Black and White
Some of you may be familiar with split tone images but for those who are not, here is a little background information before we dive in today. Split toning has its roots in the days of film when photographers would tint the highlights and shadows of their black and white images using various chemical processes. Today these processes can be carried out digitally although some would argue that they cannot be completely replicated using Lightroom or Photoshop.
In this post I am going to share an image I made during my recent trip to the American Midwest, specifically Indiana, and to use it to demonstrate a few split tone techniques. We visited an old cemetery with markers going back to the early 1800’s. This is the colour version of the photograph.
It was a very hot day and the light was quite harsh. To me, this version did not give the feeling of deep history that surrounded us. The light lay everything bare and this was little sense of connection with the past which was of course, completely untrue.
At first, after processing the RAW file, I decided to work on the mood by converting it to black and white which seemed much more appropriate for an image highlighting something from the 1800’s. This is the black and white image.
In general I was much happier with it than the colour image because I was beginning to evoke a sense of a connection to a time gone by. Still I felt the image could be improved. So I decided to use the Split Tone panel in the Develop module of Lightroom to further enhance the image and this is the result.
In this image I have processed the highlights by accentuating the yellows and toning the blues in the shadows. Using opposite colours for highlights and shadows is generally the best approach because you add depth to the image that you don’t quite get by applying the same treatment to both. The differences are quite subtle between the black and white version and the split tone but I feel the image comes much closer to conveying the feeling of being there. Of course the best way to find out what works for you is to play around in the digital darkroom and it’s far easier than in the good old days of film.
While the split tone technique is most commonly applied to black and white images, you can also apply it to colour images as well. To find out more, check out Gavin Gough’s Photographer’s Post-Production videos available here.
The name Junichiro Tanizaki may not be familiar to many photographers but his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows is a read I highly recommend. Today we have a number of tools at our disposal to bring forth details from the shadows in our pictures but Tanizaki’s essay makes a convincing argument to do otherwise.
There is a whole genre of photography that seeks to reveal and embellish every possible pixel and I have never quite understood the appeal of it. For me, the mysterious exchange between light and shadow plays to my imagination and keeps me engaged with an image far more than when it is completely lit. I liken it to the silence between the notes where it has been said music really resides or the empty spaces carved out within a room where you feel your body can breathe.
Recently I was visiting friends in the American Midwest and we spent a few afternoons driving around, getting lost on county roads lined with fields of corn and beans and beans and corn. It was hot and the sun followed us everywhere. We stopped at a country church that had a cemetery with grave markers from the early 1800’s. I couldn’t find much of interest to photograph there even though all around there was so much history. The light was too intense and even in the shade of the trees, everything felt so exposed. I wandered around the church itself which served as the local Legion Hall and probably explained the lack of religious symbols that would distinguish it as a place of worship. I had to look very hard to find the sense of peace and tranquility many of us perceive in churches and temples but it was there. A small window with a weathered frame softened by a white lace curtain that hung gently inside. Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but enough shadows to illuminate the quiet mystery of the place.
As photographers we are fortunate that our tools can help evoke this feeling even when it may not be naturally so present. There are two things I can consistently rely upon when working with light and shadow: exposure compensation and spot metering.
Exposure compensation is used when photographing in an auto exposure mode such as aperture or shutter priority or even program mode. It allows you to control the amount of light and shadow beyond what the camera believes is the correct exposure. On most cameras this exposure is shown on a sliding scale with a reading of 0 when the camera is left to calculate the exposure. By moving the scale either up or down, you are letting the camera know you want to change the exposure. That scale can go up and down to a maximum of two or three stops and usually in 1/3 increments depending on your settings. I often dial in some exposure compensation when photographing especially when I make a few pictures and realize what I see on the back of my camera is not what I had envisioned in my head.
Spot metering is when the camera uses a very small area of the frame to decide the proper exposure, typically 1% or 2%. By focusing on a key detail within the picture, you can control how the entire image is rendered. For a majority of the time, you will select the matrix-metering mode. In this mode, the camera looks at several areas within the frame and measure the intensity of the light and calculates what it believes to be the proper exposure. Different cameras will measure in different ways (they will use more or less points or different calibrations) so if you use more than one camera to photograph a scene, you might notice the images do not look the same. I use spot metering quite often to the point where I have programmed one of my Function buttons to switch between matrix and spot metering.
You can try to accomplish a similar look in post-production but remember that when you are out making pictures, you are essentially collecting information on the scene you are photographing. The dynamic range of light you gather at the time you are making your photograph is fixed and you cannot retrieve what is not there. It is always better to try to capture as much as you can in-camera rather than rely solely on Lightroom or Photoshop to do the job for you.
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The rainy season in Bangkok will soon be upon us, which is a great time to get creative with your compositions. After a big rain there are plenty of opportunities to create interesting images using reflections from the puddles (or sometimes rivers) in the streets. Typically your reflection images should be fairly symmetrical so that the object being reflected and the reflection itself are equally distributed in your image. In order to accomplish this you may need to change your viewpoint by either crouching down low or possibly getting up high on a bench or some other elevated surface.
The “rules” of photography exist for a reason. When followed correctly they can result in engaging and beautiful images. But rules are meant to be broken. Try getting creative with your reflections by only photographing the reflection itself and then flipping the image vertically using Lightroom or Photoshop. By flipping the image vertically the viewer is able to see the object as it appears in real life, but the reflection will add an abstract element to the photo.
The image above is of the reflections of some trees in Phu Kradueng National Park in Northeast Thailand. After a heavy rain the night before this area was filled with small puddles, reflecting the surrounding trees nicely. I started photographing the reflections, but no matter how I composed the shot I didn’t like any of the images with both the trees and their reflections. I finally decided to exclude the actual trees and instead just photographed the reflections themselves with the idea that I would later flip them vertically in Lightroom. The fact that there were several small puddles instead of one large puddle helped break up the reflections and enhanced the abstractness of the image.
