Black and White Portraits with Jacob James

Jacob James is a dedicated and passionate humanitarian, travel, and cultural documentary photographer with a passion for black and white portraiture. Jacob specializes in providing a range of multimedia solutions to aid non-profits in creating thought provoking social-awareness campaigns. He has worked with some incredibly inspiring non profits such as Mae Tao Clinic, Compasio and many more. We asked Jacob to share some of his stunning black and white photography with us and speak a little bit about his technique.

What draws you to black and white photography the most?
This is an interesting question and one that I often get asked. As a travel and cultural documentary photographer, often the majority of my bread and butter work is shot in color. I see black and white photography as a way of differentiating my work, especially the portrait work, to what many other photographers are producing.

I also find that when photographing in black and white, we remove the distracting color elements, and as a viewer, it allows you to focus on the light, shadow, composition, and often with my work, the subject's eyes and facial expressions.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls.
—Ted Grant[/quote]

Do you shoot with black and white in mind? Or do you decide B&W vs. color in post processing?
I may be in a minority when we talk about black and white photographers, but I very rarely shoot with black and white in mind. At the shooting stage my mind is focussed on manipulating and controlling the light, interacting with my subjects, and trying to tell a story with the elements in the frame. Any decision to convert to black and white is made at the final processing stage and is very image dependent.

When taking black and white photographs, what are the most important things to think about?
When shooting people in general, the most important thing to remember is that your subject is human. Treating your subject with respect and dignity rather than as you would a circus animal will transcend any language or cultural barriers and allow you to spend time creating your photograph rather than just taking it.

A solid understanding of how light works will get you a technically great image, but if you want your subject to allow you into their lives and for you to photograph them in an intimate setting, the most important part of the whole process is building a relationship with them. You may have $$$$s of camera equipment and lighting set-ups but a couple of hours on the internet learning about their culture will make more of a difference to your final image than any amount of gear ever will.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.
- Alfred Eisenstaedt [/quote]

If you're shooting with black and white in mind, what are elements you consider that may be different from color images?
Black and white images work best when you have a full tonal range to work with. Generally, lighting that adds depth and shape through strong highlights and shadows is best suited to black and white photography. Photographing relatively flat scenes where the contrast and tonal ranges are quite low often doesn't work so well in black and white.

If you are looking to create and manipulate the lighting in your images rather than relying on what is already there, then understanding two basic lighting principles should help you create strong powerful lighting. Understanding the relationship between relative light source size and "hardness of light" will allow you to control the depth of shadows on your subject's face. Also, having a basic grasp of the inverse square law will allow you to control the rate of light fall-off and therefore give you even more control of the shadows in your images.
Generally in portrait work, shadows are looked upon as something to eliminate by beginners; however, it is shadows that give your 2D photographs depth and shape, and they are an excellent tool to convey different moods in your images. Understanding and working with shadows is probably the quickest way to take your black and white portraits to the next level.

Any specific camera settings aspiring black and white photographers should keep in mind?
As I mentioned earlier, my black and white work is generally a second thought to actually creating the image itself and interacting with my subjects. Therefore, as far as specific camera settings go, I would suggest that you work as hard as possible to create as technically perfect RAW files as possible. This will then give you much more control in post processing as you will have a maximum amount of detail to work with.

On the other hand, shooting black and white gives you a little more leeway than color when shooting at really high ISOs. I have shot images at the Hi2.0 setting on my D7000 that are in my portfolio. This comes back to another point I mentioned earlier—if you have spent time with the subject of the photograph and captured an intimate moment, the technical quality of the resulting image and specific camera settings becomes secondary.

Any overall advice for black and white photographers?
The only advice I would give is to work on the building of relationships with the subjects of your images, and once you have mastered that, then really focus on understanding how to control and manipulate light.

I'm sure there is also bound to be a few people who struggle to work with black and white conversions in Photoshop or Lightroom. If this is you, I can't recommend Nik Silver Efex enough. As a starting point, I have a basic tutorial on my website with a free preset download that will hopefully help you to grasp how I go about editing my images.

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April 2013Black and white photographyJacob james