Meditations In Black-And-White

A business proposal led to a new avenue of creativity

Sand dunes at sunrise, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona, 2002
Wista 45SP 4x5 Field Camera

I recently had a client ask to see some images—black-and-white nature photographs for a corporate environment. Since I haven’t made black-and-white photos at all during my career, except on a rare occasion, I was surprised. However, her simple request led me down a path that was both creative as well as successful in terms of business. I’ve long been inspired by great black-and-white photography masters—Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Minor White and Paul Caponigro—and this has led me to try a few conversions over the past years using Photoshop. You never know where inspiration will come from, but this project ignited my passion for black-and-white and pushed me to expand my photographic repertoire.

Ansel Adams used to proudly declare in his lectures that he had been a commercial photographer for 60 years! He then would explain that his many years of making a living from his photography taught him valuable lessons. During his career, he accepted assignments to make portraits, still-life product shots, architectural work and more. He felt that the problem-solving nature of commercial work informed and improved his art in terms of discipline and technique. Practice makes perfect, so they say. My black-and-white project provides a good example of creative results coming from a practical assignment.

The first step was to prepare and send JPEGs to my client for her PowerPoint presentation. I received a list of color images that she found in the many web portfolios on my website. My apprentice John O’Connor (www.johnoconnorphoto.com) and I compiled a portfolio using the Collections feature in Adobe Lightroom, which proved very useful for previewing potential images using the Grayscale function of the Develop mode. I’ve learned that many color photographs don’t convert well to black-and-white, so by simply clicking on Grayscale, the color is removed and an assessment can be made quickly. Additionally, Grayscale offers sliders that allow adjustments to improve your conversion. Once my black-and-white portfolio was edited down for my client, we easily made JPEGs using the Export function of Lightroom and e-mailed them to her for her presentation.

A few weeks later, I received an order for seven 30x40 fine-art, black-and-white prints! This was great news, of course, but now the real work began. Each image had to be fully refined and mastered in Photoshop, then prepared for making the final photographs. Each image file began with the high-res original film scan or digital capture. Next, adjustments to each image were made using multiple Adjustment Layers. Some layers were globally applied to the whole image. Depending on each photograph, other layers were applied using local masking. For example, if shadow detail needed improving, the mask would be specific to that area. The use of masks is much like the old-fashioned dodging and burning used when printing film to paper.

The main tool to convert my color images to black-and-white was the Black And White adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black And White). We’ve found this to be the most versatile adjustment method. One thing I learned from viewing Ansel Adams’ prints is the value of tonal separation. I worked in his Yosemite gallery for five years, handling and exhibiting many of his most famous images. His prints show a fine degree of detail in both shadows and highlights. The whites are never washed out, and we can see many gradations of light grays and white. I especially love how his shadow areas show each subtle tone of dark gray and blacks. His shadows are never really black and formless, but show clear shapes and form within them.


It was Ansel’s inspirational prints that guided the black-and-white processing for this project. Once the images were finished in Photoshop, the printing began. Each file was sized to the final output dimensions, then sharpened for that specific size. The latest inkjet printers do an excellent job of handling black-and-white in their output. I used my Canon imagePROGRAF, and I was very pleased with the results. We shipped them off, and the client was pleased, too. Job done.

Now for a little Marketing 101—follow trends and give clients what they want! Black-and-white photographs are in demand. I’ve noticed more and more mention of them in magazines and on commercial websites selling photographic art. With the success from this one sale, we decided that other clients might find my newly created black-and-white images useful for their corporate art projects. In order to show them, we decided to put together a whole new portfolio. The fun and creative part of this process was sorting through 30 years of work, searching for images that would survive as strong images when converted. Once the editing was done, we used Lightroom’s Web module to create an online set of black-and-white landscape and nature images. I then sent the URL to my e-mail client list. If they don’t know what you’ve got, you can’t sell it!

The final step in this creative journey was the making of a book entitled Meditations In Monochrome (www.williamneill.com/store/books/meditations-in-monochrome-deluxe-edition.html), available as a hardbound print edition, as well as a PDF e-book. I’ve “published” two previous e-books, making them available as inexpensive downloads from my website. John produced a beautiful layout in Adobe InDesign and created a high-res PDF file. I wrote an essay for the book’s introduction. I selected 52 photographs for this digital portfolio, ranging from classic western landscapes to intimate details of nature. Locations include the coast of New England, the deserts of the Southwest and my backyard in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The selection covers a wide span of my career, with photographs dating from 1982 to many digital captures created as recently as 2008.

Becoming a better photographer is about building skills. It’s also about following one’s passions and pushing oneself creatively. My Meditations project started with a business deal that opened a door I had wanted to go through for a long time—adding a black-and-white portfolio to my collection of images. I hope Ansel would be proud!

To learn about his one-on-one workshops in the Yosemite area, online courses with BetterPhoto.com, e-books (Meditations In Monochrome, Impressions Of Light and Landscapes Of The Spirit) and read his PhotoBlog, visit William Neill’s website at www.williamneill.com.

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