Lighting for Black and White Portraits

Scroll down to content

Setting up lighting for black and white portraits doesn’t have to be complicated! Follow along with lifestyle photographer Jay Watson for some quick insider knowledge in the studio.

Using one big light source created three things for this black and white assignment for Bicycling magazine of road racer Peter Stetina: an evenly lit background, edge light, and contrast due to fall-off.

Highlights and shadows give us a range of tones in black-and-white photography, yet too much of each can give us too much contrast. The visual style here required the background tones to be a flat, light gray while the portrait needed to be soft with a bit of contrast and some fall-off.

Usually, I use the back edge of the light so the softest part is in front of the subject. Here, I did the opposite. Using the front edge of a 7-foot Westcott Silver Bounce Umbrella with a white diffusion cover at camera left, I lit just a slice of Stetina’s face. Since there was no light in front of him to create a wrap-around or fill, the back of his head falls off into shadow.

The 7-foot umbrella was used to evenly light the background in conjunction with a large white panel. This was used to bounce light back onto the background at camera right yet tilted away from Stetina to keep the right side of his head dark. He had arrived to the shoot from a training ride, and the directional lighting shows some of the real-life character of being a road racer, like the sweat from his jersey in the portrait.

The separation between the background and his face is so subtle that it would be lost if the light or background distance had changed just a few inches.

To view more portraits from this shoot, read These Legs Were Made for Cycling on Check out more of Jay’s work on his website. Shop the Westcott lineup at

Article courtesy of Westcott and Jay Watson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: