How To Light For Black and White
If I were to say I had a specialty, it would have to be lighting for black and white.
This is how I learned to light, shooting 4×5 black and white negatives and visualizing what my ratios were going to look like for that exposed frame. Black and white lighting also fits my beliefs on lighting: Light spaces, not people.
The key for black and white is that you have to light passively. You have to reserve yourself when making a lighting choice. For me, I motivate my lighting. When I step into a space I see where the natural light in the room is coming from, for instance if it’s coming from a window then I know I want my main source coming from that window.
Once that main source is up you’re going to have a very clean one light set up. What’s exciting is that you can light for black and white with just that one light if you want, however, it’s very important to look at your scene and ask yourself where is it falling dark? What I mean by this is look at where the shadows are falling and decide if any part of your subject is falling into the blackness of the shadows.
If you have anything falling too dark, you can then work on separation. What’s exciting here is that depending on your own style you can either start with a kicker for your subject or go with my favorite choice, a background light. The background light is the most powerful light in your arsenal when lighting for black and white. With this one light you control what the audience sees in the background and how it separates the subject from the background. It’s what makes your image look 3D and gives it that pop.
I know this a basic overview of lighting but I feel as though you learn better when you’re inspired to think differently about a topic. Lighting for black and white is something that not many people think about, but if you give it a try I promise you’ll find it to be well worth the challenge.
For me, when I’m lighting on set I’ll normally set my viewing monitor to monochrome so I am only focused on my image and ratios. If it looks good in black and white I guarantee it’ll look amazing in color! Of course then you have to start worrying about color contrast but that’s a whole other topic in itself.
Until then keep creating.