I find it helpful to look back and see what my photography was like in the past. That is one reason I occasionally post an image taken five years ago (and, okay, another reason is that I don’t have any great new stuff to show). It is also fun to take an old image that I hadn’t done anything with and see what I can do now. In this addition of the 5 years ago series, I give you an image I took in New Orleans. In 2009, Tanya and I went to New Orleans for a convention. December is a great time to visit there, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go again at this time of year. New Orleans is a fun city for travel photography (and for the food too!). The image above is of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, also known as the St. Louis Cathedral, in Jackson Square – a wonderful building to photograph.
The image above was taken in color, worked in Lightroom, sent to Photoshop, and converted to black and white with the Nik Silver Efex Pro plugin (I do love that plugin). I was not too impressed with my original image, shown here without any processing other than the default settings in Lightroom. Looking at the unprocessed version, I can see why I chose not to do anything with it five years ago. I’m lucky I didn’t delete it. Part of the learning process for me has been gradually gaining the ability to look at a less than perfect scene or image and imagine what can be done with it. I’m still improving on this ability today. I don’t think I could have made the image above from this starting RAW file five years ago.
If you would like to see a few more photos from that trip five years ago, please visit my New Orleans gallery on by website.
Computer upgrade is mostly complete, and I am back to having a digital darkroom. It’s like magic! Lightroom is like a totally different program. When going to a 1:1 view, it snaps into focus in about 2 seconds and not the seemingly (I never actually measured) 1/2 minute. When running my Tony Kuyper triple play actions in Photoshop, they finish up in a few seconds. This is great!
The big test, though, was running Nik Silver Efex Pro, which would not run at all on my old computer. Several months ago I posted about wanting to do more black and white work, but not being able to use Silver Efex Pro. I was still able to produce quality black and white images, but was unable to use one of the top plug-ins for creating black and white images. So now with the new computer, it was time to put it to the Silver Efex test; it passed with flying colors (or actually lack of colors that is)!
I tried it out on an image I took over Memorial Day weekend on San Juan Island. Being on San Juan Island over the long weekend, I had hoped to capture some good images. However, since we were with friends and Tanya took pains to remind me that the trip “was not a photography trip,” combined with not the best weather in the world, I didn’t get anything I was really happy with.
Since first seeing photos of the Lime Kiln State Park lighthouse, I’ve always wanted to photograph it. And Memorial Day weekend was my chance. I convinced Tanya and our friends to have an early dinner so we could go out to the state park for sunset. Sunset was kind of a bust – not much color. However, we stayed into the blue hour, and I captured the shot featured here, which I thought might work well as a black and white. Below is the original RAW capture straight out of Lightroom with no development (other than the default). Also below is the color version after I developed in Lightroom and Photoshop – not bad, but not really what I was hoping for. I made a duplicate image and tried the Silver Efex Pro plug-in. It opened right up, and within a few minutes, I was able to create the image above. I was just playing around, and this probably won’t be my final version of the image. But Silver Efex Pro impressed me with how quickly I was able to get close to my black and white vision for the image. It’s great being back in the saddle again.
For those who are interested. This image was taken perhaps 10 or 15 minutes after sunset. The exposure settings were 13 seconds at f22, iso 100. I used a 2-stop, graduated neutral density filter.
My computer is down now, going through an upgrade. So for the next week or so, I am without a darkroom. I’m wondering how many of you remember the days when a darkroom was actually a dark room and not a computer? Or perhaps you are one of the few, the lonely, who still use a wet darkroom. I imagine there are very many, probably even the majority, photographers who have never even seen a real darkroom, let alone processed film or prints in one.
I do have nostalgia for my wet darkroom days. Back then, I shot with black and white film, usually Kodak TMax, and color slide film (Velvia or various versions of Kodak Extachrome). I don’t really miss shooting with film – I like being able to bracket and experiment with digital without having to worry about the cost of film and processing (though I’ve probably replaced those costs with camera and computer upgrade costs); I like being able to see instantly if a shot works on the back of the camera. But I do sometimes miss working in the darkroom, watching a print magically change from a blank sheet of paper to a photograph, or pulling a roll of film out of its developing can and seeing the negatives for the first time.
Processing film and producing prints in a wet darkroom was a much more sensory experience than working on a computer. And working in the dark, either in complete darkness or in the glow of a dim red safelight, enhanced.the sensory experience. With limited sight, the smells, feels, and sounds of the darkroom came alive. There was the unique smell of the developer or the vinegary smell of stop bath; the smooth feel of the paper and film, both wet and dry; the sound of the enlarger humming, the timer ticking, or the water running. And though the light was dim, there was plenty to see – the negative image (or color slide) projected by the enlarger, the neon green glow of the moving hands on the timer, and, as mentioned above, images slowly appearing from nothingness in the developer tray.
There was so much more activity too. Today, with computers, processing an image physically involves using a keyboard and mouse. But in the wet darkroom days, you loaded film into a development canister (in complete darkness) by breaking open the film canister, cutting the tapered end of the film off with scissors, threading the film onto a development reel (trying hard to make sure it’s threaded properly so each wrap of film doesn’t touch its neighbors – and never knowing for sure if you did it right or not until the development was complete!), placing the reel into the development tank, and piecing the tank back together (hopefully correctly) so that it was light tight. There was the pouring of chemicals in and out of the development tank, rolling the tank back and forth on a table top to slosh the film and agitate the chemicals. There was the washing of the film, and pulling it out of the tank for your first look to see if it was developed properly and if you messed up on your exposure settings. And finally, hanging the film to dry, using a hook on top and a small weight on the bottom to keep it from curling.
Similarly, printing was much more of an activity than sticking a piece of paper in a printer and pressing a button on a computer. There was loading the film or slide into a negative holder and placing that in the enlarger, moving the enlarger head up and down to get the right size for the print, focusing the enlarger (peering through a special little scope gadget to make sure the film grain was in focus), adjusting the print easel, calculating exposure times, setting the f-stop on the enlarger and setting the timer, practicing the printing prior to putting paper in the easel, placing the paper on the easel, turning on the enlarger, conducting dodging and burning with wands or holes cut out of cardboard, and slipping the paper into its chemical baths.
Before the days of digital, it was impossible to create totally identical prints when printing from the same negative. Small differences in timing of dodging and burning, timing in the developer bath, the age of the chemicals, etc. all conspired to make each print unique.
Those days are gone for me now. All that equipment was sold for pennies on the dollar or given or thrown away. Today, I process and print many more images in much less time, without dumping gallons of toxic chemicals down the drain. That’s progress I guess. But on these days when my computer is down, thinking back on those hours in the darkness does bring back some fond memories.
I love black and white photographs. I think black and white photographs may have been what really started my life-long passion for photography. In my pre-digital days, I had a wet darkroom in the back of the pantry of our kitchen. Though I did a little color processing, it was black and white processing that I truly enjoyed. I loved watching those pieces of photo paper magically transform and reveal an image when soaking in the developer bath. Those days are now long gone; I sold most of my old darkroom equipment for pennies on the dollar and even just threw some of it away when I moved to Tacoma.
But I still love black and white, though I don’t do much of it. I want to change that. Recently I downloaded a copy of Silver Efex Pro. I was excited to give it a try, since so many photographers make great black and white photos with it. Today I tried it out. Today I failed. It causes Photoshop to crash on my computer. I think I may have a video card issue. Luckily, I am planning a computer upgrade in the near future, and that may solve the problem.
But I still had the urge to make at least one black and white image today before getting to my other pressing work – fun before work, right? So I tried using the black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop and was not happy with the results. It caused some of my brush strokes applied in Lightroom to show and pixelated the sky. So I resorted to Lightroom for my black and white conversion. Though it is powerful, it doesn’t allow the type of targeted black and white adjustments I was hoping for that one can make with Photoshop or Silver Effect Pro.
The image here is the result of my efforts today. It is of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse; a 30-second exposure taken after sunset. I like the color version; I really like the black and white version. And I think I could love the black and white version were I to go back and fix some of the defects that my earlier color processing caused that are only visible with the black and white conversion. It seems that black and white conversions, at least the way I like to make them, amplify mistakes in images. Sensor dust spots become more visible; halos from imprecise brush strokes are more obvious; etc. After my computer upgrade, I think I will come back to this image, start over fresh with the RAW file, fix those mistakes and process it specifically for black and white, and again try Silver Efex Pro. Until then I’ll enjoy this slightly flawed image and keep thinking of black and white.
Fine-art photography is photography that displays the creative vision of the photographer as an artist. While fine-art photography can be either in color or black & white, in today’s digital world, black & white photography is quintessentially art since it comes as a result of an artistic choice on the part of the photographer.
