Posts Tagged ‘Black and White Photography’

The Language of Black and White Photography

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

For me, a photograph is very much a kind of language. It can be as practical and unadorned as an entry in an encyclopedia. It can be a set of instructions. It can be a chapter in a novel or it can be haiku. And for those of us to whom words do not come easily, a photograph becomes the language that allows us to express who we are, what we think and how we respond to the world around us.

But every language needs a vocabulary of sorts, and in photography, that vocabulary can be color or black-and-white, abstract or factual, expression or documentation.

Having been Ansel Adams’ full-time assistant for five years, and exclusive printer of his black-and-white Special Edition Prints of Yosemite for over 40 years, it comes as little surprise to most people in the photo world that I choose the “language” of black-and-white photography to express myself. (BW).

While I have enjoyed working in color at various points in my career – I assisted in a high-end, largely color, advertising studio for three years before my time with Ansel and operated my own advertising studio for a dozen years after that – I have to acknowledge a preference for my monochrome world.

By its very nature, BW is an abstraction of reality. With color work, unless I am doing something dramatically arty, you are likely going to feel something is “wrong” if I show you a landscape with a green sky or a portrait with purple skin. There is an inherent expectation of “reality” with color.

With BW, however, I can render a rich blue sky as something light and airy with little distinction between cloud and sky, or as something deeply moody, with strong separation between cloud and sky.

Neither of these variations is dependent on color, and neither would give rise to a feeling of something being “wrong;” they are just an interpretation or a more personalized way of expressing a feeling or reaction to a scene.

It’s very liberating to create one’s own version of reality instead of being held to the reality of what is actually in front of the lens.

Working in BW doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does require some thought with regard to tools and approach.

“Seeing” Black-and-White in a Color World

A major consideration is that fact that even though we may be working towards a BW image, the world in front of our lens (and our eyes) is in living color.

To help me make a visual “leap” from color to BW, I look beyond the colors in a scene and instead look at the relationships between those colors. Then I imagine how I can manipulate those relationships through the use of filters to create emphasis or focus.

When I’m working with film, I have to imagine the effect of a filter before I release the shutter. A filter in front of the lens lightens its own color, darkens its opposite and leaves neutrals unchanged. Exposure has to be increased to compensate for the density of the filter.

The color circle above shows the scientific relationships of primary colors. Red is the opposite of cyan, yellow is opposite blue, and magenta is the opposite of green. Knowing these relationships helps you anticipate the effect of a filter, or suggest what filter will give you the effect you want.

With a strong red filter, for example, I can render a green leafy plant in front of a reddish sandstone wall as a dark plant against a light and delicately textured wall.  (Green is nearly opposite of red.) Or with a deep green filter, I can render that same plant as very light against a dark and moody wall.

When working digitally, I make the capture in RAW and then experiment with different interpretations of these relationships using controls in Lightroom or Photoshop. Each color in the capture can be manipulated independently from other colors, and since the skewing is done in post-processing, no exposure compensation is necessary.

The illustration below shows how Photoshop can be used to either mimic the effect of a filter in front of a lens, or, in playing with different colors, can create a completely unique effect.


Post Processing Tonal Control

Another freedom from reality in working in black-and-white is being able to dramatically modify tonal contrasts and densities in a way that seems natural and perfectly reasonable, but would look like a big mistake in color.

A case in point is with the use of considerable tonal controls to realize my objective with one of my most significant photographs, Bridalveil Fall in Storm, Yosemite 1974.

I was running the darkroom for one of Ansel’s Yosemite workshops, and the entire group took a “high country” field trip on a day a fluke thunderstorm rolled through Yosemite. The wind and rain cut the trip short.

Heading back into Yosemite Valley with some fellow assistants, I encountered an amazing view of hanging clouds and Bridalveil Fall.  We screeched to a halt and reached for our gear. I set up my 4×5 camera, made two exposures, changed lenses and then made two more exposures.

Since my workshop job was running the darkroom, I developed the film the same day and contact proofed.  But the proofs were a bore! They had all the tones, but none of my “mood.”

In making the image, I had felt a deep impression of a dark brooding storm with heavy sky and vibrant hanging clouds. When I got home and made my first print, I wound up increasing the contrast in the foreground clouds and forest, and darkened the sky to achieve the mood I had felt for the image.  Success!

Upshot: a black-and-white image, being already an abstract of reality, can render a scene with considerable drama, or delicate nuance without looking forced or “wrong.” The photographer is in charge of his or her own reality.

