The Secrets of Black and White Portrait Photography


All images by Niall Hartnett. Used with permission.

When it comes to portraits, composition can mean a heck of a lot. But when you add the simplicity of black and white to the mix and a dash of what the square format can do for you, you can create something infinitely beautiful. Photographer Niall Hartnett tries to do this with large format film, careful compositions, a meticulous and exacting process, and by working with the person to create an image that is very telling about them.

And to Niall, it’s all about telling a story in a single photo with his Black and White Portrait Photography.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.


Niall: My father was an Irish poet and after he died I started a project to photograph his contemporaries that would be published with poetic tributes/essays. That five-year Odyssey really got me from a sometimes snapper to more serious–I mostly used a Zeiss 6×6 Folder.

Phoblographer: What attracts you to portraiture and film?

Niall: I think there is a lot of art and soul in the face and the body especially when people are still yet pensive. Much is revealed in the quiet moment a person when does not know how to act. For some reason both the models and I gravitate to the film images more. I think it has a more organic and dreamy feel that can reflect the personality of a person better rather than just image it. Also, film means you have to think more as a photographer as you work and the medium is a great talking point to connect with the models over. All of this combined with development at your own hand feels like a craft not just a snapshot.

Phoblographer: A lot of your tighter shot images put a a big emphasis on the face and the eyes. Why do you try to do this?


Niall: It is a cliché but I believe the eyes are the window to the personality beneath (soul if you will) and film with the right equipment and light really helps to ‘pull’ the eyes from the ground with a tight DOF. I believe this ‘look’ is very beguiling for most subjects no matter their looks kind of how big eyes make anime characters look appealing.

Phoblographer: Many of your subjects seem to have some sort of interesting story behind them that we as viewers want to get. How do you go about translating that they have a story to tell in the images that you shoot? Is it psychology?


Niall: I don’t ask subjects to change themselves or gloss over their regular looks generally so that their natural presentation shows through. Typically how we look everyday reveals a lot about us and I don’t want that disguised by make-up or costume usually. I am trying to really look at the subjects and make them very singular but by repeating the style I can also make them universal. I also ask them to be calm of mind and relaxed but not vacant if possible so the ‘spark’ still stays in the eye. If I succeed then I believe anyone can see something both uniquely personal and universal in my portraits.

Phoblographer: There’s obviously the rule of thirds, but what composition guidelines and tips do you personally adhere to all the time?


Niall: I like to shoot in square compositions mostly (even when shooting digital) and my compositions are generally symmetrical, formal and I suppose dramatic in a sense but generally I try to keep things simple.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear and film you use.

Niall: For close-up portraits I use a Mamiya C330 with an 80MM lens or the Mamiya RZ67 (110mm). I also have a Pentax 67 (105mm), a Kiev 60 and recently a Hasselblad 500CM. I used to use Fuji Neopan and Acros but now I use Arista primary (ISO 100 or 200). For color film I like Slide film when possible- Kodak E100VS or Fuji Velvia 100.

Phoblographer: It seems like you shoot with a lot of natural light. How do you feel like lighting helps you to get across the specific image that you’re trying to convey?

Niall: I don’t like flashes or strobes but on occasion will use hot lights. I think natural light is relaxing and comforting and gives a lovely glow to subjects when captured right. I think daylight illuminates us and our world the best and combined with good bokeh can be both dreamy and beautiful. A lot of modern images are very flat from phones and other digital devices – I think film cameras and daylight (especially reflected onto a shaded subject) give the greatest depth still and the sense of 3D like you you are looking into a window on a moment rather than a print or image.











Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.