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Back To B&W

A lifelong student of the medium, photographer Tony Hertz makes digital black-and-white landscapes with a wet-darkroom sensibility

Photographer Tony Hertz admits that he often spends several hours working to correct an image with workflows that take him from Adobe’s Lightroom and Photoshop to Silver Efex Pro, the black-and-white software solution in Google’s Nik Collection of imaging software. He even goes as far as to make alternate processing choices to be able to compare and contrast different adjustments and programs. Above: “Bishop Peak Fog.”

For photographer Tony Hertz, black-and-white photography represents a return to his roots. He worked as a newspaper photographer during the 1980s, where all of his assignments were shot on black-and-white film, then processed and printed by hand in a traditional darkroom. Having left the newspaper to pursue a career as an independent photographer, he turned to color to meet his clients’ needs, but he never stopped thinking about black-and-white.

“Gnarled Wave.”

“I’ve kind of tuned my eye to seeing things in black-and-white,” Hertz says, “not consciously, but somehow things turned to that because of my experience. It resonates with me more. Landscapes are my real passion, and I tried shooting color landscapes. Maybe eight or 10 years ago, I went through all my slides and sorted everything out. When it came to putting them back, I thought, why not go black-and-white; that’s where I started, so why not get back to my roots. And that felt good.”

The return to black-and-white may have been inspired by his history in the darkroom, and while he teaches a film class at the local community college, Hertz is no Luddite. “I teach film, but I’m shooting digital,” he says. “Is that an oxymoron? It kind of pulls on me a little bit to go shoot more film, but I love my digital camera and I feel pretty proficient at Lightroom and Photoshop, thanks to the many people who I’ve learned from over the years. I’ve been involved with digital since the Nikon D100 DSLR came out. When I started in Photoshop with version 2.0, I knew that photography was going digital, I saw the writing on the wall. I really enjoy the darkroom, but I also teach a digital photography class, too.”

“Lithia Creek.” The photographer employs several methods for achieving the otherworldly light and tonality that’s prevalent in his work. Hertz’s photos are subject to meticulous exposure corrections and image enhancements, while in the real world, he also employs flashes with wireless triggers, and even a flashlight for light painting during the long exposures he often requires to capture such moody, atmospheric lighting conditions.

With a foot in both worlds, Hertz combines his darkroom experience with computer know-how to craft photographs that reveal a traditional sensibility: subtle detail in the shadows and highlights, and rich tonalities throughout the middle of the curve.

“I like good details in the shadows,” he says, “and good details in the highlights as well as you can. Diffuse light helps because too much sun will bleach them out, and burning and dodging, too. Let’s take ‘Worthy Cypress.’ I burned down the bottom left of that image, and then I lightened up some of the larger rock in the background and some of the water down below. I really zoom in to very high magnification, 400% or 600%, and then I use very small brushes and Overlay mode for dodging and burning. I don’t use the actual dodging and burning brush. I’m doing it on an overlay layer, and then using black or white to dodge or burn. I’ll spend a lot of time detailing small areas. I spent many hours on this picture. The tree itself is a whole other ball of wax. See all those small light areas in there? Those were either darkened down—because there was a little too much light—or lightened up, particularly in the shadow areas underneath the thicker branches. I lightened those up in Overlay mode. And then I might use a gradient layer in order to darken some areas of the sky.

“In some ways, I feel a little guilty,” Hertz says, “in that it’s different than the traditional, and it almost feels like cheating, in a sense. But, then again, it’s just another tool. I learned that from George Lepp. He’d say, ‘It’s just another tool, and Ansel Adams himself would use it, too.’

“Seaside Monument.”

“One of the other big ‘secrets’ here,” he continues, “is that I work at a very high degree of magnification. That’s the beauty of Photoshop. I work on masking areas out that I don’t want and I’ll spend a lot of time on that. I’ll always start in Lightroom with the raw data in order to make general adjustments, and then I’ll take them into Photoshop, often as a smart layer. Then I’ll go into Nik Silver Efex Pro right away. If there’s a lot of blockage in the shadows, then before Silver Efex, I’ll use the Shadow/Highlight tool and make a duplicate layer of what I brought in from Lightroom to try to bring out the shadows a little bit. Sometimes, I’ll make two versions; I’ll do it in Shadow/Highlight and then make another copy and do it in Silver Efex and see which one comes out better. It’s a lot of experimenting and trying to get the best quality. Then I always blow it up and make sure I’m not getting too much noise.”

Hertz’s ability to produce prints that appear to have been born in the darkroom is largely due to diligent work to maintain detail in delicate highlight and shadow areas, as well as building contrast in the rich midtone grays to keep images from appearing dull and flat.

“After I do everything,” Hertz says, “there’s something I learned from Outdoor Photographer and the photographer Ming Tshing, who worked for Nash Editions. [Note: You can find the article here “Your Perfect B&W Print” .] I read that article and it really helped me a lot. He was also doing the shadow/highlight adjustments, but he adjusts the midtone contrast, too. You do a stamp of everything, all the layers below—sometimes, I could have anywhere from 10 to 20 layers, depending on how much I’m working on it—and then you do a stamp layer, and then you do a midtone contrast to an Overlay mode and reduce the opacity to 20% and then put a high-pass filter on it. Then you work with blending mode options on layer styles in order to bring out the subtleties of the midtone range—which is really big. You have the shadows and you have the highlights, but the midtone areas are really critical in black-and-white. That helps to give the images a little more snap. You have to be careful about not overdoing it, otherwise, the photograph can look like it’s oversharpened.