Making an Image

Following are a few tips for getting the best shot – digital or analog.  The principles of photography are largely the same, whether working with film or digital, but the particulars of achieving a desired vision in black-and-white with the different platforms require some different techniques. When I am contemplating making an exposure, I tend to think of things in the following order:

Composition: What is it that attracted me to the scene or subject in the first place? Where is the best place for my lens? My relative position to the subject(s) establishes the structure of the image.  If I move a bit to the left, does a tree branch start to get in the way. If I lower my eye, does a fence-post start to bump into the prime object of my image.  I have made some images where the difference of an inch or two in lens position could make or break a composition.

All of this is done before I ever get my camera out, and I frequently use a framing card or my hands to “audition” my composition.

Quoting Mark Twain in his essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses: “Eschew Surplussage!” If it’s not needed in the image, don’t include it. Or at least minimalize it.

Lens choice: The only thing a change in focal length really does is change the cropping of your image. Choose your spot then choose the focal length that gives the best cropping. Choice of lens has no effect on the subject structure of an image – that is governed by the location of the lens relative to the subject(s).  What is often attributed to “lens compression” is actually a result of changing lens location to suit a long focal-length lens.  If the camera position is not moved, the relationship of elements in a scene remains unchanged regardless of focal length.

Filter choice: If you are working digitally, most filter effects can be done in post-processing, as explained above. The exceptions are in using ND filters to extend exposure time, and polarizers to darken skies or control reflections. A 1A Skylight filter can cut through haze nicely. With analog or Leica Monochrom, a colored filter has to be decided on before exposure.

With digital, it is possible to see the effect of BW right away. While I tend to capture only in RAW mode, if you set your camera to capture in both RAW and jpeg with a monochrome setting, most cameras will show the jpeg as a BW image. If you want to preview the effect of a filter, you can put an actual filter in front of the lens and the image review will show that color effect!

Exposure: With digital, the crucial approach is to not over-expose highlights.  If the sensors are overloaded, there is very little, or nothing, to recover in post-processing. A washed-out white cloud is much harder to live with than empty shadows – and deep shadows can often be recovered to a surprising degree.

The  histogram will also tell you immediately whether you have held your highlights! If the histogram is slammed into the right side of its window, reduce your exposure and do another capture. Hopefully your subject is still there for a second try!

With film, the opposite approach is the rule. The one thing that cannot be fixed after the fact is under exposure. It takes a scientific amount of light to rattle the silver molecules enough for there to be anything to develop. If the film does not get that minimum amount of light there is nothing to print or scan; just clear film.

Finding your Muse: Is the Language of Black-and-White For You?

So is black-and white for you? Only you can answer that. There are countless, stunning color images that would be a complete bore in BW. If National Geographic or NASA worked only in BW there would be so much in and out of this world we would know nothing about. If flowers and fall colors were only shown in shades of gray how dreary! I photograph to express my feelings about things I see.  I do photograph a lot in color, but it is the black-and whites that let me express a reality in a very personal way.

Most important: Have Fun! Take your subject to heart before bringing your camera to eye. Photographing roses? Take a moment to smell them first!























Can the Zone System Go Digital?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

In a word: YES!

The Zone System (ZS) can be an integral and important part of any digital photographer’s workflow because it allows you to plan and predict an image’s tonal values rather than letting the camera make the decision.

The computerized metering systems in modern cameras are really amazing, and a lot of the time they will give you practical exposures, but in difficult or extreme lighting situations, the scale of the subject’s brightness is simply greater than the camera’s technology can handle.

The Zone System:

  • Lets you be aware of whether, or how much, the scene brightness exceeds your camera’s limits
  • Lets you make an intelligent decision about how to expose when the tones/contrast in a scene are “bigger” than what your camera can capture
  • Helps you avoid blown-out highlights
  • Lets you know how much exposure range you need for successful HDR captures

The Zone System 101

To use the Zone System effectively in the digital world, you need to understand a few of its basic principles:

The ZS was originally conceived by Ansel Adams and fellow photo instructor Fred Archer as a tool to give photographers working with black-and-white negative film (no digital back then!) the ability to plan and control the effects of exposure and development. They created a “scale” of tones from black to white and assigned each one a number, with “I” being almost pure black and “IX” or “X” being nearly white or white.  Zone “V” is middle gray, and each “Zone” is one stop lighter or darker than its neighbor.

In the digital age, image contrast can be easily increased post-capture, but there is no practical means of reducing image contrast in a single capture. Pre-exposure can enhance shadow tonality, but this requires the ability to double-expose, and High Dynamic Range techniques (HDR) require three or more exposures for best results.

