The other day someone asked what made a good black and white photograph. He went on to say that he only uses black and white processing when he’s trying to achieve an old photo look, but noticed when someone converted one of his color images to black and white it looked better because the distracting color of an object was eliminated. While both might be good reasons for sometimes converting to monochrome, I find the approach puzzling. Why use monochrome to “save” a picture only? Or to fake a vintage look? Then I thought about it a little more and wondered if this kind of thing happens because people new to photography have never shot film. My initial conclusion was borne out in a limited way by conversations I had with two photography buddies. One has a good eye and often produces excellent images, but only has digital camera experience where every image starts in color. My other friend on the other hand shot a lot of Tri-X in the past and we agreed that if you do this enough, you can get a feel for the gray value of color.
But it’s not the grays that make a monochrome image sing – it’s the blacks and whites. You’ve got to have both extremes to make it work. Even if you clip a little in the highs and lows, it’s better than having a dull, lifeless image swimming in gray. Depending on the mood you want to strike, lots of contrast can work to make an image sing as well. Don’t get carried away, but don’t be afraid to play with those sliders.
You can’t do all your work in post processing though. You’ve got to put the camera to your eye and envision things in black and white. Because there will be no color to catch or lead the eye, you must be especially careful about compositional elements and the forms and structures you’re photographing. A black and white image has to be even stronger in composition and framing than a color photograph. If it’s weak in color, it will be doubly so in monochrome. Remember that the eye instinctively looks towards white and light shades first. We also react very well to strong shapes defined by dark and light areas.
One exercise that may help you is to set your camera to record black and white jpegs. You can have it give you raw files, too, if you want color renditions. But if you really want to figure out what works and what doesn’t in black and white, set your camera to monochrome (most DSLRs and many high-end compacts have this mode, you just need to find it). You will still see in color through the viewfinder, but live view will be in black and white. Look at the differences. How differently does your eye follow through the image in color versus B&W? Are your forms strong enough? Can your subject be recognized (identified) without color? Are the gray values of the colors too close and without definition? Are you working with strong leading lines? Do you see pure white and black? It shouldn’t take you long to get the hang of it.
Once you’ve got your images on your computer, process them in the normal way, adding contrast, sharpness and cropping if needed. You can further enhance your images with white balance, color sliders in B&W mode and curves. If you can add grain, play with it. Tri-X film had some beautiful grain back before they changed it to T-Max and we loved using that as part of the mood of our images.
Oh and one more thing – don’t be afraid to take chances with black and white. Go for the unconventional. Do a black and white rainbow picture. Try a sunset in black and white. How about a flower? The beach? If your subject is strong in terms of form and you’ve nailed the composition, there’s almost no reason a B&W image can’t be as strong as a color image. Identify what’s interesting your subject – is it shape? Texture? Light and shadow? Framing? Mood? Use black and white to enhance those things that might be overwhelmed by color.
Here are a few more images that I think work particularly well in B&W. All were shot in color since I work from raw files, but each was done with a final B&W image in mind. Some were done this way because there was little color in the scene, some because the forms, lines, shapes or shadows made me go hey – I don’t need color for this one. They are all from my Black and White Gallery.
So to recap –
1. Set your camera to monochrome jpeg mode
2. Use live view to ‘see’ in black and white
3. Check for strong compositions and recognizable subjects
4. Make sure you have pure white and black in your picture
5. Take chances and have fun
Check out Black and White Photography 201
Frustrated by my inability to see outside in nature lately, I’ve turned my attention to the Junk Drawer in hopes of finding some worthy subjects. Dredged up this old transistor radio that was my husband’s when he was a kid. It still works!
These first three were shot with the Olympus 90mm f2 macro and the legacy ring flash unit. Rather than mount the flash directly on the lens I held it in my hand and aimed it at the radio, trying for shadows. It’s sort of hit or miss, but the process is enjoyable. I really need to rig a diffuser for it though. But the old 90mm gets cranky after using it a while. The aperture ring sticks and really needs overhauling. Apparently there’s like one guy left in the world with expertise in old Olympus lenses and so I should get it to him before he quits. So the next shot was done with the ZD 12-60mm zoom and no ring flash, mostly because I liked the light from the skylight.
Check out that stylin’ leather cover. Yep, gen-U-ine leather. Dig it. Yeah, that’s how my 5 year old husband rolled.
Here it is with that same lens and the ring flash. Once again handheld and off to the side of the unit. I like this one because it echoes the need to use your imagination when listening to the radio. My little transistor was glued to my ear at night when the radio plays came on. Even a TV kid like me could picture every scene in her head.
I thought about leaving these in their glorious beige-ness, but converted to black and white in Lightroom instead. I think it helps concentrate the textures and shapes. The accumulated dust in the crevices isn’t any more compelling in it’s dun-colored loveliness. So monochrome it is. Which is a great lead-in to my next post.
From time to time I go meet up with a few other local photographers. We are all part of the same flickr group and it’s pretty much the same core of people who go to them. We usually try for a sunrise. Winter shooting seems far more popular. Probably because sunrise is at 7am instead of 5. Sunday was such a day. Of course I got about 2 hours worth of sleep the night before. I hate that. Couldn’t get comfortable. I’m coming down with something and kept coughing. The cats kept bugging me. It was brutal. After getting up and reading for a while, I finally went back to bed and was able to sleep for a couple hours. After a bit of a Plan A snafu, we ended up at Adams Point on Great Bay (one of our usual locations) and I got this –
Jeff and I trekked across the meadow heading for the milkweeds hoping for some interesting side light close-ups. I wasn’t feeling it though. Didn’t like any of the compositions I was able to get and didn’t feel like changing lenses for the 10th time (I should have brought my 65-200mm zoom, but had the straight 135mm f2.8 instead – mistake!) so switched tactics instead. Looking up out of my tunnel vision, I saw this beautiful vista. The sun had crested the treeline, but it wasn’t very high and so there are still shadows on the snow. I love the blue of those shadows against the soft pink of the sunlit snow. And the vertical lines of those naked milkweed plants break up the horizontal in an interesting way. The rolling hills and the trees give interest all through the shot. And the sky is equally soft all adding to a hushed, tranquil feeling. Think of it as anti-HDR.
Instead of using my graduated neutral density filter in the field (because my hands were already cold enough) I decided to use the same tool in Lightroom. I added just a little bit of underexposure and saturation in the sky and treeline. Just like a physical filter would have given me. Normally I like doing things in camera, but I just didn’t have the where-with-all yesterday.
I still haven’t gotten a decent sunrise or sunset at this location. Every time I go the sky refuses to cooperate. No clouds or no color. It’s like a conspiracy. Luckily there’s plenty of stuff in the foreground to work with. Here are some from previous shoots –
Boring sky with no clouds, but plenty of color…just look at it reflected in the ice there. That shot is almost straight out of the camera. A little contrast adjustment and I think some sharpening. Now look at this next one – great clouds, but zero color. Sunset bid almost fail. Luckily there was enough interest in the sky for a monochrome. I walked around until I got some other elements to include and later had to climb up that oak tree because the bank was too muddy and slippery.
As a whole, I think they work well to showcase some of the reasons why Adams Point is a nature preserve and also hosts a marine lab. It’s not going anywhere and the pack ice is forming, so one day maybe I’ll get my wish – good color, good sky, pack ice and fog. A girl can dream.
Well not really, but on a photography board someone asked if aliens stole your gear (all of it) and somehow digital photography was rendered out of existence or banned or whatever (no cell phone cameras either), would you shoot film or would you give up photography? If you decided to shoot film, would you go back to your old gear (assuming you had any) or would you try something new.
My immediate answer was yes – I would shoot film. I did for 20 years and sometimes even now have the urge to go back to it, so I’m definitely a photographer at heart. So would I choose my old gear again? Probably. I think the ergos of other brands would do my head in.
My first “serious” camera was an OM1-n that I bought used together with an OM 135mm f2.8 lens. I already had an OM 24mm f2.8 that I bought new as well as a couple other lenses and an OM-G. Oh and a Sunpak flash –
A couple decades later just about I bought an OM-3 and a 35mm f2 lens because I’ve always wanted them. The winder I had back in the 80s, too, but I don’t know why. Just to have it I suspect. It made the camera a bit more convenient to hold sometimes, and balanced it with a long lens, but sort of defeated the purpose of the slim, compactness of the OM bodies.
Yeah, I’d probably go back to my old gear. But I could be tempted by some of its contemporaries. Back when I was choosing which brand have a long-term relationship with, I had a fling with the FA. I mean look at it. Isn’t it purty? It’s no Olympus, which to me are the most beautiful cameras from that era, but it is one serious looking piece of kit.
And much like the OM-3 it was a very advanced camera in terms of flash control, metering and shutter technology. It was also quirky like the OM-3 which eats batteries like crazy. The FA had some shutter problems and there were some recalls, but overall it was a tempting thing. I’d still kind of like to have one. Just to have it. I used to play with the one in the store I worked at just to hear the shutter fire. I do the same thing with my OM-3 now. Digital SLR shutters just don’t have the same sound. Or a film lever which is a tactile pleasure that has no equivalent in digital.
And how about this sweet baby?
Oh how I wanted one. But I found that Olympus made a world-class macro lens, too, and like 15 years later, I bought one –
I’d also be tempted by medium format, but as I don’t have a good enough scanner for those sized negatives, I’d probably just stick with 35mm film. Even now I’m tempted by the idea of processing my own B&W film again. All you need is a black bag, some chemicals and a developing tank…all stuff I used to have, but that got lost along the way. The need for instantaneous feedback could still be approached with doing the film myself and I could still use my old favorites the OM-3 and OM-1n. Plus there’s that chemical smell.
Yes, photography was a little more involved back then. A little more work. But I think that had its advantages. Shooting film was expensive and limiting. If you only had a couple rolls of 24 or 36 frames on you, you had to be discriminating in what you shot. Back then I took more care with each of my images, walking around and around getting the feel for the area or subject, then choosing a shooting position. After that, meticulously framing, composing and deciding on exposure. Now I find myself more carelessly shooting, taking 100 images in my front yard just because I can. Even though I have tried to be a more methodical photographer, the digital medium just makes things so easy and disposable. If you don’t like it, delete it. Don’t like that angle or depth of field, just take another shot. With film there were no do-overs. What you shot was what you shot and if you didn’t like it you’d have to burn another frame.
Film also has its downside; it’s confining. Digital has freed me. Freed me to experiment. To take chances. Lots of images means lots of ways to learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m not tied to a single film speed per camera. I’m not tied to a 36-frame roll. I’m not tied to the time of day. I don’t have to wait to see my images. Memory cards are way more reliable than film which could jam or not thread right if you weren’t paying attention. I don’t have to write down exposure settings for each image anymore to understand what I did right or wrong. I instantly know what my images look like and how I can improve them. I can take hundreds of photos and not spend another dime to see them (aside from my initial investments of computer, software and hard drive).
I guess it’s up to me to find the balance between the discipline of film and the freedom of digital.
So what would you do if aliens stole your gear and outlawed digital photography? Jump into the film pool or take up basket weaving instead?
I can’t help it. Discouraged and in my weird place I still had the urge to go out after a storm and take pictures of my front garden. The process itself made me happy and that hasn’t changed.
I basically just walked the driveway and the shoveled path and used the legacy OM 90mm f2 lens. The light was lovely and it was freezing, but I enjoyed myself. That’s important, but this new feeling of purposelessness is not good. I used to shoot for it’s own sake, but now it seems empty somehow. I don’t know if it will wear off or if this is really the impetus to take the next step and try to make this into a business. A small one anyway. But will that remove the enjoyment? See…this is what I’m bent around the axle about. Part of it anyway.
Lately I’ve been twisting in the wind over my photography. All aspects of it. Why do I do it? What good does it do? Is it good? Is it mediocre? Is it bad? Do I have a style? Am I a cliche? Should I try to market my images? Who would buy them anyway? Everyone and their brother is a ‘professional photographer’. Why do I maintain this blog when almost no one reads it? Should I change it? What should I change it to? All whirling around my head…
In spite of it all I went out. I LOVE being out. I can hardly describe it. The things around me astound me.
I’m so conflicted about what I want to do and whether I have the will to do it, never mind the talent. When I get outside though, that falls away. I feel peace. Connection. My mind lets go of worry.
I’m at a crossroads and in a rock and a hard place. Things are complicated. My life does not please me. I feel trapped by it. The longer it lasts, the worse it gets. The futility sneaks up on me and traps me in indecision. Oh how I wish all could be outside.
Part of the joy of shooting in the winter in New England is dealing with the cold. Mostly it’s just a matter of the right clothing, but a photographer lives and dies by her eyes and her hands and it’s the hands that suffer most. I think I need to get some of those pocket chemical hand warmers because damn, it’s freezing out there.
The other day I went to shoot this sunset on the nearby lake Massabesic.
It freezes pretty solid in the winter, but wasn’t quite there yet. It was making lots of noise though – cracking and groaning as if trying to have a conversation. I love the noises it makes. Still the ice that was there was interesting which was good because the only clouds in the sky were at the horizon. Those slightly higher ones above were there at first, but the wind pushed them out of the scene. It was the wind that killed me. By the time I shot these –
my fingertips were so numb I couldn’t turn on my headlamp for the hike back to the car. I had to put my thumb in my mouth to get the feeling back. I did warm up on the way back though, and so it wasn’t permanent, but wow, I haven’t been that cold in a while. Looking back on it, I should have worn some long underwear under my pants, but I didn’t. Torso-wise I was pretty well covered. Brain fade. I’ve been meaning to slap some pipe insulation in my tripod legs, but keep forgetting that, too. Constant contact with that frigid aluminum is hard on the fingers. Getting back into the swing of winter takes me a while I guess. Winter photography is its own reward, but I really shouldn’t put myself at risk the way I do.
