Always Learning

Study the work of photographers who inspire you to develop your own style and techniques

Black-and-white photographs have inspired me for decades. Edward and Brett Weston. Paul Caponigro. Minor White. Wynn Bullock. Ansel Adams, of course. These photographers were early influences, even for my color work, as I wanted to inscribe the kind magic and mystery I saw in their imagery into my own.

Image of a foggy morning at Yosemite Valley

Morning mist, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, 2013.

With digital software, converting from color to black and white is as simple as one click, yet to create a vibrant and glowing photograph of the highest level, as seen in the prints of the darkroom master, is never simple. I’ve slowly built up my black-and-white skills over recent years as software options have evolved.

The Yosemite photograph shown here was especially tricky for me to process as much as it was spectacular to witness. The extreme lighting conditions were changing by the second as the clouds drifted through the scene. Just as I thought the light show was over, more drama would keep me working on capturing it all. I stayed for two hours and made around 400 frames. To give me the best chance of capturing the full range of contrast, especially when the sun would come out from behind the clouds, I bracketed with seven frames per composition with a half-stop exposure change between each. After a couple of decades using a 4×5 camera and missing a few great moments, I relish the opportunity to have the insurance that bracketing offers. Once the bracketing was set, I could think less about “data capture” and concentrate on watching the shifting clouds and light to time for the best compositions.

To process the files for this composition, I used the Merge to 32-bit HDR Plugin for Lightroom by Photomatix. After much trial and error, I ended up using only four out of the seven frames I had created with the bracket, as the fast motion of the clouds made the blending a challenge. Once the HDR file came back to Lightroom, I made local adjustments with the Adjustment Brush. With each new version of Lightroom, there are new ways of making those critical refinements. Still, I usually end up working in Photoshop to take care of the final details. In the case of this image, I took the photo into Photoshop to use Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks on the highlights in the clouds. Finally, I had to apply some noise reduction in some of the shadow areas.

As a photographer, I am always striving to improve my ability to resolve and refine my vision through better technique. However, I often feel like I am falling behind on all the rapidly changing digital tools. Maybe it is true what they say about old dogs and new tricks! However, when I find challenging images to process like the example here, I hunt around for new methods of delivering my expressive intent. Fortunately, there are many great resources for staying current, such as YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, books, webinars and tutorials.

I feel that much of what I have learned about making photographs is from looking at other photographers’ works, most often in books. Absorbing the mood and meaning and studying techniques develop over time and often subconsciously. The critical question is: Does that image move me or doesn’t it? Why or why not? Study your favorite photographers in depth.

Speaking of books, my latest is Light on the Landscape, which is a curated selection of 60 essays originally published here in Outdoor Photographer. Of course, I highly recommend it. One of my goals in writing my “On Landscape” column was to steer away from overly technical discussion and focus on the creative process— the inspiration to make a given image and how I chose to convey the emotions felt at the time of exposure. The essays are illustrated by 128 of my favorite photographs. The publisher, Rocky Nook, offers other books featuring landscape photography. Of particular interest to me are the books by Guy Tal, Jack Dykinga and Bruce Barnbaum.

We all have different learning needs and styles. You probably have your favorite sources for improving your photography, but here are some photographers who offer book and video tutorials regarding digital black-and-white photography: Guy Tal, Alister Benn, Sarah Marino and Jack Curran. I recommend looking them up online.

If you are like me and make both color and black-and-white landscape photographs, it will be helpful to think carefully about why you are doing one versus another. There are strengths for both and as many theories as photographers for when to use which. Try saving separate collections and see what trends develop for each. For example, I tend to select more graphic images for black and white, especially nature details. Or, as in the case of my photograph here of Yosemite Valley and dramatic clouds, the color was already muted and dull, and so a black-and-white interpretation brought the scene to life. Trust your instincts for what directions are working. Follow your favorite black-and-white photographers and research their techniques and philosophies. At least for me, the learning never stops.

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.