feature built in to the E-500, namely the Filters mode. Colored filters have long been used by black and white photographers to accent and bring new looks to their photography. Ansel Adams consistently used filters to get his famous results.


Figure 12

To accurately understand and predict the results we get from using colored filters in a black and white setting, we must go back to the color wheel. This elementary representation is the clearest way to visualize color relationships.

A colored filter will absorb the complementary color (color directly opposite on the color wheel) while allowing the proprietary color of the filter to pass. Even though the image will ultimately be rendered in black and white, the color shift has affected each of the tones in the image area. If the tone is complementary it will be rendered as darker, because its tone is being blocked by the filter. If the tone is analogous (close on the color wheel) it will be lighter. Let's see how this theory plays out in real life.

The great thing about this feature is that it is built in to the E-500: no more carrying filters, scratching filters, losing filters, or not having the right filter with you. It also eliminates the need to put an inferior piece of glass or plastic in front of your nice Zuiko lens.

To use the filters, we must first return to the Picture Mode Menu. From here select the Monotone setting (it should already be set from our shooting up until now) and press right once on the arrow pad.

Figure 13

Next, in the Monotone menu, select B&W Filters and press the Arrow Pad to the right again.

Figure 14

Next you will be in the B&W Filter menu. Pressing the Arrow Pad down will select one of four different filters: Yellow, Orange, Red, Green, or Neutral. Each filter will yield different results and you will see a short description of each filter displayed in the window.

Figure 15


First we tried the Yellow filter. Remember that a filter transmits its own tones and absorbs all others. In the result here with the Yellow filter (figure 16), the tones from her skin -- and especially her blonde hair -- are transmitted, and hence are rendered lighter.



Next we moved to Orange. Orange is basically Yellow with more Red added to it, so more of the skin tone will be transmitted in addition to the previous tones.

The Orange and Yellow filters are generally favored by portrait photographers because they do not drastically alter the photo. They also help to even out skin tones and reduce blemishes. In outdoor situations, they will also help to render the sky and landscape with more contrast.



Now we come to the Red filter, and dramamtic changes are apparent. The skin tone is completely bleached out, increasing the "hotness" of our highlights. The lips seem to blend in tonally with her skin more. The overall contrast ratios are increased as well.

This filter can also be used to great effect outdoors, adding depth and contrast to skies that often assume uniform tonal values. The red filter is a "special effects" filter to some degree, due to its drastic alteration of natural tones.



Finally the green fitler delivers results almost opposite to that of the red. It tends to give people a "tan", even though it is black and white. Overall the image seems to be darkened and ratios are increased.

Here is another great outdoor filter for special effects, due to so many green tones occuring in our natural world.



Here is a comparison of all the filters from Yellow to Orange to Red to Green (left to right - figure 23). Note that the effects on skin tone discussed here refer to Caucasian skin tones. People with different levels of pigment in their skin will of course have a different tonal response to a given filter. Again, experimentation is the key to understanding the nature of these filters.


Figure 24


By using black and white as our medium, we have come up with a very striking end result. Our eyes are not distracted by different color variations and the subject is presented prominently. If you have a model and the time, be sure to try other angles or change the lights.

Here are some variations we did with our model (figure 24). As you can see, changing the angle of her head or the expression on her face, or using filters can dramatically alter the feel of the portrait. Just remember to have fun and that there are no lighting rules, only lighting guidelines.


Figure 25

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.

Recommended Links

  • To learn more about Photoflex equipment, go to www.photoflex.com
  • For more tips and techniques on lighting and cameras, visit www.webphotoschool.com and sign
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