A very simple way to mix things up in your images and create compositions that are a bit more intriguing is to break away from the confines of the standard rectangular frame that we’re all so accustomed to seeing when viewing photographs. Using doorways, windows and archways in your compositions can work in many ways to enhance your images.
By framing your subject you help lead the viewer’s gaze directly to the subject and keep the viewer’s gaze there. A frame such as the archway in the picture of the Buddha statue above can also help to add some context to your image by giving a sense of the surroundings and environment where this statue is located. Finding frames with interesting shapes can also spice up your image as you give the viewer a refreshing change from the standard rectangular photograph that comes out of your camera.
As you’re out photographing keep an eye out for doorways, windows, and other possible frames that you can use. If there’s no subject readily available then try one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s strategies and set up your camera and wait. You never know when the perfect subject may pass through your frame.
Anytime you bring your camera up to your eye to take a photo there is something about the scene in front of you that makes you want to stop and capture it. Maybe it’s an emotion you’re feeling. Maybe you’ve come across a stunning landscape or beautiful building. Or maybe it’s the innocence of a child at play. Whatever it is that caused you to stop in your tracks and push that shutter release button it’s important to know why you’re taking the picture. Understanding the reasons for taking a picture will lead to better choices about composition and framing, lens choice, and exposure settings so that the mood and subject of your image are exactly what you visualized.
The image of the large Buddha statue above was taken in Surin, in the east of Thailand. I found the statue down a quiet tree-lined, dirt path off of the main highway. At the time there was no one else around, and with a slight breeze blowing through the trees it was a very peaceful setting. I took a few photos of the full statue but those images seemed more impressive and grand, and they didn’t convey the sense of tranquility I was experiencing. As I continued to try different compositions and settings I found myself drawn to the hands at rest, resulting in the image you see here. The mood of this image is much more in line with what I felt at the time.
So the next time you’re out with your camera and you stop to take a picture, ask yourself why you stopped and what type of image you’re trying to create.
Understanding the elements of visual design is important to the craft of making photographs. On some intuitive level most of us already “know” the six elements (tone, colour, line, shape, texture, and perspective) and are using them in our photographs but if we spend some time delving into them further, they can become powerful allies in making better photographs. This week we are going to look at the second element: colour.
Let’s go back to week one and if we think first about colour in terms of the written language and how we use colour in what we write, we realize we can use colour in photography in the same way. Colour in literature is seldom used just for the sake of mentioning colour. Authors use colour to create a picture in the minds of readers so they can have a particular experience while reading about another world. As photographers we can use colour—beyond just recording it—to do exactly the same thing but in a visual way. First though, we have to understand at a basic level what colour is.
Colour is created by reflected light and is described using the hue, saturation, and luminance of that light. Hue is the name we give to colour i.e. red, blue, yellow, etc. Saturation is the intensity of that colour i.e. dull, vibrant, etc. Luminance is the degree of lightness or darkness in a colour.
Let’s look at the picture below of Seattle’s Space Needle. There are red, orange, yellow and blue hues present. Some of the orange hues and the blue hues are less saturated but generally overall this image is quite vibrant. The oranges, reds, and yellows also have differing levels of luminosity, some more noticeable than others.
In terms of tone, there is some contrast created by the relative brightness between the Space Needle and the Ferris wheel and the surrounding twilight sky. In comparison, there is a better contrast created by the colours versus the tone. Why is that important to note? Well sometimes differences in tone are completely absent so you have to rely on colour to distinguish between the things in your photograph.
Have you ever had a colour photograph you thought would look great in black and white but when you removed the colour the whole scene was flat? Chances are the differences in tone (relative brightness) were missing but the differences in colour (hue, saturation and luminance) were there. This photograph is a good example where the differences in colour outweigh the differences in tone making it a poor candidate for conversion to black and white. As a photographer if you can train your eye to see both tone and colour before you click the shutter, you are well on your way to making better photographs.
Colour has been the subject of much scientific study and academic writing but sometimes it is best understood and appreciated when we simply look at the work of a colour master, someone like Arthur Meyerson. His book “The Color of Light” is on my wish list. Check out Meyerson’s short essay and slideshow on Burn Magazine—you won’t be disappointed.
Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Line
All that is old is new again and in homage to my early days as a newspaper photographer, I’ve been messing around lately with working in black and white.
I thought the Wai Kru Ceremony at Wat Bang Phra would lend itself to black and white. When I got out to the temple I set my cameras to record both raw and JPEG. The raw files are the basic file straight off the sensor in the camera’s native format, the JPEG is processed in camera with the parameters I set.
Working in black and white has never been easier. Lightroom makes excellent black and white conversions and there are applications like DxO Film Pack and Nik Silver Efex Pro that simulate the look and feel of classic black and white films. Even though I own a copy of DxO Film Pack, I’ve never used it – it feels a bit like cheating.
If I want a picture to be in black and white, I am going to make the picture in black and white at the decisive moment. Call me old school (or a Luddite).
Working this way, saving both raw files and JPEGs, I have two copies of every photo. This is important for sales and reuse since there isn’t very much of a market for black and white photos anymore. Even if a photo is ultimately going to run in B&W, most publications would rather start with a color original and make their own conversions.
The JPEG, on the other hand, is processed with the parameters sets in-camera. If I want a black and white photo, I set the camera’s parameters to record in black and white. I’ve fine-tuned the in camera JPEGs a little. I have the sharpness adjusted up one step but the tonality and contrast are unchanged.
While I process all of the photos in Lightroom, I store the color raw files and B&W JPEGs in separate folders in my LR catalog because I want to sort and edit them separately.