It’s all about light: making mood and strong images in monochrome

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Rush hour

A couple of days ago, we looked at the inexact science of color and emotion: I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the mood and feeling of an image is influenced heavily by the dominant color palette, both in terms of the color of incident/reflected light and the color of the subject elements themselves. But how does this translate to black and white images? Obviously, it’s very possible to do since not every monochrome image feels the same. Even within the same sort of general lighting – say low key – it’s possible to produce variations in mood. How?

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Early start

As usual, the answer to this question goes back to light. Specifically, quality of light: diffusion, direction, primary and secondary sources, fill or reflection from surrounding objects, and the texture of your primary subjects themselves: what are they reflecting or absorbing? As you can see, there’s a huge amount of possibility here for variation – and control. The two main things to consider are direction and diffusion. A backlit image will feel very different to a side lit or front lit one; or worse, one lit from direction along the same axis as the camera (think direct flash). Directionality is generally your friend: without it, there are no shadows. And without shadows, there’s no clear translation of the three dimensions of the real world into the two dimensions of a photograph. Without shadows, we have no texture, we have no spatial cues, and we have no definition or separation between subjects and backgrounds or foregrounds. Even if you have isolation by depth of field, if there’s no contrast, the image will appear flat. Depth and three dimensionality is an illusion created by shadows; directionality of light is really all about control over shadows.

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Hot sun

Diffusion is slightly more subtle, and is also related to reflectivity and absorption. Think again of the shadows: how hard or defined are the edges? The more diffuse your source, the softer the edges and the more vague the shadows become. The opposite is also true: the harder and more directional your source, the more defined the shadows. This can be useful both compositionally – shadows can become a structural element in the image, or even a subject in their own right – and for mood; heavy, dark shadows lend an air of mystery or uncertainty to a scene.

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It all boils down to what is visible and what isn’t, and the way our brains interpret it: the more we can see and recognise, the less mystery there is. The less is visible, the more unknown is left behind, and the more subconscious thinking we have to do to try and fill in the gaps. And we typically see anything unknown with a caution flag; there’s mystery and danger here, and that creates a certain emotion, which in turn affects our mood when perceiving the image. This is negative space: it is a very powerful device that one can use to fulfil a wide variety of audience’s expectations because the fact that what is inside is ill-defined (or not defined at all) means the audience is free to interpret it how they please.

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A sense of calm

The structure of an image matters, too: something with a gentle gradient from top to bottom is going to feel peaceful, tranquil and ‘safe’; on the other hand, jarring gradients are perceived as aggressive or crunchy contrast and give the impression of intensity and a lot going on. This is because information in an image is relayed through contrast and frequency; the more you have of both, the more information we think is present. This may or may not be useful information, i.e. something relating to the intended story or not – but it can have the effect of distracting the audience or even over saturating them. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing: it can be also part of the intended mood, if the intention is to cause a visual overload or a sense of calmness. Taking things a step further, there’s also concentricity to consider: light going to dark in the centre reads as entering mystery; dark going to light reads as exiting it, or focusing on a goal. Remember, what is visible is certain and safe; what isn’t comes across as risky.

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Entering uncertainty

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Focus on the goal

You’ll notice I haven’t really talked about overall exposure or average brightness yet; this is because it’s something I’d consider independent from quality of light (which is an off-camera thing, and not always in direct control of the photographer) as opposed to brightness which is in direct proportion to the amount of light entering the camera and can be controlled by shutter speed, aperture or ISO. We know that the brighter something is, the better defined/clearer it is: we can see it, and recognise it, and understand its details. The darker something is, the more is left down to audience interpretation. Choose your final exposure wisely: that influences your mood. But unless you’re shooting film, or with a camera that has a strange native tonal response, you still want to be always exposing to the right to retain as much tonal information as possible.

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The one exception to that rule is when you’re photographing in backlit situations – i.e. high key. This is when your subject is the darkest thing in the frame; in this case you should expose for your subject and let the rest fall wherever it falls. Overexposure isn’t a problem technically; it might be visually, but only if the transition between what’s still within capture range and what’s blown is abrupt. You want to ensure that transition is as smooth and gradual as possible, so your audience doesn’t perceive any transition at all: this is the way our eyes work in reality. Things are seldom so bright that we perceive no detail; this generally only happens if we stare into bright point sources. Similarly, blown out bright point sources are fine in photographs, too.

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Enter the magic forest

You’ll notice that I tend to work mostly in mid to low key; this is for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the way I visualise the world, developed from a time when my influences shot in low key, and we had to eke out every single bit of shutter speed or find the lowest possible ISO for optimum image quality, and on top of that we had dynamic range issues – you could have shadows or highlights but not both. ISO 800 or 1600 was the limit and we worked around that, spot metering for highlights and letting the rest fall where it fell. The subjects would be always in the light and clearly defined and isolated because they were the brightest things in the frame; the other things visible would be of lower importance and instantly read as being of lower importance simply because they were less bright and lower contrast.

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Note deep shadows.

This method of seeing/shooting is a style and habit that’s stuck with me to this day; the difference now is that we have a much larger shooting envelope, and a lot more flexibility in dynamic range. What it does allow us to do is have extremely smooth, very natural deep shadows and extreme highlights; almost nothing ever clips (but we still allow small areas to go to full black or white to allow our audience’s eyes to gauge overall scene brightness). ETTR is no longer quite so critical because there’s so much information on hand. Personally, this has given rise to a more balanced style where there’s a slight but perceivable bias towards slightly brighter or slightly darker; I don’t want the mood to be so in-your-face that it overwhelms the subject and removes contextual detail. I think it’s important to have both, and ideally the tonal control to map your luminance zones precisely.

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Balance and elegance

Of course, the other three major photographic ‘controls’ also influence mood: depth of field, perspective and motion. At an emotional level, depth of field really controls focus (of vision, not just of the lens) and intensity: where is your attention concentrated? How important or distracting are the surrounding elements, and to what extent do they enter your consciousness when you look at the main subject? There’s a reason why photos of the bride are one of the few times where super-shallow depth of field is beneficial: the groom probably doesn’t want to see anything else.

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Perspective is about involvement: are you an observer, or a participant? The longer the lens, the more of an observer you feel, and this is reinforced by foreground use (if any). If there’s nothing between you and the subject, and the subject clearly dominates the foreground (a wide, used properly), you must be a participant. Motion is I guess a question of fluidy vs tranquility vs urgency and all of those things: does the world move around the subject, or do the subjects move through the world?

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Passing through

Capture is only half of the battle: you need the right ingredients to cook your meal, but you still need to cook it and present it. Postprocessing is the last bit of the cooking and plating process: the visual impact of a dish is very different depending on how much care goes into the presentation. Even if the taste is the same, we may not think it’s the same because of the expectation created in our subconscious around the way the meal is presented; the same dish in a white-tablecloth restaurant won’t feel the same as if served in a roadside stall.

The same thing goes for images: if the light is directional, your subject is interesting and stands out, with a composition that’s balanced and tells a strong story, but your postprocessing is coarse and results in haloes and sharp transitions to overexposure – it won’t have anywhere near the same level of impact as an image with Ansel Adams-esque tonal gradation. Photoshop is solely about optimising presentation, not changing composition or content. But it is important to note that you can heavily influence the overall mood with the shifting of a curve: this is of course exposure and key. When we bring it all together – capture, exposure, postprocessing – it’s of course important that the final image works for the original idea; if there’s too big a gap, the message doesn’t get through and the idea is lost in translation. I’d like to leave you with a couple of previous bodies of work as examples of having a solid idea and using all of the available tools to set a mood.

The Dreamscape Project
Underground workers in mono
A little casual jazz
Workers of heavy metal I
Workers of heavy metal II

For much more detailed discourse, techniques and postprocessing on black and white images, have a look at the Monochrome Masterclass workshop video – it’s available here from the teaching store.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Brett Patching says:

    A great, easy to understand article supported by excellent images, Ming.

  2. Reblogged this on Eileen Lyn Wah.

  3. Wow. This is refreshing and just what I needed. I’ll be doing two weddings this summer that will be in 35mm B&W film format with a Bessa rangefinder and 3 lenses. The couples already have a main digital photographer, whereas I’ll have a more photojournalist approach to their big day Researching all I can and found this to be most helpful. Thank you.

  4. It is refreshing to see someone talk about the art of photography and not about the gear of photography for once.
    I always enjoy stopping by and looking at your photos keep it up.

  5. Interesting read,as this is an area of concentration for myself at the moment. Great images as always. Thanks again.

  6. Reblogged this on project easier and commented:
    Great post on monochrome and mood.

  7. Martin Fritter says:

    Shades of Sugimoto! Very useful and some outstanding images. So great: no gear identified (other than a ND filter). When you do gallery shows, how large are the prints? How large are your ultraprints? If one wanted to soften an image (“less sharp”) how would one do it – other than in post-processing?

    • Thank you. Gear not relevant, it’s just the image 🙂

      The prints are as large as they need to be – I know this isn’t helpful, but it depends on the subject (some need space to breathe, others are fine at 12×16″ Ultraprinted) and the gallery. Most Ultraprints don’t exceed 12×16″ or 16×20″ because of resolution limits. I am working on a series of Forests that are in the 500MP range and greater (up to 1.5GP, currently); these go to 40×20″ and up.

      Sorry, can’t answer the ‘less sharp’ question – that has never been something I’ve considered.

  8. Hi Ming,
    Excellent article (as usual). Quite surprised that there are not many comments …
    I’d like to post a slightly different comment: I like all the photos in this article, except “Balance and elegance” …
    Well, looking at the photo, my eyes wander around.. I’m not sure what to look for, or what story is being conveyed here even though the tonal transition is nice and
    I know art is subjective, but would you mind sharing a bit about that photo: your intention, the story, or dare I say “why you think it work”
    This is not a criticism, but more on learning how to appreciate. Hope you’re not offended

    • Thanks Dennis. That’s because it’s not an equipment review 🙂

      Balance and elegance: perhaps not the best choice of image on my part, because at this size there is not much separation between layers. The print, on the other hand, is very different…

  9. I just come to look at your consistently great photography (even if it does look over sharpened.) : )

    • That’s flickr’s non-removable downsizing algorithm at the host end. If you look at the originals, you’ll find none of that haloing present.

  10. A very well explained essay on lighting. I come here for this, thank you Ming Thein for illuminating me with your words on your passionate times 🙂

  11. Great article Ming! I really like the portrait of Nadiah (I think?) because of how it integrates her into the landscape.

    And speaking of things like the transitions from dark to light or vice versa and their emotional effects is one of the great and unique features of your blog: breaking photos down into understandable, repeatable technique. No one else that I’ve seen does this.

  12. Kristian Wannebo says:

    And yes, beautifully illustrated.

    My favourites:
    Rush hour
    A sense of calm
    Note deep shadows
    and outdoing classics..
    Enter the magic forest
    Balance and elegance

  13. Kristian Wannebo says:

    An interesting read, as always; I haven’t thought consciously of most of this.

    And one of the illustrations has, to me, a double meaning:
    “A sense of calm”, not only so, it’s [not 😉 ] all in the mind of the viewer.

    My first look saw two images: shoals of gravel in calm water (likely), or dark surfaces of water ruffled by the wind where the ice on the sea had locally thawed (unlikely).
    ( A close look at the higher resolution in Flickr did not resolve the issue, full resolution probably does, only the type of variation of darkness makes ruffled water unlikely.)

    When I see it as a photo of ice, this kind of ice is dangerous to walk out on (unless you are an expert).
    And that strengthens the feeling of uncertainty, or even threat.

    But I set this view aside and see water and shoals.
    Then a sense of calm still fights with a slight sense of threat from the darkness of the darker surfaces.

    You said it, mentioning mystery and danger.

    • No ice in the tropics, Kristian – it’s a long exposure with ND filters; long enough to smooth out the water, but not so long as to render it completely featureless. I like the texture that remains, because it suggests – as you say – that sometimes calm is just an illusion…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Well, I was sure it wasn’t ice – unless you found some between skiing sessions…
        I just tried to stay with only the photo.
        But I am sure my double feeling would have been there anyway.

        Ah, ND explains a lot.

  14. Thanks for a great post. it’s easy to get caught up in the moment when shooting and not be conscious of all the tools we have at our disposal. Makes me want to go out and try harder.

    • A good tool is one that enables you and doesn’t get in the way, not one that lets you do everything but takes half an hour to find the menu option. The rest is down to the operator…

  15. “Photography,” from the Greek meaning light graphing/drawing or nowadays imaging. Too often we forget this very basic, this crux of either film or digital imaging. Light is what we are given to work with. Your article really brings us back to this basis (light) and how it’s given to us and then how we use (or misuse) it.

  16. Question: is a flat image always bad?

  17. John weeks says:

    Yes, yes, yes!
    I love these black and white articles.
    Rockstar is perfect !
    Beautiful images!!!
    Thanks Ming…

  18. The images in this article were a joy to see. Superb article. It brought so many things together. Thank you, Ming.

  19. Hey, Ming,
    You should check the picture URLs, i have some erorr 404 when i tryn to open them.


  20. Andrew Peverini says:

    When you are shooting with black and white film do you prefer to use any color filters on your lens? If so, do certain color filters have different effects on the mood of the image? Thanks!

    • Yes and yes – whatever filter you use will exclude light of the opposite wavelength on the color wheel, i.e. a red filter darkens blue and a blue filter darkens red. All filters will cut light to some degree, so you’ll need to compensate exposure accordingly. It’s necessary for film because the medium itself is panchromatic in sensitivity, but not for digital because you’ve got the channel mixer afterwards – and you retain maximum flexibility for color and/or B&W.

  21. Wonderful read Ming! the photos are outstanding as well.

  22. Ming, loved the passing through…

    Is there a better way to filter out the people other than shooting with a slow shutter speed?


  1. […] on from yesterday’s article about light and mood in monochrome, I feel some examples are in order. Though these were all shot in San Francisco, they are from […]

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