Bryce Canyon

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.

The Best Time to Enjoy Bryce Canyon National Park

As a landscape photographer, I find myself working mostly around sunrise and sunset. In general, these are the best times to make landscape photographs because of the beautiful and colorful light they provide. At Bryce Canyon National Park, however, I mostly prefer to work around sunrise.

Shadows and Light at Sunrise, Bryce Canyon National Park

The main reason I prefer sunrise is because more of the Bryce amphitheater gets the earliest light. At sunset, except in a few areas, the entire amphitheater is in shadow well before the sun has set. Under these conditions, the light is flat and dull. We really want that rich, golden light to fall on the rock formations to help bring out their deep orange and red colors.

Here’s an example, which I made very shortly after sunrise. The sun only shines on the right side of the highest formations. Another benefit of this time of day, which you can see here, is that a lot of the golden morning light reflects around and helps bring out the color of the surrounding hoodoos. It creates a glowing effect. This photograph has depth because of the play of light and shadow, and these kinds of scenes are more plentiful in the morning.

Morning light begins to illuminate the hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

There are certainly good opportunities at sunset as well. Here’s one example from the first night of my trip last month. Here, the last bit of light on the landscape lights up the features in the distance, opposite of where the amphitheater is located. The sky, of course, is still getting light, which provides the benefit of having the sunset colors bouncing off the clouds in this photograph.

Evening Clouds Over Bryce, Bryce Canyon National Park

It is easier for me to find great photographs to make at Bryce during sunrise, however, so I prefer that time. This photograph, which I made from Bryce Point at sunrise during a previous visit, best illustrates my point. Look how much of the amphitheater on the left side of photograph is illuminated in the early morning light. To see the corresponding photograph at sunset, take a look at this blog article, and you will see exactly what I’m talking about.

Sunrise, Sunset - Bryce Canyon National Park

I last visited Bryce Canyon National Park almost three years ago. Bryce is an other-worldly place of hoodoos and other colorful, sculpted rock formations. When I make landscape photographs, I especially like to photograph at sunrise and sunset because the light is best at those times. During this trip to Bryce Canyon, I decided to create two panoramic photographs from the same location--one at sunrise, and one at sunset. Here’s the sunset photograph, which I made first.

Bryce Point Sunset, Bryce Canyon National Park

When I arrived at the viewpoint, the sky was cloudy and mostly blocking the sun. The entire landscape was in shadow, and these conditions were not good for the photograph I wanted to make. One thing I’ve learned from landscape photography, however, is to have patience. I’ve also learned that the sky conditions can change quickly, especially at sunset. It wasn’t completely overcast, and if the clouds broke enough to let some sunlight through, it would be a really good opportunity for a beautiful photograph. After an anxious wait, while the sun was still just above the horizon, the clouds started to break and the sun came through. The clouds above were lit up creating a beautiful sky, and the landscape on the southeast side of the canyon was glowing a deep orange color. My patience paid off, and I was very happy with the photograph I was able to make.

The next morning I returned, but unfortunately the clouds were completely blocking the sun. I couldn’t get what I wanted that morning, but I returned the following morning. It was perfectly clear that second morning, and now the sun was casting its early morning golden orange glow on the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to the northwest.

Bryce Point Sunrise, Bryce Canyon National Park

It’s really interesting to me to compare the two photographs. I like them both for different reasons. I like the way the sun lights up the landscape at sunrise. At sunset we get some of that light, but we also have a much more dramatic and interesting sky. The feel of the photographs is completely different, which I find fascinating. If you think about it, what’s the difference between sunrise and sunset? At both times, the sun is low in the sky, and the landscape fills with yellow, red, and orange colors. But when I look at these two photographs, they feel completely different. The sunset photograph feels like sunset. That couldn’t be sunrise. I don’t know why. And the sunrise photograph feels like sunrise. It feels like the start of the new day. Maybe it’s just me because I was there, but when I look at these photographs, those are some of the feelings I get from them. Whether you get those feelings from them or not, I hope you enjoy viewing these photographs.

Why Am I In Business?

I’m in business to make money, right? It sounds like a silly question. The purpose of a business is to make money, but as a fine art landscape photographer, is money really my driving force?

Bridge to the Sentinel, Zion National Park

For me the answer is no. I’m in business because I feel I have something to share with people, and I want to share it. I love making landscape photographs, and I love presenting the results of my work and everything that goes into it. As a business, I want to be compensated for my efforts, and my compensation should be sufficient to cover my expenses and provide a reasonable profit. My goal is to continue growing my business, but I never want to lose sight of what brought me to this point: sharing my art with others.

