Naturally Lit B&W Portraiture

Recipe by Wendy Stevenson


At Bayfield we are going to have the opportunity to shoot some naturally lit portraits.

The use of natural light from a window will be most complimentary.  As well, each portrait will be converted to B&W, again, for the most complimentary results.

We want to make these portraits as professional looking as we can as this is also a fund raiser.    Remember, the eyes are the window to the soul, and these are the features you want tack sharp as well as having a night catch light in them.  Only manual focus will attain this.  Your f/stop should be set at f/5.6 so that while the eyes are sharp the rest of the face is softer, not showing every pore.


For many you also have the option of shooting in colour or B&W, I will be shooting in colour and converting them in Photoshop CS3.  If you have no conversion software shooting in B&W is a great alternative – they will still need a bit of tweaking.

Here is one way of converting our portrait along with a sample of what your goal should look like. 

After loading your portraits onto your computer, take one and open it in Photo Shop (again, I can only deal with this software as I use no other).

Basic Steps:

  1. Click on channels (beside the layers tab)
  2. You will see four layers the first one RGB, then the Red, Green and Blue channel separately
  3. Try either the red or green channel (blue in most cases will just be too dark and make the skin look grey)
  4. For this portrait of the lady I decided to use the green channel as I found the red one too light and the green maintained the shadow on the left
  5. Now click under Image/Mode/Grayscale in the tool bar then
  6. Flatten layers – ok
  7. Discard other channels – ok
  8. You are now working in grayscale
  9. Duplicate layer by pressing Control “J” (just in case you want to start over)
  10. Do some slight dodging and burning as you see fit
    1. OR – you can do a slight curves adjustment – just remember when working in grayscale the curve is the opposite way – instead of setting the first point lower to lighten it you have to move it upwards.
  11. When you’re happy with the overall results go back to Image/Mode/RGB so that you can save it as a Photoshop file
  12. Duplicate the entire image file (so you maintain your work/PS file)
  13. Flatten to get rid of work layers
  14. Crop your image to the size that was ordered (5x7 or 8x10) or both (in which case you have to duplicate the entire image once again) and repeat steps 15, 16 and 17
  15. Sharpen with the unsharp tool found under Sharpen Filter, if needed – you are sharpening a print file and it’s MUCH larger than a web file so don’t be afraid to sharpen by 100% or more if needed – you can always check results by viewing “print size”
  16. Save using file number as well as name of person in portrait – save as jpg at the highest resolution for best print results.


Examples from Bayfield:

(Both photos belong to Wendy; please click them to view them at their original source.)