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 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:
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!
The next 3 images are an example of the three.
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:
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.
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!
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.
Related: How to Edit a Moody Portrait
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.
Jennifer Magnuson, Advanced Grad