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Although there are many aspects of photography that digital technology changed, the art of seeing in black-and-white remains the same. What's different is that today it's much easier to confirm that what you think you're seeing is actually what you're seeing because you can use the camera's LCD and monochrome mode to capture the black-and-white image in the field. Some would say this capability renders the need to previsualize in black-and-white moot, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Previsualizing and then confirming your vision is very different from taking a wild guess and then checking out what you got.
Ansel Adams and Fred Archer conceived the Zone System as a way to accurately predict the black-and-white tonal values within a scene. They began with a 10-stop range (the range of black-and-white film), gave each zone a Roman numeral and established Zone V as 18%, or "middle" gray. Zone X was pure white, and Zone I was pure black. The most accurate way to previsualize a scene using the Zone System and film was to use a 1º spot meter and take readings throughout the scene. By adjusting the exposure when you took the photo, you would be including the maximum tonal range, preserving as much of the highlight and shadow detail as possible. Therefore, the overall goal of the Zone System can be described as giving the photographer a tool to create the best exposure with the most detail in the negative for making a good print.
And, so it did, and despite the many advancements and changes in the technology of photography, it still does today. The Zone System had another revolutionary benefit—it allowed a photographer to accurately predict the way the full-color world would render in tones of gray. The Zone System is about more than determining whether a dark shadow area and a bright highlight area will be featureless black or blown-out white in the photo. The Zone System shows you how various midtone colors will appear in black-and-white.
Our eyes are greatly influenced by color. Fall's vibrant reds and yellows jump out against blue skies and brown tree branches. These color contrasts make for vivid images. In black-and-white, however, those red and yellow leaves and that blue sky, and even the brown ground, are all surprisingly close to middle gray. In flat light, which might create a beautiful fall foliage photo, the black-and-white photo is quite dull. And if you had used a 1º spot meter to take readings across that scene, you would have noticed this immediately.
The reality is that very few of us still use spot meters. We've become so accustomed to the convenience of modern digital cameras with their advanced metering systems, as well as the ability to use RAW files to fine-tune exposure after the fact, that the necessity of having a spot meter has fallen by the wayside for most of us. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Like any tool, it's easy to become overly dependent on the spot meter to previsualize. It's really much better to train your eyes and your brain to process the scene just by looking at it.
1 Think More About Light Than Color
Colors can be deceptive, so focus on the light and the highlights and shadow areas in the frame. While most colors will render as midtones, a yellow leaf in sunlight will be a very different tone than a red leaf in shadow. In this issue of OP, Rick Sheremeta describes how you can make use of this to get interesting black-and-white images at midday in the article "B&W In Harsh Light."
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2 Be Aware Of The Sky
Skies always have been a challenge for black-and-white landscape photog-raphers. The early films were orthochromatic and tended to blow out a blue sky to pure white. Later emulsions were better, but even the best could make an azure sky look dull gray. Film shooters used yellow, orange and red filters to darken a blue sky. Even a polarizer can help transform dull gray to a richer tone. The filter also helps to give definition to any cloud in the sky. Using a filter is one of the best ways to add a bold look to your black-and-white landscapes. You can further accentuate the effect in postprocessing with a subtle gradient. Master printers like Adams routinely did this. Look at an Adams print, and you'll see that the top edge of the frame is frequently almost pure black.
3 Look At Shadows As Forms
View camera photographers composed the photo by looking at a ground glass with an image that was upside down and backward. This gave the photographer an advantage because it helped disconnect the brain from looking at the scene literally. You'd see forms more than features. This was particularly helpful with shadow areas because you'd tend to see them more as shapes within the composition instead of just darker areas. A digital camera doesn't allow you to do this, so you have to force your brain to do it. With practice, this becomes much easier.
4 Colors Tend To Be Midtones
It was mentioned previously that a fall color scene that's vibrant in color can be dull and flat in black-and-white. That's because red, green, blue, yellow—they all tend to render in the Zone IV to Zone VI range. You can mitigate this by using a color filter while shooting or during postprocessing. A filter allows light of its own color to pass and blocks light of the opposite color (as seen on a color wheel). For example, a green filter will make green foliage a lighter gray. When you're looking at a landscape, focus on seeing the colors as midtones, then determine the best composition as a combination of the midtones and shapes.