Las Vegas

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.

This is Las Vegas, Too

Most visitors to Las Vegas might not realize it, but just about one hour away from the Strip, the palm trees, and the 100+ degree summer heat is something completely different and unexpected. Mount Charleston is not the highest point in Nevada, but with its peak at nearly 12,000 feet, it offers everything you’d expect from a mountain environment. That means forests with pine trees, cooler summer temperatures, and enough snow in the winter to support a ski resort.

Glowing Aspen Grove, Mt. Charleston

But why should we be surprised? Las Vegas has everything else to offer. From the Sphinx, to the Brooklyn Bridge; from the Eiffel Tower to the Coliseum; from gondolas to a volcano, Las Vegas has it all. It is nice to know, however, that there are places not far away where you can escape all the excitement and enjoy some more peaceful surroundings.

I visited Mount Charleston at the beginning of October specifically to photograph the Aspen trees, which I knew to be close to their peak in color. Towards the end of my day hike, I was heading back without having made the photograph I really wanted. Then I turned around and saw the scene above. I had just left that grove of small, colorful Aspens a few moments earlier and failed to find a photograph that I really loved. Who knows what made me turn around, but I instantly knew I had found my photograph. This was exactly the kind of photograph I was hoping to make that day.

As I was heading out of the trail, somehow I ended up on the ski slope near the lodge. I headed down and found a wedding reception taking place in a large tent outside the resort. When the out of towners received their invitation to a wedding outside of Las Vegas, I wonder how many of them imagined it would take place in these surroundings.

Pine forests and ski resorts may not be exactly what you think of when you imagine Las Vegas, but less than an hour away, there they are. Oh, and by the way, this is Las Vegas too:

A typical scene in Las Vegas, complete with gondolas at the Venetian


The Las Vegas Strip

This is the view from my bedroom at home. Just kidding--that would be nice, though! Last month I had the opportunity to visit Delano, a hotel at the south end of the Strip in Las Vegas. I took this photograph from a room on the 60th floor.

Las Vegas Strip
Las Vegas Strip

This photograph was a challenge to produce, and I almost threw it away as being unusable. The truth is I’m not sure it really is usable for anything other than this blog article without further work, but I like it enough to share it. The reason it’s such a problem is because I had to shoot through at least two panes of glass. The result was a photograph with triple images of most of the lights.

The camera was capturing these triple images due to the various layers (and/or edges) of the glass. There was nothing I could do about it. The rooms in the Delano do not have balconies, so I was forced to photograph from inside behind the glass. I’ve photographed through glass before without having major issues, but for whatever reason, it was a problem in this case.

So how did I deal with the problem and get something halfway decent out of it? Photoshop, of course! It was very tedious and time-consuming, but with a lot of patience I was able to eliminate the majority of the ghosting. The result is OK, and I wanted to share it. I think it looks pretty good at this size on screen, but I would be concerned about making a large print of it. With additional work, though, it might be a usable photograph. Being able to photograph the Strip from a vantage point such as this is a rare opportunity, and I wanted to make the best of it.

Fall in Las Vegas

Yes, believe it or not, we do have fall in Las Vegas. It also gets cloudy and rains here occasionally. We even get snow every once in a while. When that happens, it usually doesn’t accumulate, and it’s gone within a short time. If you do like snow, however, you can visit Mt. Charleston, which is just a short drive from Las Vegas, where there is enough snow in the winter to support an actual ski resort!

Fall in Las Vegas
Fall in Las Vegas

Last week was a strange week weather-wise in Las Vegas. The sun was gone for the entire week. I don’t remember when that’s happened before. We had a couple of foggy mornings too, which is extremely unusual. We also had a decent amount of rain earlier in the week. All this strange weather affects people’s moods out here. We’re very used to having the sun out all the time, so when we have multiple days of overcast, dreary weather, it causes all manner of depression, bad moods, and general unhappiness. (Not really, but we do wonder where the sun went!)

I feel sorry for all the people who came here on vacation for the week hoping to escape cold and wet weather at home. I wonder if they had any idea they’d get pretty much the same weather on vacation in Las Vegas! At least it wasn’t that cold, relatively speaking. But I do worry that people’s vacations are ruined by the weather, and they get a bad feeling for Las Vegas, thinking why should we go there--the weather’s no better than at home! Well, it’s not like that all the time, and it was an unusual week, so they just got unlucky. Who knows, maybe they had better luck in the casinos to make up for it.

Fall in Las Vegas
Fall in Las Vegas

Of course, the flip side of the cooler and wetter weather is the beautiful fall foliage that can be found here. OK, we’re not New England, but yellow is yellow! I have seen many bright yellow trees over the past couple of weeks. It’s the beginning of December already, and I was afraid that I was waiting too long to get these photographs, but it seems like a lot of the trees that will eventually lose their leaves are still green. I finally decided to go out and get my images, though.

To all who visit Las Vegas when the weather is bad, please don’t blame the city. Come back another time, and most likely you’ll have warm, sunny weather to enjoy!

The Story Behind the Photo - Shooting for the Moon

I get a lot of questions about this photograph when I show it to people. The two main questions people ask are what is it exactly, and was the sky really like that? Well, I call this photograph “Shooting for the Moon.” It’s the Moon shining through the clouds on the left with the Luxor light beaming up and reflecting off the cloud layer on the right.

Shooting for the Moon in Las Vegas
Shooting for the Moon in Las Vegas

I was walking around the Las Vegas strip on a cloudy evening. Cloudy evenings are a relatively rare occurrence in Las Vegas. We’re in the middle of the desert here, after all, so there was already potential for some interesting photography. I took this photo from what is now the parking lot behind the High Roller wheel. I wandered back there while the wheel was still under construction. I didn't take any pictures there and was more just curious to see what was going on, but then I looked up and noticed this scene. The Luxor light is so ridiculously bright, I think they even use it as an aeronautical reference point. I love it--it’s so Las Vegas, and it makes me smile every time I see it. So here was this intense light shooting straight up into the sky, and a short distance away was the Moon. I set up my camera and took some shots. I took a few fast exposures where the clouds were more well-defined, but I really prefer this longer exposure where the clouds are more dreamy and fluid. The Luxor light beam is also more visible due to the longer exposure.

So was the sky really like that? Actually, I didn’t manipulate it that much at all. The color was much more orange than you see here, but there was a very strong color in the sky in any case. The cloud layer was relatively low to the ground, it was not that long after sunset, and there are so many lights coming from the strip that it’s easy to get orange-tinted clouds under these conditions. I just shifted it more towards the red/magenta range. Those colors contrast with the blue beam of the Luxor light, and I think the color shift adds to the drama of the photograph. In the end, I was going for a very abstract look, and I am happy with the result I got.

When in Vegas, you might as well shoot for the Moon. And as the saying goes, if you miss, at least you’ll be among the stars!