Five ideas when faced with “blah” light … but a GREAT location

Light on location isn’t in our control, and can make or break our images.

I was working on a project which included capturing postcard-type images in and around San Francisco. A huge challenge with this project was that I was doing it on my own time, which wasn’t much. That meant that I couldn’t often visit the best locations at the most ideal times.

This presents a problem to solve which is, how can I get at least a good (doesn’t have to be great) photo when the light isn’t very good?

On one particular occasion, I took time to shoot after getting everyone to school in the morning. That meat that the best light was already gone but, still, I wanted to see what I could get in about an hour. I visited Fort Point in San Francisco which is a very good vantage point for Golden Gate Bridge photos.

It was around 10 a.m. by the time I even got started and the light got worse from there. By this time, the light didn’t show the bridge in its brilliant morning red (“International Orange” for you trivia buffs), and the sky was rather bright. In addition, some foreground elements were in the shadows.

Here are a few things I did to solve this problem and get something that I might use in my project.

5 recommendations when faced with ‘blah’ lighting

1. Bracket your exposures

Light Golden Gate Bridge

My first thought to combat mediocre to bad light is always to bracket my exposures. My brain is wired this way I guess, and I’ve been enamored with the technique since the HDR stone age of 2004. But, it’s a great way to be able to expose for a bright sky and also some dark foreground elements.

During my short time at this location, parts of the foreground were in the shadow of the hillside while the sky was too bright to still preserve much blue. By bracketing my exposure and Tone Mapping, I was able to get a pleasant image. For advice about how to shoot bracketed images, please see my article here.

2. Change the main subject

Light Golden Gate Surfer

I used this in varying degrees in the included images. For instance, I noticed a surfer walking to his launch site, perhaps having second thoughts? In others I included the rusty chain fence in more and less detail.

3. Make the poor light work in your favor

Fort Point

Make the poor light work in your favor. Even though the bridge is the star of the show, it’s good to turn around and find images that don’t include it. In the black and white image, I felt that the stark light made a good retro style image.

4. Post-process your heart out!

While I very much appreciate getting shots right in-camera, I also recognize the need to perform some inspired post-processing. Post-processing is such a deep subject, we can spend a lifetime always learning.

For these images I used a combination of my post-processing skills and Perfectly Clear which really helped bring out that little bit of punch!

5. Try a different or unusual crop

Light Golden Gate Square

The popularity of a square crop is really helpful to save a mediocre images, and I don’t mind admitting it! A little ‘composition’ of any shape can allow us to compose the image later on.

Whatever the reason you find yourself with a photo-opportunity, and disappointing light, it’s important to be flexible about the image you expected to get vs. the image you can get. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to try something new and maybe try something outside of your normal comfort zone.

Seeing in black and white

black and white

Black and white seemed much easier to SEE in when I used to photograph with film.

Why? Because you knew it was just that simple. Black. White. There was no option for using the color version, no editing to create the color version (not without a crapload of work, anyway).

black and white

What to look for when creating black and white images

There are some very basic things to be aware of when you are creating images to convert to black and white (or if you still use black and white film).

See shapes

The colors can be distractions in an image. If you’re creating a photo that is about the texture of a scene, colors will take away from that most of the time. By removing the color and creating in black and white, you are much more aware of the textures and details in that shot.

black and white

When you approach a subject or a scene pay attention to what shapes you see. Are there big spaces of something round or large triangular shapes? By removing color from the area (use your imagination) you’ll see that there are usually big shapes either created by the objects themselves or by the light and shadows in that space.

See shadows (and light)

Speaking of the light and shadows, there are not likely any other elements that are as important as these two are when creating these images. Look to see which direction the light is coming from, how it covers an object, what the light does to that object and then what shadows are cast by that object.

black and white

See the contrast in black and white

Check out the levels of contrast where you are photographing. Are they harsh and fine-edged light vs. dark? Or, are they smooth transitions with many levels of white to gray to black?

The amount of contrast in your image will give the viewer certain feelings when viewing it. Think about how you feel when you see a very contrasty image. It becomes almost graphical. Then on the other side of that when you have soft grays and layers of different shades of light to dark, it’s a much softer feeling and looks.


It can take a while to learn to SEE in black and white. Colors tend to grab our attention and it’s sometimes hard to NOT see them. Keep practicing. Go out with the intention of only creating black and white images. If your camera allows it switch it so you can see the screen as B&W only. If you use RAW settings your images will upload as color, don’t be alarmed. Set your camera to save JPEG & RAW and it will save both versions.

Look for all the elements that make a good image in the first place, then visualize if that particular scene will work without color.

I’d love to see what you create. Share your images in the Photofocus Community. Let’s see those black and white images.

Maximize every photoshoot with these four shots

It can be overwhelming to arrive at a beautiful landscape to make pictures, or to a portrait shoot and be faced with making great pictures on demand. When I make portraits for a client, I have to deliver or there’s no food on the table — how’s that for pressure?

Sometimes I see a good picture and I get excited about making it. I take some time to get it all set and it turns out just right and I love it. But if I leave it at that, then I’ve just spent all that time finessing the situation and walked away with only one good image.

Instead, I’ve learned that thinking like a filmmaker is a much smarter way to go. Filmmakers are always thinking about a wide shot, a middle shot, and a tight shot. So, once I’ve got the approximate pose in place, and I’ve got the light ready to roll, I can maximize the setup by making several pictures and asking myself, “Did I get the wide, middle and tight?”

This isn’t just for portraits. When you shoot a landscape, don’t forget to get the close-up stuff. Photograph the mountain, then shoot the tree, then shoot the pine cones on the branches.

Here’s a bonus. Most photographers are guilty of not getting close enough to their subjects. Thus, besides my wide, middle and tight shots, I also get some tighter shots. These usually end up being my favorites. This is a close up of her face, but it could easily be her hands tying her slippers, or brushing her hair back, or a bug on the bark of the tree, or a corner of the pine cone with needles. Just get tighter.

Panasonic GX7, 42.5mm f/1.2 Leica lens, f/1.2, 1/160s, ISO 200.

Make this a mantra — “Wide, Middle, Tight, Tighter” — and you’ll end up with a richer portfolio from every shoot.

Now that I’ve got those basic shots under the belt, I can do something else — make a new pose, a new location, a new light setup. After making the above pictures, I beamed them over to my iPad (I love Panasonic micro four-thirds cameras and their app!) and reviewed them with my subject and her mom. While we were looking at them I noticed the breeze blowing wisps across the girl’s face and I got another idea. Since I was covered with my wide, middle, tight and tighter shots, I was free to create something new, so we walked to a different spot in the parking lot, and photographed this:

Panasonic GX7, 42.5mm f/1.2 Leica lens, f/1.2, 1/160s, ISO 200.

Leica Monochrom: Why photograph only in black and white?

Black and white photography is the genre of choice for many photographers who want a timeless, moody, or formal quality to their work. This is why it remains a popular genre despite the prevalence of color photography. If you’re among the photographers who shoot predominantly in black and white, would you use a camera like the Leica Monochrom cameras?

In the video above, Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography gives us two main reasons why he prefers to shoot with Leica Monochrom cameras for this purpose: Higher detail and better sensitivity. These cameras shoot only in black and white, but with the right mindset, they actually produce impressive results. His sample photos are definitely a testament to this.

Among the most important things to keep in mind when shooting with the Leica Monochrom cameras is that you have to change the way you think when you’re using them. With color being the default native format in photography, it could take you a while to compose with black and white in mind.

Are any of them the right camera for you? The short answer is it depends, especially in terms of budget. As tools for a niche group, they come with hefty price tags and only Leica manufactures them. Of course, they will only be worth every penny if you shoot black and white exclusively.

Ever shot with any of these Leica Monochrom cameras? Share your experience with us in the comments below, or in our group discussion if you’re already part of the Photofocus Community!

Create beautiful black and white portraits using one light

One light studio setups are popular for portrait photography, not only for their convenience but also because they produce gorgeous results. They’re especially great for black and white portraits because they bring an elegant simplicity to the shots. If this is something you want to practice, we have just the quick demo for you to check out!

In the video above, Canadian portrait photographer Nathan Elson shared some behind the scenes of a lovely black and white portrait he took with a single light. First, he talked briefly about the gear he used and how he positioned the light source as close as possible to the model. This placement produced the beautiful transition effect from bright to dark parts of the image, and the sculpting effect of the light source. Then, he noted that the metering for the strobe should match the settings on your camera. Combine all of these together with a black and white preset, tweak it if necessary and you get a simple but polished portrait!

Want more black and white photography tips like this? Make sure you’ve already joined the Photofocus Community so you can ask your fellow photographers for their insights!

Using window light for your portrait

Using the light from a window is a terrific way to illuminate your subject. It can be the biggest and softest light of all — and it’s free. One of the biggest advantages to using window light is that what you see is what you get, whereas with a flash you can’t see the light until it fires. Posing in a window can also be more relaxing for your subject because they can look at other things and don’t feel boxed in by the studio.

Window light is easy to use, but here are some tips to help you get the best results.

Indirect light

While you can get striking results with direct sunlight pouring through a window, it’s easier to make a flattering portrait when the sun is not shining directly in. North-facing windows rarely have the sun shining directly in, but westward windows in the morning and eastward windows in the afternoon are also good. Or a window with an eave covering it. The indirect light means that the sky is your light source and it’s very large and soft and flattering.


Pay attention to the color of light you’re working with. If the blue sky is your source, then you’ll have blue light shining on your subject and choosing Shade white balance may be the best course. Watch out for green lawns that reflect green light up into the window seat. A white sidewalk or snow-covered lawn make excellent light outside a window.

Be careful, too, about other lights on in the room. If you have light bulbs shining, they are almost certainly not the same color as the light coming in the window and will make your picture look muddy. Of course, finishing your portrait in black and white can help alleviate these issues.


Be careful about the background. If you shoot through the window toward the street, there are often cars parked at the curb. The cars can be colorfully distracting, but they are also often shiny and create distracting highlights in the background. Pay attention to anything that will distract from your subject’s eyes.


A dirty window can be very distracting. Spots on the window are in the same plane as your subject’s face — they’re the same distance from the camera — and will be in focus. The visible detail will detract from your subject’s face. It is worth wiping the windows before you shoot. I carry a handkerchief in my bag for just such a situation.


Depending on the room around the window and how many other windows there are, the window can make a very contrasty situation. Use a reflector on the dark side of your subject to lift the shadows on her face and maybe even shine a little light on the wall behind her. Use the white side of your reflector whenever possible, but sometimes silver is appropriate, too.


The great thing about using window light is that you can practice doing it without a person. Put some fruit in the window and make a still life. Use a teddy bear. A cantaloupe would be good because you’ll see how light falls around a head-shaped object. Flowers are terrific because you can use the photo.

Every time you see a window, make a picture using it for light. Do it at the library, do it at church, do it at your friend’s house. Use your phone if you don’t have your camera. Practice positioning your subject near and far and positioning your camera closer and farther from the window, too.

Window light is versatile. If you practice seeing window light all the time and minimizing its weaknesses, then you’ll be ready to utilize it when you are photographing a person.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

Bringing out the character a black and white portrait

You can use post-processing software to take an image to a new level. We don’t always have the opportunity to get everything lit exactly as we like when we come across an interesting subject. Photoshop, Luminar 4 and NIK Silver Efex Pro were my helpmates in making this image be more than the original capture.

On every first Friday of each month in Sedona, I head to the Gallery of Modern Masters where my artwork is represented. Craig Christopherson, a fellow artist, inspired this blog post. He is a gifted sculptor of wood, metal, air and water and quite a character. You can see some of his work on his Instagram feed or check out the Gallery of Modern Masters website. I enjoy the character I see in Craig’s face. I wanted to see if I could sculpt this image into an artistic piece.

Adobe Camera RAW

Here is the initial capture of Craig shot out of the camera. I placed him under an outside light to get some rim light on his black shirt and hat. I used a Falcon Eyes Pocketlight 12 watt LED to kick some light into his face.

The first stop in this processing journey was Adobe Camera RAW. The original capture was post-processed to open up the shadows, tame the highlights and add just a bit of clarity to add some sharpness to the photo.

Luminar 4 for post-processing

Next in line a copy was made and placed upon its own Layer. I add a Layer so that the result returned from a plug-in can be dialed in via a mask or change in opacity. Skylum’s Luminar 4 was called upon in plug-in mode to use its portrait retouching tools, AI Skin Enhancer and Portrait Enhancer. This resulted in eyes being brightened and opened just a tad.

Best of all, I used the Face Lighting tool to bring some brightness to the face alone. This is lighting feature is awesome and held shadows and highlights nicely.

Back to Photoshop

Photoshop’s Layers palette showing most of the steps in working this portrait.

I wanted to create a painterly feeling to bring more attention to Craig’s face. Texture files to the rescue to create a new background. A new Layer and a mask were created using the Select Subject feature. That gave me a selection of Craig to help control the effect. Photoshop’s Blend Modes were added to texture Layers and masks helped to remove some of the texture from the face. Additional textures with Blend Modes and opacity changes were judiciously added to enhance the painterly feel.

NIK filters

Silver Efex Pro is often a go-to when I want to make a conversion to black and white. I find the controls to be intuitive to get the right amount of contrast. Sharpness can get a solid boost by using the structure sliders.

Fine details are enhanced using the Micro-Structure slider. This is wonderful for beards when properly applied. Careful! A little goes a long way and it is easy to start to look over-processed.

Final post-processing touches

Finished black and white portrait of Craig.

The finishing post-processing touches are taken care of with a blank Layer set to Soft Light. It is used to do some dodging and burning to finesse the highlights and shadows. The retouch Layer was used to remove the white logo on his shirt and clean up a few stray hairs. Lastly, a sharpening Layer is used to bring attention to specific areas and to invite the viewer to move their eyes to areas where you would like them to notice.

Final thoughts

When processing images think about this. In a black and white image, a viewer’s eye is first going to the area of highest contrast. In this case, I worked to make the eyes the main focus. Following that sharpness is placed in areas to add subtle interest and guide the viewer’s eye for another trip through your portrait.

One last tip when working on your portrait images. When you think you are done, flip the image 180 degrees and turn the visibility off. When you come back to the image later turn it back on. See where your eye goes. If it is not exactly where you want your viewer to look, it may be time for a bit more dodging and burning.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob

Moody landscape photography at the “mountains of madness”

It’s easy to see why mountains, in all their breathtaking grandeur, remain landscape photography favorites. The towering peaks offer many opportunities for photographers to get creative with their shots, from sweeping vistas to abstract masterpieces. Of course, moody mountain scenes are a staple of many landscape photography projects, and I’m sure it’s one of those things that we will never get tired of capturing.

One of my recent favorites is from Germany-based Alexandra Wesche, whose landscape work is comprised of many moody and misty scenes. Her interestingly named series “At the Mountains of Madness” caught my attention in particular because of the fitting reference to the H.P. Lovecraft novella of the same title.

“A vague, ethereal beyondness”

The entire excerpt that Wesche chose to go along with this series is very fitting, but this part really hits the spot for me. The thick cover of fog enveloping the jagged peaks also mostly obscures the background, adding an air of mystery to the scenes. In some of the photos, the fog even blankets most of the landscape, which is most likely what inspired the Lovecraft reference.

“That seething, half-luminous cloud-background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial,” part of the novella excerpt goes.

Using minimalism for moody landscape photography

As with many landscape photography we’ve showcased so far, minimalism is one of the best ways to set the mood. For this monochrome series in particular, it proved effective in inciting feelings of dread, uneasiness or even danger. Sure, the combination of fog and towering peaks isn’t new. However, Wesche used dark tones and showed portions of an ominously hidden expanse to deliver an eerie sense of place.

