Black and White

Yosemite--Finally!

I visited Yosemite National Park in 2015, but until very recently I have not offered prints of my photographs from Yosemite.

El Capitan Starry Night, Yosemite National Park

Until now I have not printed my Yosemite photographs. Why did it take so long for me to start printing and selling these photographs? Honestly, I have no idea! But I am pleased to announce that I am now selling prints of two of my favorite photographs from Yosemite.

The photograph above is from a well-known location in Yosemite Valley looking back at El Capitan on the left. Unfortunately during my visit the skies were clear most of the time, and the sunsets and sunrises were bland as a result. The snow adds an extra dimension of interest, however, and since I wanted something going on in the sky I decided to wait until it was dark enough to capture the stars in my photograph. I love the combination of stars and snow--something about that makes the photograph feel extra cold to me.

Half Dome on the Merced River, Yosemite National Park

Here’s the other photograph I have printed. I love this one too. It’s one of the few black and white photographs I have made. I thought that it would be appropriate to make some black and white photographs in Yosemite where Ansel Adams made many of his famous images. I don’t like to compare myself to the master, but I will say that one of my customers at the Sacramento Arts Festival who purchased a print of this photograph said that it will go well with their collection of Ansel Adams photographs. I was truly flattered by that comment.

So it took some time for me to get to print these photographs, but I love the results, and I’m excited to be selling them at art festivals and online now. I hope you enjoy them!

Creating a Black and White Photograph: The Selection Process

As a follow-up to my first post on black and white photography, I wanted to write about the selection process for choosing photographs to develop in black and white.

The Watchman, Zion National Park

In the past, black and white photography was the only option. Today, when digital cameras easily capture full-color images with no additional effort on the part of the photographer, black and white photography may seem like an old technology. But some of the most dramatic and compelling photographs made today are black and whites. Why? The absence of color requires the photographer to express emotion and tell a story in a different way. Creativity is forced from the artist, or the result is a bad photograph. In the end, the black and white photograph benefits from this extra creativity, and it is a much stronger image.

We now have a choice in whether we make a color or black and white photograph. We choose to make a black and white because of the drama it conveys. But when deciding to make a black and white photograph instead of color, what drives that decision? How do we select a particular photograph to be black and white?

As I mentioned in my earlier blog article, the selection process should not be something like the following: "The colors in this photograph aren't that good because the light was bad. I'll just make it a black and white." Wrong--if the light was bad, it's a bad photograph. Period. It shouldn’t be a color or black and white photograph.

London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, AZ

I am primarily a color photographer, so when I have an image with beautiful color, I want to create a fine art color photograph with it. So the starting point for my process is usually to evaluate the color. If I can't make a good color photograph, then I will consider whether it will make a good black and white photograph. It's not an automatic decision, however, and 90% of the time, I wouldn't do anything with it at all.

So if I look at a photograph and feel it’s a great subject and composition, and it communicates a simple, clear message, then if the color just wasn't there, I would likely consider converting it to black and white.

Mossy Cave Falls, Bryce Canyon National Park

When I am deciding whether to create a black and white version of a photograph, I also look at the elements in the frame to see if I think they will work in black and white. In general I prefer simple, graphic compositions without distractions. I think simplicity is even more important in black and white. I don’t think high frequency and random patterns look good in black and white. I prefer smoother, more gently changing shapes and patterns. An area of high frequency is one that has lots of small areas with different light levels. For example, the surface of a body of water has many small reflections. It’s like a disco ball of tiny bright and dark reflections. I avoid this pattern in black and white photographs. Black and white is about light and contrast. It’s difficult to establish a higher level of light and contrast when the effort is constantly interrupted and disturbed by these high frequency variations.

The photograph above of the London Bridge does include reflective water. But the water was very still to begin with, and by using a longer exposure I have eliminated any high frequency variations in the reflection. The reflection is more pure, and that simplicity makes it work in the black and white photograph. The same goes for the photograph of Mossy Cave Falls, directly above. Here the water is in motion and would normally appear very choppy with lots of high frequency variations. Again, I have made a longer exposure to smooth out those variations and simplify the photograph.

Old La Concha Motel, Las Vegas, NV

The Riviera, Las Vegas, NV

Another deciding factor can sometimes be the subject matter itself. Particularly with older buildings, I sometimes like to make black and white photographs, because they help communicate the era of the buildings. For example, these old Las Vegas hotels benefit from the black and white treatment. It helps tell their story and communicates the classic nature of the buildings.

There are additional factors, but evaluating the color content and the graphical nature of the composition along with the subject matter are some of the primary ways I decide whether or not to make a black and white photograph.

Black and White Photography

Art thrives on limitation. When an artist is constrained in some way, he is forced to create something in spite of that limitation. It makes the work more challenging, and the challenge helps generate inspiration and new or different ways of expressing an idea or an emotion. One way to impose a limitation on photography is by excluding color, and that’s why black and white photographs, when done well, can be dramatic and compelling images.

Half Dome in Black and White, Yosemite National Park

Color contains a lot of emotion. The color of an image can sometimes overwhelm us with different feelings about the photograph. So when we remove color, we take away one of the primary and defining characteristics of the photograph that carries a large portion of its emotional content. Despite the resulting limitation, we still must generate the same emotional response.

What I'm saying is that it is very difficult to do black and white photography well. First, it is important to start with a very strong image. You need a composition that tells a story or communicates a simple idea, concept, or message. These are critical aspects of any fine art photograph, but even more so for black and white. I can't look at a photograph that has dull colors because the lighting was bad and think, well that's OK--I'll just make it a black and white. That won't work. If the image is otherwise very strong, then it might work well as a black and white, but if it would not make a good photograph even if the colors were good, then it won't make a good black and white photograph at all.

Natural Bridge, Death Valley National Park

So assuming we start with a strong composition, where do we go next? What's the process? I'll tell you what does not work. Simply removing the color from the image won't do the job. Sure, you'll have a black and white image, but it will have no meaning or value as a fine art photograph. When I first started experimenting with black and white, I thought that if I developed the image in color to optimize it as a color photograph, perhaps removing the color at the end of the finishing process would result in a compelling black and white image. Wrong. Black and white is simply a different kind of photography that requires different techniques to get the best result.

The Stratosphere, Las Vegas, NV

I started to get an idea of how different my finishing process is for color vs. black and white when, after having completed a black and white photograph, I reintroduced the color into it. The result was a color photograph I never would have created. The contrast was all wrong, the colors were much too vibrant in some places, some parts were completely blown out and others were much too dark. When I took the color back out again, however, I restored my beautiful black and white just the way I wanted it. So again, just as you can't simply remove the colors from a photograph to attain a great black and white photograph, neither can you develop a photograph into a beautiful black and white and then add the color back in and have a great color photograph. They are two separate types of photography, each requiring its own unique approach.

Color is such a strong element in visual arts that its presence or absence significantly affects how we respond to a photograph, both in creating it and later in viewing and appreciating it. And that is, after all, the whole point of fine art black and white photography. We work within the constraints of a world without color and struggle to create beauty and meaning from that limitation. I'm still learning, but I hope you enjoy and see the beauty in my early efforts.

The Sands of Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve