As now has become my tradition, instead of the best of the year, I give you the worst. Well probably not the very worst, since those are often deleted immediately. While I had a reason to originally shoot these images, the only reason to keep them is to learn from my mistakes. I present these to let you, as well as I, learn from some of my mistakes. I have been doing this exercise of picking the worst of the year now for four years, and I do have to say, it appears harder each year to pick truly awful photos. Perhaps I’m learning? So, here are some of my worst shots of 2016, one for most months, both out of the camera (with default Lightroom processing) and, in some cases, with Lightroom processing in an attempt to save them (though most are not worth saving).
January – Black Dog, White Snow, Bad Combination. This is Nahla on one of my winter outings last year. She was eating snow and I thought I’d get a shot. It is very hard to get a good shot of a black animal and keep detail in the fur. Add snow, and you have a contrast nightmare. To add to it, she moved as I was taking the shot and my shutter speed was too slow. Why? I don’t know, there was plenty of light. No hope of saving this by processing. Lesson learned – use a high shutter speed to freeze action (you’d think I’d know that by now!); control the contrast (I’m just not sure how in this case).
February – Sunrise on Mount Baker with Sticks and Debris. I was up a Fir Island (see my last post) and saw some beautiful sunrise light on Mount Baker. And I liked the reflection in the pond. But to get the reflection, some foreground sticks got in the way. And what is all that stuff floating on the water? Plus, only later did I notice the walkway and lights on the far side of the pond. Processing in Lightroom brings out the colors on the mountain, and cropping gets rid of the sticks and floating debris, but it also takes the reflection. The end result is okay, but not great,and it certainly isn’t the image I was attempting to shoot. Lesson learned – don’t get so excited by the light to forget to check your foreground.
March – Why Did I Shoot This? I didn’t get out much in March, and of the images I took, I didn’t see any real horrible ones. The best (or should I say the worst) I can offer is this image of a boat at Point Ruston near my home in Tacoma. Not a truly awful image, I’m just not sure why I took it. Lesson learned – take photos for a reason, not just because you have a camera in your hand.
April – Slot Canyon Blues. On a trip to New Mexico in April, Tanya and I visited the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. On a hike there, we went through a slot canyon. I enjoyed moon hanging in sky above the canyon walls and was inspired to take the above photograph. Perfectly captures the moment does it not? Not is the correct answer. Shot with a wide-angle lens, you can barely see the moon. And can you tell it is a slot canyon if I hadn’t told you? There are contrast problems as well, but processing fixed that. The processed version cannot save the lack of photographic vision. Lesson learned – some scenes do not translate well to photographic images.
May – Small Flowers, White Sky. Early May brought me a bad case of spring fever. So Tanya, Nahla and I drove to eastern Washington to take a short hike to Umtanum Creek Falls. The route passes through a small black-rock canyon. I liked the yellow flowers blooming on the dark rock wall and took the above shot, including the trees and sky above to give a sense of the scene to the image. Again, because of the large contrast between the rocks and the sky, the sky was totally blown out. And the composition is horrible; the flowers small and insignificant when they are supposedly the subject of the image. Heavy processing brought some detail to the sky, but doesn’t help the composition. Lesson learned – make the subject prominent in the image; minimize the area of sky in the frame when there is a large contrast difference between the sky and the rest of the shot.
June – Rain Forest Contrast. In June we made a day trip to the Olympic coast, visiting the Hoh rain forest and Ruby Beach. The light conditions were not very good that day for photography, and while you still can make some good shots in bad light (see my post about that day for examples), the image above is not one of them. Here I liked the backlighting of the leaves, the look of the water underneath, and the moss hanging above. Unfortunately, the contrast between the sunlit water and grass and the shadowed moss was too much for the camera to handle, even with processing. Additionally, the composition is messy – there’s too much in the scene. Lesson learned – simplify compositions (which admittedly is hard to do in a forest); avoid extreme contrast.
July – Action Unfrozen. On the 4th of July last year, Tanya and I walked down to the annual festival along the Ruston Way waterfront. There we briefly watched bicyclists doing tricks. I grabbed a few shots. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying attention to my camera settings. The scene was in full sun, and I had no reason why I couldn’t use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. Shooting hand-held with a 300 mm lens of a moving subject with a shutter speed of only 1/60th of a second is a recipe for failure. And that is what I achieved. It may have worked if I had been panning with the bike motion, but that was not the case here. Lesson learned – pay attention to shutter speed with moving subjects.
August – Blurs in the Sky, Blurs on the Ground. I wrote a post specifically about this photo shoot which I titled Rookie Mistakes. I was attempting to photography the setting crescent moon in the Columbia River Gorge and even taking about 30 images, almost totally failed due to not realizing how quickly celestial objects move when viewed with a telephoto lens and not fully taking into account how much camera shake strong winds cause. This image was worse than most, since I thought the airplane was out of the frame. No amount of processing can save bad blurs, though a small amount can sometimes by saved by Photoshop work. Lesson learned – use faster shutter speeds when shooting the moon and stars with a telephoto lens; use faster shutter speeds in windy conditions.
September – Closed Eye Failure. On our trip to Montreal, Tanya and I visited the Atwater Market which included this bakery. I liked the look of the line of glass cover domes leading to where the gal behind the counter was helping customers. I shot off a quick burst of 3 images to catch the interaction between customer and clerk. Unfortunately, I caught the clerk with her eyes shut. Lesson learned – when shooting people, take a lot of images.
October – Vignetting Ingalls Lake. Last year I purchased some Xune filter holder and lens adapters to use with my polarizer and neutral density filters. I knew there would cause more vignetting than when not using the system when using a wide-angle lens. Even knowing so, I wasn’t paying attention when I took the above wide-angle shot at Ingalls Lake with the polarizer. The vignetting was horrible. It can be solved by cropping, as is shown in the processed version. However, such cropping defeats the purpose of using the wide-angle lens. Lesson learned – watch for vignetting when using filters on a wide-angle lens; if you need the filter and still want the wide-angle view, try stitching two or three non-wide angle shots together.
December – Blurry Shore. No bad shots in November because the camera barely left my bag. In December night, I was down on the shoreline in the Old Town district of Tacoma. I loved the reflection of the moon over the wavy shore. However, the wind was blowing very hard. Knowing the problems I had with wind down in the Gorge (see August above), I tried to keep my shutter speeds relatively fast, but even so I failed to get a non-blurry shot. In hindsight, I should have done more to weigh the tripod down and block the wind. Lesson learned – relearn August’s lesson and take precautions against strong winds.
Summary – We can all learn from our mistakes. Above are several of mine. In reviewing these, there are a couple of running themes – problems from contrast and problems with blurring. Those, and in fact none of the issues I’ve presented here, are new for me. But hopefully, by studying my bad shots, I will make such mistakes less and less.
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.