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How to decide whether a portrait should be in color or black and white? I'm particularly concerned with "headshot" style portraits, showing primarily the subject's face.

On what basis should it be decided whether a portrait should be in color or black and white?

4

There are many factors one might consider in making this decision. I'm going to group them into three areas: Film, Abstraction, and Time and Timelessness. There are almost certainly others, but I think this hits the highlights.

Film

You might be shooting with film in the 21st century.

Every different film stock has different character, and you might like that particular character. Going into the details of available films is a whole big article of its own — and frankly, beyond my expertise — so I'll just leave this as a point to consider without further expansion.

Or, you might be developing and home, and it's much easier to do black and white at home than color. (In fact, the conclusion to How do I develop color negative (C41) film at home? is effectively "it's not economically feasible".) So, of course, that would make the decision easy.

You may also be interested in a particular paper or print process — these two each have their own characteristics. Maybe you want to make platinum-palladium prints, which have a distinctive warm look and a very large range from dark to light.

But, if you're shooting digital, or if the above otherwise isn't a big factor, there's....

Abstraction

All photography inherently includes some amount of abstraction. A three-dimensional scene is rendered flat, and a moment is extracted from the flow and movement of time. Black and white is another level, cutting away what is normally an important part of our visual perception.

In particular, black and white tends to emphasize forms and contrast — the shape of something can easily become more important than what it is. The same can be said of simple, bright (and usually human-created) color, but black and white really pares things down. With human subjects taken to the extreme, this can become bodyscape photography — not normally the head/face/neck photographs you're interested in, but you might consider if you want to make some images where shape is more important than subject per se — or at least emphasized.

At the very least, this abstraction can simply be used to de-emphasize a distractingly colorful background. For formal or semi-formal portraits, it's ideal consider that before the shot is taken, and hopefully arrange the situation better, but... sometimes not possible, or sometimes, too late. In any case, this can do the opposite of the above: emphasize your subject with less care for the surroundings.

This can be used as a crutch, too — perhaps the white balance is messed up due to mixed lighting, and simply removing color hides the problem. It's often the case that highly overexposed or highly underexposed images pushed into an acceptable range seem better in black and white, both because artifacts (chroma noise, discolored highlights) are hidden and because viewers are more likely to expect a black and white image to be an intentional graphic composition.

Or, we can look at this the other way around: what does color add to a portrait? In particular as it relates to people and portraits: skin, eyes, clothing. Does your subject have striking eyes which contrast with or are complemented by clothing, background, accessories? Without color, you'll need to carefully consider the shape and position of the eyes and other features, and rely on shape and contrast to direct the viewer's focus.

Do you want to show the rich hues of their skin, or color of their lips? In color, it's important to get things just so — even over the vast range of human tones, these are strong memory colors, and small changes can look unlike your subject — or even into the uncanny valley and not properly human at all.

Going to black and white gives you freedom from this. You have a wide latitude to adjust from low-key to high-key, depending on the mood and look you want to convey. This also lets you adjust the relative strength of different color channels — the digital equivalent of shooting in black and white with a color filter. (In fact, see: Which color filter do I use for a black & white portrait?). This opens up a range of possibilities not open to color photography. For example, red or orange filters can mask skin blemishes — although they also tend to vanish lips (so you may want blue makeup to compensate).

Finally, there's:

Time and Timelessness

Photography is unique as a visual art because it is so tied to modern technology. Color film wasn't commercially viable until the mid 20th century, and wasn't really the choice of the masses until the 1980s. So, going black and white is a cheap way to harken back and make a photograph seem old timey.

That sounds kind of lame — and, I think it often is... an easy "instagram filter" choice with no real consideration. But, it can be more than that, too. Color anchors us in time in more ways than just tech progress — think avocado green and harvest gold from the 1970s, neons and black from the 1980s, blues and earth tones from the 1990s... color is fashion, and fashion is fickle. Going to black and white frees us from that.

Additionally, many great portrait photographers over the years have worked with black and white, either by choice or because of the time they were working. If you want to emulate their look and style (and, imitation is not just flattery, but also a strong learning technique!), black and white is simply given... although, it strikes me as a good exercise to try to reproduce the feel of a black and white portrait you like in color instead. (What works? What's different? Is it vital?)

5

I will let you with some intermediate questions to help you answer this question by yourself :

0. Base concept

Before anything else, your picture must have a goal, a vantage point, something to say, to show, a core idea. Photography is a communication medium, so you have to have something to communicate first. Once this is set, well, every visual choice is just a matter of serving your core idea.

