Lesson: Dramatic & Emotive Black and White | by Tanya Lorraine


There’s just something about black and white photography that tends to stop me in my tracks and make my heart sing! I could never really put my finger on as to why until just recently. I was doing some research and stumbled across some amazing quotes. One of my favorites completely encapsulates the feeling I get when viewing black and white imagery. Ted Grant said this, “ When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes, when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” I find this to be so true and THE reason that black and white imagery almost always makes me STOP and stare! When all color is stripped away we are more able to focus on story and emotion. The contrast between light and shadow become the soul focus and it really has the ability to draw the viewer right in. Of course not all black and white imagery is the same, we all have our different voices and styles and that is a good thing! My style tends to be low-lit, moody imagery and there are extra things that we can do with black and white photos to help give an image the feeling of dramatic emotion and depth. Below are some of the things I try and utilize to create emotive and dramatic black and white imagery.

  • Light -spend any amount of time studying the art of photography and you’ll learn that light risky! For me this just comes naturally as I am drawn to light and shadow first and foremost, even in my colored imagery. Scenes with strong contrast between light and shadow are perfect for converting to black and white. If your scene is too evenly lit the image will appear washed out in black and white. For those of you that learn more tactically ( like me) try this little exercise for more understanding: I ADORE windows and use then a ton in my imagery. Using any window in your home as a single light source, study the light throughout the day. Seek a time of day that the light is hard and directional through that window. Next place a table or chair with an object on it.. like a vase or a person and take notice how the strong contrast between light and shadow give the image more depth. Try taking several images from different angels and positions to see which composition has the most dramatic feel

  • Feeling of the scene- How we see and interpret a scene is another way to evoke deep emotion within that image. Feelings that tend to evoke strong emotional mystery, sadness, contemplation etc… these are perfect for black and white conversion. An example of a good way to portray mystery is by taking faceless portraits or storytelling images. Sadness is as easy as capturing your child crying. Good old portraits ( strong eye contact with the camera or looking away) with hard directional l window light is another amazing way to capture mood and drama and these all convert amazingly to black and white.

  • Textures, Form and Movement - Textures are amazingly highlighted when converted into black and white. Side light and directional ( hard) light are the best types of light to accentuate texture. Examples of textures would be cloudy skies, raindrops on windows, water spraying from a hose, skin, hair, clothing, foliage. it’s endless really. Form is wonderfully accentuated when converted. It adds a third dimension to your image and that to me really adds to the drama. I love to use side light and backlight when accentuating form. Movement is another way to add depth and emotion to your black and white imagery, again the strong contrast between black and white really highlights the action in the scene so instead of focusing on the color of the scene we focus on the what’s happening within the scene. One thing that I like to do with movement is use a slow shutter speed or even just intentional blur by placing subject out of focus. This gives the image that extra feeling of mystery or even paranormality.

  • Exposure & Post Processing- Sharp contrast between light and dark is key to achieving depth and emotion with bnw. In order to achieve this you will want to expose for the highlights. Post Processing for me is where you can really make the magic happen and create dramatic black and whites. I use LR and I have a few presets that I will use ( different depending on the image) as a base and then I tweak to my desired affect. Of course first you will want to start with the basics ie.. making sure the image is straight and cropped correctly as well as the correct white balance. Then move onto the Tone Curve panel. I always create or tweak some version of the classic “ S “ curve here ( this is achieved by dragging the lower third down a bit and the upper third up a tad. ) This will deepen the shadows and brighten the lighter areas. This is a must for really making the image stand out. I am also a huge fan of heavy contrast and heavy clarity, so I always mess with these a bit in the basic panel. Depending on how heavy I move these sliders I may also lighten the shadows and blacks… sometimes I actually darken these. It all depends on the image. I would say that I am at least a 30-50 on both my contrast and clarity, sometimes more! Then it is on to fine tuning using the adjustment brushes. I love using the doge and burn tools to create extra emphasis in all the desired areas to make the image pop. I encourage you to head on over to LR right now and practice. The more you practice the more you will hone in on the adjustments that you love and will create a unique and moody image that suites your style and voice.


Thank you so much for reading and I hope you have found this little tutorial to be helpful in achieving that emotive. Black and white you’ve been desiring to capture! Have fun practicing and I can’t wait to see what you come up with!


Tanya Lorraine

Megan BoggsComment