Guy Tal’s latest ebook, Creative B&W Processing Techniques Using Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop, explores Tal’s techniques for creating fine-art black & white photography. However, this book does not offer any formulas or “prescriptions” on how to make black & white images. Indeed Tal does not give such advice, stating that while “it’s very easy to create high impact images by simply following prescriptions or using automated tools … such methods merely produce cookie-cutter works that, despite being visually appealing, tell me [Tal] little about what the photographer was thinking or wanted to express.” If you are looking for quick and easy methods to make black & white images, this ebook is not for you. Instead, if you want to create black & white images that express your inner vision, this book will definitely help you on that path. I highly recommend it for any photographer who enjoys black & white, wants learn to think holistically about their craft, and has the twin goals of improving their artistic vision as well as their photography.
It’s not surprising that Guy Tal would write a book with few prescriptions that is heavy on following your own vision. Tal is an extremely talented landscape photographer who has made unique images for years. I first became aware of Tal approximately 10 years ago when I first starting doing digital photography. Last year, I started following his blog. While I have always admired his work, it was through his blog that I learned how seriously Tal takes his art. He often discusses photography as art. For example, some of his recent blog posts are titled The Case for Landscape Photography as a Fine Art and Photography and the Creative Life. He continues his emphasis on art in his new book, where he explains in detail the creative visioning process that goes into digital black & white photography.
That’s not to say the book does have technical details as well. He discusses RGB values, how color is mapped into black & white tones, how histograms relate to the Zone System, bit depth, color spaces, how digital noise is different in the different color channels, etc. There are plenty of technical details in the book. So many, in fact, that occasionally I found myself wishing for less. However, when Tal does go into technical details, he does so usually to make a valuable point about why such knowledge is important to the black & white photographer artist. For example, he explains how digital sensors record red, green, and blue (RGB) values for each pixel, how with an 8-bit file there are approximately 16.7 million colors possible in an image, and how for a 16-bit file there are over 281 trillion possible colors. Why is this important for black & white? Because, as Tal explains, when the RGB values are reduced to gray tones, the possible number of tones falls dramatically – for example, there are only 256 gray tones possible in an 8-bit file. That is too small a range to give smooth transitions in many images, which leads to banding, posterization, or other artifacts. Therefore, it is critically important in digital black & white photography to shoot 16-bit files (which have 65,536 possible gray tones).
The book is set up almost as a text-book, with each chapter ending with a set of exercises or questions to test the readers knowledge of the subject present (answers are given in the back). After an introduction, Tal discusses the importance of color to black & white photography. He states, “while it may seem intuitive to think about B&W photography as the elimination of color … such characterization is, in fact, inaccurate. Rather than eliminate color, the B&W photographer converts (or maps) colors into tones, that is, degrees of lightness.” The idea that color is mapped into gray tones is important to all aspects of digital black & white photography, so Tal presents it right up front.
The rest of the book follows Tal’s general black & white workflow, which builds upon a creative process framework Tal presents in one of his earlier books, Creative Landscape Photography. The steps to the workflow are:
- and Presentation.
One interesting fact about his suggested workflow is that three of the six steps occur before pressing the camera’s shutter release – a demonstration of Tal’s emphasis on the artistic aspects of photography.
Tal defines Concept as “the instinctive realization that there is an image to be made.” It is “a significant impression … an inner voice whispering ‘there’s something here.’ “ He discusses training your brain to become more aware of these impressions, to know when there is a new concept to be had. According to Tal, developing your own concepts is important because with the advent of digital photography and the abundance of work on the internet, “the challenge of distinguishing one’s work is no longer one of technical skill but rather of creativity, personal expression and originality.”
He describes Visualization as “a mental process aimed at imagining the different ways in which the concept can be realized in an image and picking the most effective one.” Visualization “is not a momentary decision point” but is rather “a process of ongoing refinement that drives all activities from the moment of inspiration until the image is finished.” This process requires the photographer to have an ability to imagine how a scene will look in gradations of tone, including the multiple possibilities of those tones (since any given color can be translated into multiple different tones). He suggests developing such ability takes time and effort to perfect.
Tal’s discussion on composition is relatively short, since composition is not unique to black & white photography. For Tal, composition is more than the arrangement of visual elements within a frame, it is “a visual language that can be applied in order to communicate facts, emotions and thoughts.” He reminds his readers that different compositional options than originally planned can become available, so a photographer should take care not to exclude different options for the sake of their original concept. Only working on first impressions can lead a photographer to miss out on “other stories the scene has to tell.”
