Today we’re going to take a deep dive into black & white portrait photography, specifically how to communicate mood in your photos. Read on to learn how to use light and tone with intention to convey a certain feel in stunning black & white portraits!
Tone – What Is It?
Tone is one of the most powerful ways to communicate mood in photos. But first… what is it?
When we talk about tone in photography – specifically in relation to black & white photography – it’s a measure of the lightness and darkness of every element in the photo, including the light.
With respect to tone, there are 3 types of images:
Low key – contains mostly dark tones and low light
High key – contains mostly light tones and brighter light
Midtoned – contains mostly mid tones and light that is not too dark and not too light
And when we say an image has good tonal range, we mean it has a good range of blacks, whites (or shadows and highlights), and a variation of tones in between. So if your portrait subject was in crisp, bright light, and is wearing a black t-shirt with a sky blue scarfe… you’d have a good tonal range.
The article below has a really great explanation about tone and tonal range which will change what you see through the viewfinder forever!
That’s a trick header! Everything in your photo – including the light – will add tone to your image whether you’re trying to or not. For example:
Dark colours, low light, and shadows will add dark tones
Light colours and bright light will add light tones
Mid range colours and light that is not too low and not too bright will add midtones
Use Tone to Communicate Mood
The darkness or lightness of a photo has the power to make the viewer feel a certain way, so you can choose to use a predominance of one tone intentionally as a way to communicate mood.
Low key – or dark & moody – can convey mystery, tension, drama, and generally feels more emotional
High key – or light & airy – can convey a sense of playfullness, fun, happiness, simplicity
Midtoned – a midtoned photo is neutral, and can convey a sense of calm or neutrality.
You might notice a lot of photographers are drawn to either low key or high key, and their Insta grid will be filled with a very recognisable style as a result. Let’s learn how to shoot each one!
1. Dark & Moody B&W Portrait
The following images are dark toned B&W’s. They would have mostly black and dark tones in the form of low key lighting, dark colours, with a little pop of high key light, or light coloured elements or clothing.
In this portrait, there was only a little natural light in the room, and she’s softly lit by window light. Combine that with a light coloured balloon and her tutu and there’s a pop of highlights to give it a little depth. These tones add a sense of the quiet contemplation going on, perhaps a quiet moment after a round of play, or the party is over and the last guest just left.
In this scene the light was deliberately kept low for a birth. So even though in reality there are lots of light tones in the walls which take up a big part of the frame, the low key light has muted them to a mid tone and combined together, created a low key portrait. In turn it’s helped convey the mood in the room at the time which is a momentous, dramatic occasion.