Use Black to Create Intrigue & Drama

Do you want to create drama in your images? Let the dark tones dominate. Are you keen to capture your viewers’ attention? Let the shadows do some of 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 elicits a vicarious emotional response, heightening our senses and engaging us to imagine danger, isolation or sense of tension. Without warning, we are drawn into the narrative of the image. We become 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 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 of course. It is not the image that presents itself to you. It is the image that see in your viewfinder, 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 and capture a technically perfect image and well composed but nondescript image, viewers will nod and smile politely, but will fail to be engaged.

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

Prior to the digital age in photography, it was left to the masters such as the previously mentioned Don McCullin or Bill Brandt who were able to create in their respective darkrooms deeply moving image masterpieces filled with tension and drama that pulled you into the stories behind their images. It is not only the content of their images that has resonated over the years, but their individual artistry with light and shade. Pure masters of their craft.

Fast forward to today and the incredible firepower of our 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 infinite.

A word of caution. Mastery in the digital darkroom is not the end goal. Neither is 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 build. 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 achieve and critically understands the emotions he or she wishes to elicit from the viewer. 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 a greater latitude for at least some of these factors. How much latitude 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 during the shoot. 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 and how best to envision your images.