There are many ways to share my photography without being in business. I could set up a website. I could post photographs on 500px, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. In fact, I do many of these things. But I find this online way of sharing to be unsatisfying, even if appreciated by many people. When someone sees my photograph on a social media site or other online location, they see it along with hundreds of other photographs. Even when viewing a photograph on my website, they see it and then it’s gone. They may never think about it again. I value permanence in art. I want people to take time to explore my photographs, not just click through them. I invest much time and effort in creating my photographs, and I want people to have the opportunity to take time to appreciate them and extract value and enjoyment from them.

Cascading Falls in the Virgin River, Zion National Park

The best way for me to accomplish that goal is with a print. I believe the primary outcome of fine art photography should be a print. That’s the finished product. The digital image on screen is fleeting. It’s not real. It’s just a representation. A screen cannot communicate my vision because I can’t control your settings--are your colors distorted? Is the brightness and/or contrast wrong? The print accurately communicates my vision exactly as I see it. Ansel Adams referred to the print as being the performance. Everything else just leads up to that performance. Yes! It’s a performance that lasts and lingers, and you can come back to it either casually or with serious intent to study it. You can observe it up close or from a distance. It’s physical. You can hold it in your hands and feel it.

So why am I in business? I’m in business because I love making prints of my photography and sharing that permanence and artistry with people who appreciate my work. I want to give that performance for people. Through my blog and any personal interaction we might have had at art festivals and other events, I hope you can sense the excitement and passion I feel for my work, and that’s why I enjoy it so much. That’s why I’m in business--because I love what I’m doing. The money, when it comes, is just a side benefit.

Navajo Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

Sunrise, Sunset - Bryce Canyon National Park

I recently visited Bryce Canyon National Park, an other-worldly place of hoodoos and other colorful, sculpted rock formations. When shooting landscapes, I especially like to photograph at sunrise and sunset. As all photographers know, the light is best at those times of day, and good light is a key ingredient in dramatic photography that evokes an emotional response. That’s what I’m after when I photograph--I’m not trying simply to document a place. I’m trying to create a piece of art that captures the feeling of the location and the moment.

Sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park
Sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park

When I arrived on location, I knew I had a couple different dilemmas. First of all, the weather was not really cooperating. It was partly to mostly cloudy for most of the afternoon, which would have been fine, but it really started to cloud over as the afternoon wore on. I was afraid that it would be completely overcast for sunset. The second dilemma was whether it would be best to shoot at sunset or at sunrise. That was easy to solve, though--I planned to shoot at both times!

At sunset, the sky was as I feared. It was quite cloudy, and the sun wasn’t really coming through the clouds at all. The entire landscape was in shadows. One thing I’ve learned about landscape photography, however, is that patience is a virtue. I’ve also learned that the sky conditions can change quickly, especially at sunset. It wasn’t completely overcast, and there was the possibility that if the clouds broke enough to let some sunlight through, it could be a really good opportunity. I waited and took several shots as time passed. Finally, while the sun was still above the horizon, the clouds started to break and the sun came through. The clouds above were lit up creating a beautiful sky, and the landscape on the southeast side of the canyon was glowing a deep orange color. I had my opportunity and I took it. I was really happy I waited it out.

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park
Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park

The next morning I returned, but unfortunately the clouds were completely blocking the sun. I couldn’t get what I wanted that morning, but I returned the following morning. It was perfectly clear that second morning, and now the sun was casting its early morning orange glow on the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to the northwest. I had my sunrise shot.

It’s really interesting to me to see the difference between the two images. I like them both for different reasons. I like the way the sun lights up the landscape in the sunrise shot. In the sunset shot, we get some of that, but we also have a much more dramatic and interesting sky. The feel of the photographs is completely different, which I find fascinating. If you think about it, what’s the difference between sunrise and sunset? The sun is low in the sky, the colors are yellow, red, and orange, and this is pretty much the same at both times. But when I look at these two images, they feel completely different. The sunset photograph feels like sunset. That couldn’t be sunrise. I don’t know why. And the sunrise photograph feels like sunrise. It feels like the start of the new day. Maybe it’s just me because I was there, but when I see the photographs, that’s one of the things I get from them. You might not see that, but hopefully you see something worth looking at!

If you like these images from Bryce Canyon, I have a few more posted at www.facebook.com/tesslerphotography. You can also check out my landscape gallery. Thanks for looking, and thanks for reading!