Anyway, these were shot with my E-30 and ZD 12-60mm as usual and I overexposed by about a stop for each one. I dragged my old Bogen tripod because it’s better in the field than my travel one and I wasn’t walking far. I also used a polarizer and an 8-stop graduated ND filter. I recently read on another photography blog how passe these are, but I disagree. The author went on to say that he’d manipulated his final images with Photomatix. How is that different from manipulating them in the field (apart from my frozen fingers that is)? I can’t say I see any difference in the result. Use the tools that work for you I say.
And stay warm!
My husband is a runner and goes to races in the area. Sometimes I go with him if there’s something interesting to photograph in the vicinity. On New Year’s Day he went to Salisbury Massachusetts and so I went to walk the Old Eastern Marsh Trail that runs about a mile and a quarter. I wore the completely wrong shoes and ended up with wet feet from the sloppy slush, but I did get some gems –
I did a bit of research and found that the Great Marsh is the largest uninterrupted stretch of salt marsh in New England. It is protected to preserve habitat for all kinds of birds, fish and other wildlife. The Merrimack River empties here and so there are many tributaries in the delta, some of them still with open water making for some great reflections.
At one time people harvested hay from the marsh, and although there weren’t any staddles that I could see, there was this lone fence post. I really liked it with the cattails and grasses all matted down. As it was a bit far off and I couldn’t get closer I used the legacy Olympus 135mm f2.8 lens.
It looks like last year there was a boat tour of the marsh and I’ll have to remember that for this coming summer. Alive with birds the Great Marsh must be wonderful.
For 2010 I had a few specific goals in mind for my photography. Here they are –
1. Be more methodical and deliberate; be a more thoughtful photographer
2. Organize digital files better
3. Purge digital files
1 – partial win. I did envision specific photographs ahead of time and go into the field to produce them. This kept me focused and less distracted. I didn’t do this with every shoot though and often went into the field without a plan so only a partial win here. Overall I think my planned sessions went better than my unplanned. Scouting is something I’d never done before, but I found it invaluable. The ability to visualize a certain image that you’ll need to come back for is the germ of a good plan. Becoming familiar with a location leads to ideas and, hopefully, mastery of your shoot. This is not to say I’ve abandoned spontaneity, a couple of my best shots were completely off the cuff. I only mean to say that not every photo can be done this way and I needed to incorporate a more deliberate approach to my usual from-the-hip style.
2 – partial win. I should have looked at more Lightroom tutorials before using it. As the year went along I found myself stymied and frustrated by my lack of organization. Some things I did right, like keywording and using a semi-organized folder structure, but it wasn’t enough. For 2011 I have improved my workflow in some key areas and hopefully will have a more productive year post-processing-wise.
3 – fail. I got a 2 TB drive so who needs to purge?
So what’s up for this year?
1. Improve composition; read a book or two, podcasts, tutorials, essays etc.
2. Strive for more distinctive images
3. Maintain post-processing workflow discipline
Number one is a next step in my more deliberate photographer goal which is still in place. I frame and compose by instinct; basically do I like it, does it work for me – that kind of thing. While this works sometimes, it can be sloppy and inconsistent. I need to be more mindful of the artistic and technical elements that go into a successful composition. When I get my eye to the viewfinder the rules don’t even cross my mind and they should at least some of the time. I also had a better habit when I shot film – I walked around the subject a lot. I moved. I changed angles and locations. For some reason, I’ve gotten lazy and I really need to step out of my own restraints.
Number two is part of honing my personal style. Over the years I’ve taken some pretty clichéd images. I’d like to make a more concerted effort toward originality. Part of this may include post-processing, but I’m not sure. I tend to process each image as an individual, not pursuant to a constant style. I think this works to bring out the special qualities of each image, but may not do much in terms of creating an identifiable style.
Number three is about good habits and taking a little time at the beginning to save a lot of time after the fact. I think I’ve got a good workflow/organizational method worked out and I just need to stick to it.
Well that’s it. I hope that I can keep these goals in mind over the next year and have at least some more partial wins.
This blog will hopefully be part of the equation. I plan to incorporate more posts about how I’m doing relative to each of these goals. I don’t know if that’s something other people want to read about, but it’s something that will help me keep focused on them, so that’s what you’re gonna get.