I adore black and white photography. This quote by Walt Whitman sums it up perfectly for me: “What I like about black and white photographs is that they’re more like reading the book than seeing the movie.”
Black and white photography is naturally emotive. When you strip away color from an image, it automatically has a more timeless and nostalgic feeling and can transport you back in time to days long ago. In black and white photos, we are forced to focus on the story of an image without being distracted by color.
I love to evoke drama, mood and emotion in my black and white photos. I do this through detail elements, storytelling and post processing. Through these techniques, I’m able to draw forth the story that speaks to me.
1. Emphasize details through light and texture.
There are many elements that add detail to any image, but in black and white photography I love to focus on light and texture. These elements work together to really bring out the details of the story I’m trying to tell.
If you have spent any time at all in learning the art of photography you know that light is everything. Without it, we do not have a photograph. There are three types of light that I focus on when creating emotive black and white photographs:
- Low light is extremely dramatic. I love to push my ISO as much as I can. When doing this I make sure to expose for the highlights in my image so that the brightest part is correctly exposed and the rest falls into a gradient of shadows and darkness. This helps create strong contrast and leads the viewer’s eye only to what is happening with the main subject. To me, low light evokes a feeling of softness and contemplation.
- Hard light is another way I like to create drama, but I feel that hard light evokes more of a harsh feeling. I use shadows and capture stronger emotions, like anger or sadness, in hard light. The stark contrast between light and shadow aids in creating that strong emotion.
- Soft light creates a more whimsical feeling because there aren’t strong shadows to create heaviness. I love to go near the edge of my woods (I have 10 acres of land) on cloudy days. The soft light shining down directly on my subject coupled with the darker shade of the trees behind creates such a peaceful and mysterious emotion.
Texture is that little detail that is like the icing on the cake. Any strong texture converts beautifully into black and white and gives an image depth and tangibility. Clouds are my absolute favorite texture to incorporate into black and white photographs, but other great examples are buildings, hair, skin and textiles. By intentionally shooting out of focus, you can create texture in blurred areas.
One of my favorite ways to capture texture and details in black and white photography is with my Lensbaby Velvet 56. I like to create low-lit macro images that focus on the texture of the subject. This can be eyelashes, fingers, toes or the texture of a flower petal. Then in post processing, I push the contrast and clarity (anywhere from 50-100 percent on both).
2. Tell a compelling story.
What does it mean to take a photograph that tells a story? I like to think back to english class when we were learning sentence structure. We learned that every sentence has a subject and predicate, remember? The subject is the main focus and in the predicate we have what the subject is doing. In a storytelling image, we will have a subject and they will be doing something. In my stories I love to use elements of nostalgia and mystery to amp up mood.
As long as I can remember I have daydreamed of happy times long since passed. I think of my childhood on my grandparents’ ranch, and how I played carefree all day long with invisible friends, caught frogs and horned lizards, and sat quietly inside the house listening to the whistle of the wind come down the chimney. Imagine capturing the sentiment of those memories in an image.
Since nostalgia is a feeling, capturing it is subjective, but a lot of times it involves childhood imagery — children playing a game, picking flowers, swimming, swinging, or just being kids. Think back to your childhood and use that as your inspiration. Think of your own classic childhood moments — such as when you first learned to ride a bike or roller skate — and draw on the way those memories make you feel.
I like to think about the classic American painter, Norman Rockwell, and his view of American culture. I encourage you to think of what inspires your feelings of nostalgia and create a Pinterest board with your favorite childhood moments. You can use this as inspiration to recreate classic nostalgic moments in your own black and white photography.
I am obsessed with mystery. I love reading true crime novels and watching shows like Forensic Files and Ghost Adventures. My favorite ways to portray mystery in black and white photos are through faceless portraits and intentional blur.
Creating intentional blur can be done in several ways, but my two favorites are freelensing (which requires detaching your lens from your camera body) and movement (intentionally moving my lens until I achieve just the right amount of blur). Blurring the subject just enough so that you can’t see certain details evokes a feeling of mystery and draws the viewer in.
3. Use post processing to add impact.
Post processing is an extremely important part of emotive black and white photography. Without the magic of editing programs for digital photos, I wouldn’t be able to convey the deep emotions I want in my photos. When I’m editing a black and white photo, I have a few tricks to bring out details and really enhance the elements of my story.
Sharp contrast between light and dark is key to achieving depth and emotion. The contrast and clarity sliders in Adobe Lightroom are my best friend. Depending on the image, contrast and clarity will be anywhere between 30 to 100.
Adding an “S” curve is another favorite editing trick of mine. This deepens the shadows and brightens the lighter portions of an image, really making the image pop.
I also use the luminance sliders to add contrast. The orange luminance slider will control skin tones and the green will adjust foliage and grass.
I really love the look that grain gives to black and white photography. Adding grain gives an image that old-time feeling and helps to add to the nostalgia. I usually have my grain set to anywhere between 20 to 30.
I always end by fine-tuning my images with adjustment brushes. I most often use the dodge and burn brushes to locally adjust areas of light and dark. With these brushes, I have control in visually adding or taking away detail in very specific areas of my images to help convey my story.
The more you shoot and try different elements of black and white photography, the quicker you will zero in on the adjustments that evoke emotion and drama for you. I would love to know your artistic ideas for adding emotion and drama to your black and white photography. Please share in the comments below.
All photos by Tanya Moon