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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Making Of Compelling Black-And-White-Images

Beyond just removing color, see how structure, tonal relationships, form, texture and contrast all play key roles

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Lake Superior Shoreline
When I was in northern Minnesota last year, the weather wasn't cooperative; we had a lot of rain. One morning, I got up for sunrise and found the sky mostly covered with clouds, but with a small area open around the sunrise. Though there was very little color in the sky, I was determined to get pictures along this wonderful Lake Superior shoreline. One thing I noticed was the way that the sky and the water structured the composition. The light was too weak to make this really work in color, but I believed that there was potential for black-and-white.

When I converted this image to black-and-white in Silver Efex Pro 2, I saw some interesting things going on. However, the sky and the water didn't balance each other. I increased the whites to bring out the rich texture in the water, which gave more structure to the image, and I used the equivalent of a digital graduated filter to darken the sky and balance the sky and water better. This gave a nice feel to the black-and-white composition.

Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas were two of my heroes in nature photography, both superb practitioners of color photography with nature. I got my start in photography working with black-and-white, however. I hated processing film because it was so boring, but I loved making prints in the darkroom. Like many photographers, Ansel Adams was also one of my heroes, and I read his books multiple times until I felt I understood the potential of black-and-white work.

Yet, because color was so critical to my photography at the time, I began to do less black-and-white. A few years ago, I returned to black-and-white work in the computer with some plug-ins from Nik Software (Color Efex Pro, to start) and the excellent black-and-white section of Photoshop Lightroom. What rekindled my love for black-and-white photography, though, was Nik Software's introduction of Silver Efex Pro 2. This tool allows me to experiment quickly to gain the most from black-and-white images.

Black-and-white, to a degree, abstracts any image. The world doesn't exist in black-and-white, so by definition, black-and-white is an abstract art form. Because of this, you can't rely on color to carry the photograph or to emphasize certain elements in a scene.

Good black-and-white photography starts with an image that has a structure to it that works well with black-and-white. It's often disappointing to simply try to change any photograph to black-and-white if you haven't found its structure. Structure in a photograph holds it together just like the underlying structure of a house holds it together. Structure can come from contrast that helps set elements apart. Or look for defining elements in a photograph that have different levels of brightness. And look for adjacent colors that are quite different so they show contrast when converted into black-and-white.

This will make more sense with some specific examples, all of which have a strong structure to support the black-and-white photo.


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