Morning Mist | Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California | 2013
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM, 1/90 second at f/16, ISO 100
Study the work of photographers who inspire you to develop your own style and techniques
Text & Photography By William Neill
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 color work.
With digital software, converting from color to black and white is as simple as one click yet creating a vibrant and glowing photograph of the highest level seen in the prints of the darkroom master is never simple. I’ve slowly built up my BW 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 on contrast, especially for when the sun would come out from behind the clouds, I bracketed with seven frames per composition with a ½ stop 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 Plugin for Lightroom by Photomatix. After much trial and error, I ended up using 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 LR, there 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 PS 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, ebooks, webinars, and tutorials.
I feel that much of what I have learned about making photographs is from looking at photographs, most often in books. Absorbing the mood, meaning, and studying techniques develops 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, I have a new one out called 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 but rather focus on the creative process – what was 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 that offer book, ebook, 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 for my photograph here of Yosemite Valley and dramatic clouds, the color was already muted and dull, and so a BW interpretation brought the scene to life. Trust your instincts for what directions are working. Follow your favorite BW photographers, and research their techniques and philosophies. At least for me, the learning never stops.
References that I have found useful:
Guy Tal’s blog and books provide a wealth of discussion on making art. His writing is as eloquent as his images. He has written an extensive treatise entitled The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Photoshop. Within it is an excellent chapter on Black and White conversion that is well worth the cost of the book. As with most Rocky Nook books, it is available as an ebook as well as a hard copy.
Alister Benn offers a thorough video course called Creative Black & White Processing in Adobe Lightroom. His approach to the techniques he demonstrates is always to connect that technique to the artist’s expressive intentions.
With many years of working in a real darkroom, Jack Curran takes his experience of how to make an image reflect his vision into Lightroom for you. Very sadly, Jack passed away suddenly 2020 but his legacy of powerful photographs and teachings live one.
Sarah Marino’s course is designed to teach you how to create compelling, personally expressive black and white photographs. The course – designed for digital photographers – is very practical, teaching you tools that can be immediately integrated into your field practices and processing workflow.
One of Harold Davis’s most recent books is called Creative Black and White. His in-depth discussions will give insight into the hows and whys of converting your digital files into fine art photographs.