Use Black to Create Intrigue & Drama

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East Coast, Lens Canon 24-70mm 70mm, f/2.8L USM f9.0 1/200s ISO 100

Do you want to create drama in your images? Let dark tones dominate. Are you keen to capture your viewers’ attention? Let shadows do the heavy lifting. Do you want to inject mystery into your images? Allow swathes of darkly toned negative space to fire-up your viewers’ imagination.

Forgive me for hammering home my point. It is no accident that dominant shadows in an image encourage the viewer to imagine what might be lurking within them. Dark images can elicit a vicarious emotional response, heightening our senses and engaging us to imagine tension, isolation or a sense of danger. Unconsciously, we are drawn into the narrative of the image. We become totally engaged in the vision of the photographer. The response to black in an image is not restricted to negative emotions. Black has other connotations that can engage us in a positive way. Excitement, mystery, anticipation and intrigue can compel viewers to actively engage with an image.    

It is perhaps no accident that film directors such as Ridley Scott have so successfully used darkness to create uniquely compelling dystopian movies such as Blade Runner. Similarly, Don McCullum’s early landscapes of a post-industrial northern England and more latterly his bleak winter landscapes around his home in Somerset, use dark tones and shadows to create a powerful sense of drama and tension. By his own admission, Don McCullin’s war experiences created an indelible scar which he now expresses through his landscape images. A world far removed from the human conflict he spent so long capturing for us on film.

Landscapes have the power to inspire our creativity, perhaps more than many other genres in photography. Ansel Adam’s famously stated that “you don’t take images you make them”. He was right. It is the image see in your viewfinder that matters, but the one in your mind’s eye that counts. Ansel Adams did not simply document the national parks of North America, he captured a vision on film that inspired millions to visit and admire them. As photographers, if we simply go through the motions capturing a technically perfect and well composed but nondescript image, viewers will nod and smile politely but are unlikely to become engaged in the image’s narrative.

In fine art photography, the photographer is able to exert an unparalleled level of creative control. Whether you are looking to create a futuristic landscape, or seascape that pulses with mystery and isolation, you have the control and creative choices available to you to bring your vision to life.

Prior to the digital age, it was left to photographers such as Bill Brandt who were able to create in their analogue darkrooms, deeply moving images filled with tension and drama. It is not only the content of their images that has resonated over the years but their individual artistry with light and shade.

Fast forward to today and we have at our disposal the incredible firepower of processing software such as Lightroom, Photoshop and Silver Effex. Photographers have been gifted almost total control over their RAW images. If you are willing to invest the time and effort to understand the sometimes bewildering array of controls and creative work-arounds the opportunities are endless.

A word of caution. Mastery in the digital darkroom should never be the end goal. Neither should finding the perfect location or owning the latest piece of kit. These things are only ever likely to be part of your creative journey. You must have in your mind’s eye the image you are looking to create. How else will you know when you have captured the necessary raw material in-camera. What will you use to guide you through the countless number of technical and creative decisions during your digital darkroom journey.

Envisioning – the creation of an imaginary future image in the mind’s eye of the photographer is not an accidental process. It requires the photographer to form an emotional connection with the image he or she wishes to create and critically, understands the emotions he or she wishes to elicit from the viewer once it is finished. Often this is the most creative phase for the photographer. A deeper understanding of the landscape, its geology and history are important requisites. How the landscape is affected by the quality of light. How weather, season and time of day plays a role in the appearance of the landscape in-camera.

With many styles of landscape photography, there is little tolerance in many of these aspects. Time of day, weather, light quality and season are immovable variables that need to be considered and taken account of when deciding how to approach a location shoot. With fine art photography however, there is greater latitude for at least some of these factors. The degree of flexibility and which ones can be pushed is a matter of experience and practice.

With fine art photography, the photographer’s vision lies at the heart of the image creation process. Consequently, you are able to exert more control and are able to work with less than ideal ambient conditions. In my next article, I will be explaining how this works in practice and sharing some of my best practice tips and techniques for fine art location shoots both out in the field and in the digital darkroom.