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Black and White at First and Last Light

I invited Jason and his wife Nicole Hahn to hang out on a special photo shoot I had lined up with about 20 people. Jason–a very talented nature and adventure photographer–expressed interested in seeing my group portrait workflow. He traded in his swamp boots for the day and traveled 3hrs on a Sunday just to spend a few hours watching me shoot portraits. Afterwards, we relaxed and had a nice dinner. He started talking about how he creates black and white sunsets images. After seeing a few samples of his work, I was hooked.  I asked him to be a guest contributor here on Photofocus to share his knowledge.He was honored to do so. Here’s how Jason gets beautiful Black and White images at sunrise and sunset.

Sunrise and sunset

Say those words and you’re probably already thinking golden light, rich colors, and fiery clouds. So here’s the challenge, ignore all that, and shoot those sunset scenes and subjects in black and white!

And you are probably thinking, “why the @#$%! would I do that?!” Because many of the same qualities that make this a great time of day for color photography are the same that make it perfect for Black and White Photos. By removing the color we can reveal compositions, focus the viewer’s attention, and evoke moods in a way we can’t do when color is present.

Shoot Black and White With Purpose, not as an Afterthought!

So now you may be thinking, “Cool, maybe I should convert some of my old sunset shots I don’t like so much to B&W photos to ‘fix’ them.” To which I say “NO, Stop it! Go outside and take some new ones (using the tips below!)”

Seriously, the first and biggest mistake I encounter (and have been guilty of) is trying to “fix” a photo that doesn’t work in color by converting it to black and white. Not that shots in your existing portfolio won’t convert beautifully, but B&W photo conversion should never be used as a “fixer-upper”. A great B&W photo usually includes things like strong contrast, exaggerated texture, deep shadows, or striking geometry (like lines and shapes). Underneath every photo there has to be a strong composition, if your color image lacks this and these elements, simply removing the color is not going to add them if they aren’t there.

In this image I have outlined the leading lines I saw in the composition with green lines to make them more visible. Note how the lines all lead to the end of the beach and the sun, taking the viewer deep into the scene.

In the color example of this scene, the composition is still there, but the leading lines in the shot are overwhelmed by the color, I find my eye jumps right to the red streak of cloud.

In the black and white image, more emphasis is placed on the texture of the beach and rocks, and the lines present in the scene. I find my eye follows the surf line into the distance.

See it as You Shoot It

Not all scenes and subjects work for black and white, and it’s sometimes very difficult to envision a fiery sunset without color. Change your camera’s picture style mode to Monochrome (Black and White) and take a test shot. Then ask yourself, does the photo stand on its own without the color in the scene? What qualities of the light, shadow and composition make it work, or not? The more you shoot this way, while thinking in those terms, the easier it becomes to imagine scenes without color and recognize great opportunities for black and white.

jhahn-picturestyle-monochrome

Take a Turn

Think about the three main properties of light; intensity, direction, and color. In black and white we remove the color so that we consider only the intensity and direction. Contrast, texture, shadows and highlights can all be enhanced, exaggerated or minimized by simply working with these two concepts. Instead of pointing your camera right at the sun, rotate your view to change the direction of the light in the scene. By including more side or back lighting you will find that the shadows in the scene will lengthen and textures will become more pronounced.

You can also change the perception of intensity by using objects in your scene to block or mask the sun. When shooting sunsets we all tend to point right at the sun, where the strongest colors usually occur. However, when viewed in black in white you end up with a huge white blob where the sun should be that pulls the eye from the rest of the scene. By moving the sun in your composition partially or fully behind an object, you take attention away from the bright white orb of the sun.

This also lets you experiment with adding lines like long shadows and sun rays to the shot. Close your aperture, say to somewhere in the f16-22 range on a wide angle lens, and you can produce radial beams in shots like this. Adding lines and shapes to the scene can strengthen your composition, while taking attention away from the huge white orb the sun would be if not masked. The actual aperture and how much you will need to block the sun to minimize flare and produce rays will vary a lot lens to lens, so experiment with your setup to find that sweet spot for producing rays.

Go to the Edge, and Jump right Over!

Histogram…the word embodies the technical side of photography and can cause much confusion and stress amongst photographers. We have all heard the rules about the histogram, “never touch the edges”. In other words, don’t blow your highlights (overexpose) and don’t block up your shadows (underexpose). That all changes in black and white photography. In color landscapes we try to pull back from the edges, having a more even histogram when shooting. Because the focus is on capturing contrast, not color, strong B&W photos often include pure blacks and/or whites. Photographers often make the choice to purposefully over or underexpose in camera to achieve these pure tones. In “high key” photos where I am purposefully trying to achieve a pure white background I may overexpose by 1-2 stops or more, likewise for low key (black) backgrounds I may underexpose by the same amount.

The Power of Processing

A common characteristic of most black and white photography masters is their ability not just to capture a scene in their camera, but to imagine the scene’s potential for what it will look like after they process it in their “darkroom”. Think of photography like this; Images are created in the imagination, captured in the camera, and completed in the darkroom. At its core, black and white photography is a photographic manipulation, we have to take steps to remove the color. Don’t let “manipulation” or “processing” or “digital darkroom” be “no-no words” in your photography vocabulary. They are not bad things when used in the right way. Mastering the digital darkroom to process not just black and whites, but any photo you create, is a way to open up your creative possibilities and realize the vision you imagined for each shot. A good black and white digital workflow can transform the drab low contrast of a raw file to a mood altering masterpiece of light, lines, and form!

In processing we often use our exposure and tonality sliders to compress and even out our histogram. Using Lightroom, for color landscape photos moving Highlights and White sliders to the left (negative values) and Shadows and Black sliders to the right (positive values) has the effect of opening up shadows to see more detail, and taking the harshness out of highlights so they don’t pull the viewer’s eye away from the scene’s focus points. In B&W photography it’s pretty much the opposite, we usually want to create more contrast!

Free is Good!

When it comes to processing black and white images, I use Lightroom and Nik Software Silver Efex Pro. First of all, Silver Efex Pro, as well as the rest of the Nik collection is free to download and use. Second, it’s a great program that provides a lot of control and stunning results. Third, it plugs into Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, so you have a fairly seamless workflow. And finally, it’s free (that deserves a second mention)!

It’s important in your processing to treat every image individually and process them according to your vision for what you want the image to be. That being said, there are a few baselines I tend to start with in most of my images, which I have included in the screenshot. The Structure slider will have some of the most obvious impact on your images, crank this up and see what I mean. It is not uncommon to set this in the 80% range for highly textured shots, just be careful of too much in scenes like fog or still water where you want to keep a smooth, evenly toned surface.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment!

When it comes to photography, and really art of any kind, one of the most important things about the “rules” is knowing when to break them. A great way to create something new and stretch your creativity is to break the unspoken rule that you should shoot a sunset with a wide angle lens in color. Get out there, don’t be afraid to experiment, and try something new!

To see more of Jason’s black and white photography, please visit http://www.jasonhahn.com or check him out at the Tampa Bay and the Black Hills Photo Shoot Out.

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