Capture is the process of using the camera to record light. He considers the capture one of securing the raw data necessary to create an image, not one of making a final image. He states: “creative photography is not a sport. No trophies are awarded for getting the image ‘right’ in the camera and/or in a single exposure, despite the attitudes to the contrary. Therefore, the proper way to approach the capture phase is not with the aim of rendering the final image in-camera, but rather as a process of harvesting raw materials to be used later in making the final image.” He goes on to explain several best practices to use to help ensure capturing the highest quality data from which to make the final image.
The Processing phase is “where most the ‘heavy lifting’ of B&W image-making occurs,” and Tal devotes a large section of the book to it. He does assume his readers are generally familiar with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and suggests his earlier book Creative Processing Techniques for those who are not. One is not surprised, at this point in the book, that Tal’s processing workflow is “visualization-driven” rather than formulaic. He believes in having a final vision of what your image should look like to guide your processing. His work follows a non-linear workflow, which leads to iterative processing of an image where the photographer identifies gaps or weaknesses where the image doesn’t meet the final vision, uses adjustments to fill those gaps, re-analyzes to identify additional gaps, adjusts again, etc., until the final image is reached. His general workflow phases are: RAW conversion, analysis, global adjustments, local adjustments, dynamic visualization, master file, and output.
Guy Tal uses Adobe Lightroom to handle RAW conversions, though his techniques could be applied with other software. He does not attempt to make the final image in Lightroom, preferring the more powerful capabilities of Photoshop for that. He considers Photoshop essential to image processing, and suggests that reasons photographers give for not using it “generally fall into one of three categories: lack of time, lack of skill, or lack of motivation.” This is one of the few points I disagree with Tal. Although I do own and use Photoshop (granted several versions old), I think outstanding, creative images can be made using only Lightroom – such as the work of David duChemin (another photographer who emphasizes photographic vision). That said, I do agree for many images, and particularly for black & white images, Photoshop is superior for processing.
Because he does not use Lightroom beyond RAW conversion, his approach is to create a RAW-converted image that does not look like the final visualized result. Instead the converted image should be the best starting point for later editing to create the visualized result. Therefore, the converted image often ends up not looking particularly good, and generally has low contrast. Tal generally uses Lightroom to set white and black points, adjust the mid-tones, and adjust the white balance. He does not necessarily adjust the white balance so that the image looks good, but rather adjusts it with an eye toward how the conversion from color to black & white will occur and how it affects digital noise. Though I have made many black & white digital images, using the white balance to improve my final result was one concept I was not familiar with, and I found this section very enlightening.
Next he discusses global adjustments – those adjustments that affect the complete image rather than parts of it (local adjustments). The most basic global adjustment is the actual black & white conversion. Though there are many methods of converting to black & white in Photoshop, Tal recommends using a Black & White Adjustment layer (available in CS3 and later versions). He also discusses using a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer to modify the results of the black & white conversion. The other major global adjustment he discusses is toning.
Tal follows with a discussion on local adjustments. Here Tal talks about using layer masking and multiple Black & White Adjustment layers to convert different portions of an image using different tonal relationships (for example, making blues darker in one portion of an image and lighter in another). He also discusses selective dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening); hybrid images, images that combine both black & white and color (color popping); and hand tinting. He ends the processing section of the book by giving an enlightening, in-depth example of the processing of a single image.
The final step in Tal’s workflow is Presentation. Although there are various types of presentation, Tal focuses on prints, which he states are “the quintessential product of a fine-art photographer.” Digital printing of black & white images presents special problems. The inkjet printers commonly used for digital prints use color profiles to obtain the correct color. Theoretically, a perfect profile can be used to print a black & white image, but even a tiny variation from the perfect blend of inks will cause a visible color cast to a black & white print. Because profiles depend upon a large number of factors, including temperature and age of the equipment and ink, color casts are common when printing black & white images with an inkjet printer. Tal discusses this issue and gives several options to get around it.
Overall, I am favorably impressed with Tal’s book and highly recommend it those wanting to improve their black & white imagery. However, it is not for everyone. Photographers who are looking for easy methods and formulas to create black & white images will be disappointed. The book is not a “how-to” manual, but rather the book is about creating your own vision and how to achieve that vision using best practices. It is definitely written for the photographer who wants to create art and is not afraid to take the time to do so.
Creative B&W Processing Techniques is available from GuyTalBooks.com for $9.95. It is well worth it.