3 Ingredients for soul-stirring, emotive black-and-white photography

3 Ingredients for soul-stirring, emotive black-and-white photography

  • How to create emotive black and white photography

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.

LIGHT

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.
How to create emotive black and white photography

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TEXTURE

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).

How to create emotive black and white photography
How to create emotive black and white photography
How to create emotive black and white photography

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.

NOSTALGIA

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.

How to create emotive black and white photography
How to create emotive black and white photography

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MYSTERY

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.

How to create emotive black and white photography
How to create emotive black and white photography

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.

Contrast

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.

Grain

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.

Fine-tuning

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.

A photo showing the image before a black and white edit
Before
How to create emotive black and white photography
After black-and-white conversion and editing.

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

About the Author:

Hi! I’m Tanya Lorraine. When I'm not busy with all things photography related, I can be found at home teaching my 9 beautiful children. I'm a published lifestyle/documentary/fine art photographer from Springhill, Tennessee & founder of Tanya Lorraine Photography. My work is a blend of lifestyle, documentary and fine art. I love to use natural light and creative storytelling compositions. I strive to capture authentic emotion and connection in my imagery. I became a Click Pro in June 2018 and an Unraveled Expert Artist in October 2018. I am an artist with Offest and Cavan Images and I have been featured with Clickin Mom’s Blog, Click Magazine Blog, Bella Grace Magazine and Beauty Revived 50 Beautiful Mother’s 2018 campaign. My current projects include creating educational content for Hellostoryteller Academy. Visit Tanya Lorraine Moon online.
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14 Comments

  1. Carol Stremlow February 7, 2019 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Beautiful photography . Capturing life in black and white definitely gives an emotion of nostalgia. Captures time and real life.

    • Tanya February 7, 2019 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Thank you ❤️❤️❤️

  2. Sage February 7, 2019 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for all these amazing tips! I can’t wait to try them out! Love the idea of using nostalgia from my childhood to help evoke emotion!

    • Tanya February 7, 2019 at 3:05 pm - Reply

      You are so welcome, and I’m so pleased you’ve enjoyed this! I can’t wait to see what you come up with! DM me on IG or tag me in your image when done ❤️

  3. Melissa February 7, 2019 at 2:26 pm - Reply

    These is amazing and incrediblly informative. The images are gorgeous and evoke such feeling and emotions. Thank you for sharing your expertise. Absolutely in love with your work!!!

    • Tanya February 8, 2019 at 11:30 am - Reply

      Oh thank you very much, you made my day!❤️

  4. Liz Nyquist February 7, 2019 at 8:47 pm - Reply

    Incredible article and expert advice on craft and emotional storytelling!! Truly inspiring! Thanks!!

    • Tanya February 8, 2019 at 11:29 am - Reply

      Thank you so much Liz! ❤️

  5. Tanya Montpetit February 7, 2019 at 9:18 pm - Reply

    Such great tips and gorgeous pictures!!! Thank you so much for sharing! I also love to work with my Lensbaby Velvet. it makes the pictures so dreamy!

    • Tanya February 8, 2019 at 11:29 am - Reply

      Thank you so much Tanya!

  6. Sarah February 8, 2019 at 8:31 am - Reply

    I love hearing this from your perspective! Black and white images are so beautiful—especially yours. And of course, I love myself an article of pretty words and these were stunning! Thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to see more from you!

    • Tanya February 8, 2019 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Thank you so much Sarah! I’m so glad you enjoyed this!

  7. Cindi February 9, 2019 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Great article and stunning photos! Do you use specific BW Lightroom presets?

  8. Sopo Titvinidze February 14, 2019 at 9:53 am - Reply

    Amazing photographs, I see black and white images exactly like you describe it. Thank you for sharing so much!

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