1. What's the goal of your portrait ?

Are you documenting ? Are you expressing yourself ? If you want to stick to the true reality, stay in color. If you are creating and expressing yourself, both color and B&W are possible.

2. What's the vantage point of your portrait ?

Ted Grant said : “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”.

2.1. Depiction or suggestion ?

As mentionned in other answers, color gives a liveliness to the picture whereas B&W gives a timeless feeling and let more to the imagination (the brain reconstructs the missing colors in a personal way). In a way, B&W is like reading the book, and color is like watching the adapted movie.

2.2. Is the color bringing something to the picture ?

My personal approach is to photograph in B&W by default and switch to color if the color adds something. B&W conveys all the mandatory information : shapes and textures. Color is not needed, it's a bonus.

Poorly choosen (or not choosen at all) colors can distract the eye and weaken the idea or the subject of the picture. If there are too many unmatching colors, or oversaturated colors, this could be a good idea to eliminate them.

On the contrary, well choosen colors can add another dimension to the picture, add a meaning, set a mood. Red lipstick changes immediately your perception of a woman for example. Think of Steve McCurry's pictures of India without colors, you lose a lot…

3. Technical limitations and lighting

Color photography works best when the contrast between the shadows and the highlights is moderate. It's really difficult to get accurate colors when you have to recover a deep contrast in post-production.

On the contrary, B&W works best with dramatic and highly contrasted pictures. The result is more graphic. Take a good color photo and switch it to B&W, you will get a dull grey picture. Adding contrast on portraits in post-production will add local contrast too so you will make pop out all the skin flaws (it's like sharpening them).

With nowadays astounding softwares possibilities, adding or removing contrast seems no big deal. However, doing it in a natural and subtle way, without creating artefacts, is another game. So sticking to reality of the lighting during the exposure is still the best way to enhance a photo without destroying it.

4. What do you prefer ?

After what I mentionned, you will still find a lot of grey zones where color and B&W both work. So what matters the most is your personal taste. You are the artist here, you get the right to decide.

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Black and white is used to have more focus on the subject of the picture. Color distracts our eyes from the main purpose/subject of the photograph because the cones in the retina of our eyes pick up the different types of colors from reflections. You can read more about how that works in this article.

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    Depends whether you want the viewer to be attracted to, say green irises or purple lipstick, etc :-) – Carl Witthoft Apr 12 '17 at 11:49
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As the photographer it's a choice only you can really make. There's no black and white answer (BOOM BOOM... i'll see myself out...)

There is no definitive rule; image like x must be in colour, images like y must be black and white.

You need to look at each photo in turn and go what do I stand to make, what do I stand to lose. Take the subject as well as the subject matter. If it's a beauty image and they've got fantastic deep blue eyes, flame red hair, purple lips, metallic eye shadow. This will be lost. If it's an older 'follicly challenged' gentleman with a face filled with wrinkles and lines, who's been working down the mine since they could walk, and the image is about THE FACE of this man. turning to b+w (AND increasing contrast. Never forget this) will really bring these weathered features out.

Another thing to consider is your editing style. If everything else is colour or black and white, and you suddenly doing the opposite, how will this look?

Lastly, the 'is this image better in b+w or colour' is the bastion of inexperienced photographers who wish to pass off their work as 'edited'. From experienced most people go black and white, purely as they think 'its artistic' (same as with Instagram 'filters') as it's not the original image. Think about why would it look better in either first.

All of this is null and void however if you're shooting monchrome only film. Then the decision has been premade!

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The main question as is the case in every single question about this is does color help or hinder.

For example if you're doing a set of corporate headshots. Color could very well hinder. Maybe Jane in engineering looks a little sunburnt and Joe decided to ignore the memo and wore a blue suit instead of black. For uniformity you might decide with the client that going black and white can solve some of these issues and better achieve the purpose.

On the other hand if you're doing portrait work for a makeup company, a fashion line, the model then the color of their eyes, perfect colored and applied makeup, a particular piece of clothing or jewelry could be the focus and should be in color.

Then there's all sorts of other areas where its really up to you as a photographer. But the general rule and question is still the same - does color add anything? If not, get rid of it.

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I assume you are asking about your own art work, not commercial photography. It that's the case, there are no rules - use your own taste and creativity to decide.

Black and white portraits can be beautiful, but they don't mix well with color in one presentation - at least for my taste.

  • Why particularizing commercial photography? I think a lot of different views exist on the subject in this field. – Olivier Apr 16 '17 at 14:46

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