“Cluster in the Fog.” Hertz teaches film photography at a local college, and to him, software is simply a more exact version of classic darkroom tools like dodging and burning.

“There’s a little more gravitational pull toward that graphic look,” Hertz says of the popularity of strong contrast and sharpness in digital black-and-white images, “and that’s all fine. It all depends on the eye of the viewer; it’s all subjective. Just like HDR; for a while, things were so blown out, it was like neon. A big thing that turned me back to black-and-white was those HDR days. It just didn’t appeal to me to have the image looking so bright, so I thought, well, I often try to look at things and do things a little differently. I did that even in photojournalism; if everybody is over there, then I’d choose a different spot. It’s a chancy move, but it can work out pretty good. I like taking little chances and risks, shooting-wise.”

Though he lives on the California coast and is happy to take advantage of the wealth of subjects found there, Hertz’s favorite destinations often take him inland to the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lee Vining Canyon, June Lake and, of course, Yosemite.

“I always feel like it’s a challenge to get something a little different in Yosemite,” Hertz says, “because so many people are there. But, you know, it’s such a great feeling being there, as long as you’re not there when it’s too crowded. During the summer, it’s very busy, but any other time, it’s great.”

Hertz is most at home anywhere that affords him the opportunity for a walk in the woods to focus on his work, in depth, for several days at a time—as long as the light cooperates.

Tony Hertz’s Equipment
Nikon D800E DSLR
Nikon D7000 DSLR, backup camera and for wildlife
AF-S Micro Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8
AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm ƒ/4G
AF Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.8D
AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G ED
Nikon TC-14B Teleconverter
Nikon SB-910 Speedlight
Large and small flashlights
Vari-ND and Mor-Slo filters
Gitzo Systematic XL tripod with steel spiked feet
Really Right Stuff B-55 Ballhead
F-stop Loka Mountain Series backpack
SanDisk SD and CF cards
Adobe Lightroom
Adobe Photoshop
Nik Silver Efex Pro
Epson printers
Epson Exhibition Fiber Paper and Luster Paper

“The number-one thing in photography is light,” he says. “It’s the most important thing. The way I work, particularly for black-and-white, is that I seek diffused light. The reason for that is mainly because it cuts down on the contrast and I can always build up contrast in postproduction. It’s really beautiful light, and I can shoot most any direction and anyway I want. I don’t have to worry about where the light is.”

With the right light and his eye for seeing in black-and-white, Hertz doesn’t require any special tools. One of his most valuable, in fact, is the humble flashlight.

“Sometimes, I’ll light-paint with flashlights or large strobes,” he explains, “but that usually has to be right at a certain time when the light is even. It’s not really common. Sometimes, when I get all the sun coming through in different directions, it’s hard to see things and put it all together—it’s possible, but it’s harder. But when they’re all in one diffuse range of light, well, then, maybe I can light up a certain area in order to accentuate it. To me, it’s almost like a little studio; I’m creating my own little lighting studio in nature.”

When Hertz does employ light painting, it’s most often to accentuate a particular area, setting it apart from the larger scene as he did with the isolated trees in his images “Last Light on the Merced” and “Aspens in Light.”

“Aspens in Light was light-painted,” Hertz explains. “That was maybe a five-second exposure with very strong twilight after the sun had set. I stood off to the side with a flashlight in order to get a little light on those trees. This was a deliberate preplanned photo. I actually had in mind something of the sort of a tree that would be in the foreground with the others behind it. There was an Ansel Adams photograph that I really thought was beautiful, and I wanted to find something that would have that feeling. I sought out some aspens that would have a grove like this, and I found this in the Rock Creek area in a little campground. They’re standing out from the rest of the grove, but I accentuated them a little more.

“With ‘Last Light on the Merced,’ that’s also light-painted,” he continues. “It was a lot of work. I saw this earlier in the day, and I returned when it was twilight so I could light it up. I wanted that tree to stand out a little bit more. I have to stand off on the side with the flashlight so I have to put my camera on a timer or use PocketWizard radio slaves to trigger it from the side. You have to paint it from a side angle to not have the shadow of the tree hitting the other objects in the back, or the water, so I shot a number of different directions, different versions, and then I darkened some of the tree and the rock behind it to the right.”

Adds Hertz, “This image, I don’t know how it would look in color. It’s tempting sometimes. It’s not that color isn’t good; it just feels to me that if you can make a good image in black-and-white, then you’re really relying on the feel of the picture, the composition and the lines and the form bringing everything together. With color, that can have it, too, but the big thing with color is mainly the color itself. With so many color images out there, what we need is something that will strike you a little more or really stand out, and how to stand out is to have some type of ‘wow factor.’ When we flip through the pages in a magazine or surf the Internet, we see lots of beautiful photos, but once in a while, we stop and go, wow! How often does that really happen? We’re all trying to attain that.”

You can see more of Tony Hertz’s photography at