Sophisticated “evaluative” metering modes in modern cameras can handle many complicated shooting situations, but if the contrast of the scene exceeds the recording scale of the camera, something’s gotta give. This is where the ZS can help.

Step One: You Need a Reliable Hand-Held Spot Meter
A 1° measuring spot lets you measure important areas precisely and with ease.  Using a camera’s “spot” metering mode is not always practical:  the size of the spot depends on the focal length of the lens and generally requires a lot of button-pushing and pointing the camera this way and that – an exercise in frustration and wasted time.

Without a spot meter, you may know that you will lose tonality at one end of the scale or the other, but you have no way of knowing which, or by how much, at least until examining an after-the-fact histogram. By then, your scene might be gone!

Step Two: Your Spot Meter and the Zone System
By design, a spot meter will give you an exposure to make the measured area middle gray. This gray is called Zone V. If you measure snow in sun, the meter will give you the exposure to make the snow Zone V gray. If you measure a black speaker grille, it will give you the exposure to make that grille Zone V gray. If you want the snow to look white (not paper white but a very light gray) you need to PLACE it on a higher Zone. If you give one stop more than the meter says, you are placing the snow on Zone VI, two stops more than the basic meter reading places that value on Zone VII, and so on. As for the speaker grille, it is just the opposite. You would need to expose the grille two or three stops LESS than indicated in order to make it look dark. This would PLACE the grille on Zone III or II respectively. You can only PLACE one value. Everything else, then, FALLS in natural relation to the placed value.

Step Three: Know Your Limits
In order to plan a ZS approach to exposure, you need to know what tonal range your camera can and can’t handle. The composite image below shows nine images made with the Canon 5D set on MANUAL exposure. The target was a Kodak Gray Card with white and black patches that I made many years ago for testing the tonal range of slide film. I set my Pentax Digital Spot Meter to the same ISO as the camera, took a reading of the gray card and exposed according to the meter (a Zone V middle gray). I made four darker exposures one stop (Zone) apart and four lighter one stop apart.

At three stops under the Zone V exposure, I had made the gray card almost as dark as the black patch, so that told me the camera could hold some tonality for a subject on Zone II. On the bright end, the gray at two stops brighter than Zone V was still a noticeable light gray compared to the white patch, but at three stops (Zone VIII) the gray had turned as white as the white patch. That told me that my upper limit for recording highlight tonality is about Zone VII-1/2, or five and a half stops total range.

Step Four: Measure Your Subject Highlights
In general, with digital (and color transparency film), images look their best when the highlights are not blown out. If a photo opportunity is fleeting or moving, and I only have one chance for a shot, I will take a quick spot reading of an important high value, maybe a white dress or bright cloud, and give it an exposure of about 2-1/2 stops brighter than the basic meter reading (Zone V). This PLACES that dress on Zone VII-1/2.  Having already done the test above, I KNOW that it will be very bright, but not “blown out”!

With digital, there is nothing evil about some subtle bracketing, so if you have the opportunity, go ahead and give some + and – exposures. With some practice and your spot meter, though, you’ll be surprised how often you get it right the first time!  You might not need step five!

Step Five: Measure Your Subject Range
If you suspect the range of brightness in the scene is significantly beyond the range of your camera, AND you have the opportunity to make multiple exposures of a stationary subject, you can use HDR techniques. The ZS can be a big help here, too. Rather than making random plus-and-minus exposures to cover subject brightness (dynamic range), you can quickly measure exactly how much range you need to cover.

Let’s say I have a tree in the foreground in deep shade with some textured charring on its trunk. In the same composition I have bright sun glaring off some pale boulders.

With just two spot readings I can determine the range and how to deal with it. First I’d read the charred trunk. Based on my test above, I would know that if I gave it a Zone II exposure it would still have tonality.  That determines the shadow exposure. Then I’d read the bright rocks. Let’s say they measured 8-1/2 stops brighter than the trunk. That is 3 full stops brighter than what my camera can record. So I now know that AFTER my first shadow exposure, I need to make 5 or 6 more exposures each at ½ or 2/3 faster shutter speed than the exposure before, until the last exposure is at least 3 stops darker than the first. Then it’s time to let Photoshop CS5 and/or other preferred software combine the exposures.

Bottom Line: Keep in Mind that the Zone System is Not Dogma!
Its application should be considered as something deeply personal.  If you simply have a hunch that you like a certain shadow two stops darker than a basic meter reading (Zone V) rather than three, do it that way! It’s really a lot like cooking. If YOU like YOUR veggies al dente, don’t “expose” them to so much heat that they are over done!  Bon appétit!





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