I find this series a great example of elevating landscape photography into something more than just a beautiful scenery. Instead, it’s a body of work that works as a whole to spark emotions and inspire imagination in the viewer. I think it will work the same way even without Wesche’s choice to cite H.P. Lovecraft’s novella in the title and the project description. Still, I can’t discount the fact that the haunting words amplified the mood as a whole and perfectly encapsulated what she must have felt as she took these shots.

Are you a landscape photographer looking for inspiration on how to approach the craft? I’m sure this series will give you some ideas. Whether or not you’re into minimalism or moody visuals, it’s always a great idea to explore different approaches as a creative exercise.

Don’t forget to check out Alexandra Wesche’s website and Behance portfolio to see more of her captivating landscape photography.

All photos by Alexandra Wesche. Used with Creative Commons permission.

Make your black and white images sing with in-camera settings

Black and white imagery is the classic look for photography. Stripping away color can make an image timeless and focus on the subject in an elegant way. It’s actually quite easy to turn and image to monochrome. Some are better than others, but each have their place. Let’s talk.

Make your camera your black and white processor

Cameras these days are basically small computers with processing engines. Even the lowest point and shoot has various setting to alter your black and white choices.

Look into the menus sometimes called Shooting Styles, Photo Styles, Filter Settings or Picture Styles. There you will find choices for changing the way your camera finishes the file. Look for terms such as black and white, monochrome, sepia, dynamic monochrome, silky monochrome and more. Your camera manual is your friend.

Set your camera to process the image in black and white with one of the settings. Viola — you are done!

Note: You need to shoot in JPEG for the settings to be applied to your files. If you use RAW, that JPEG effect will be stripped from your files when you import to the computer. If you photograph in RAW, all is not lost. The settings that were used on the camera are embedded in the RAW file. You will need to get software that will extract the JPEG, like Photo Mechanic.

Deeper adjustments

If you want more control of your black and white file, many cameras have additional options. Set the camera to monochrome. Then look to the menus that change Sharpness, Contrast, Gradation and Color Filter.

Adjustments to Sharpness can add crispness or slightly soften your images.

Adding or subtracting Contrast and Gradation will influence how the light and black tones play together. Lower contrast has a black and white softer feel. Higher contrast moves images in a stark direction.

black and white filter example
Here is an idea of how color filters will effect the black and white image. Colors of the same family will be lightened and their opposite color will be darkened. ie a red filter will lighten reddish objects while at the same time darkening blue tones such as skies which makes it a popular filter for landscapes.

Changing color filters hearkens back to film days when we attached different color filters on the lens to change how various colors were rendered in black and white. Play with how they work. Adding a color will make that color lighter.

For example, adding a green filter will render leaves of trees closer to white. Adding yellow or red filters can darken a blue sky which can add a dramatic feel making the clouds pop.

Save your settings

Once you have dialed in a look you like, many cameras allow you to save them as Custom Settings. These are those letters C1, C2, C3 on your camera dial. See your camera manual for how to complete saving the Custom Settings.

You can be photographing in color, see a subject you would rather capture in black and white, turn to the Custom Mode and black and white it is. You can even have different recipes and save them as different custom settings. Your setting for landscapes might include one that darkens the sky and another might make the trees and grass glow.

Pros and cons

Fortunately using in camera processing your image will be a JPEG and look as it does on the back of your camera when you download.

Unfortunately, it will be a JPEG. I say unfortunate because a file with jpeg processing the changes are baked in and a lot of information is thrown away. You can do additional processing on a JPEG, but when you make changes you will be throwing even more info away.

Until you have dialed in your black and white settings to perfection you might want the best of both worlds. Shoot in RAW + JPEG. You have the camera processed file and still have the full RAW file to fall back on.

Post processing black and white in RAW

If you use the techniques above you’ll have a nice black and white but it will always be black and white. You’ll have more options and can attain even higher quality if you shoot in RAW and post process. More about that soon. In the meantime, here’s a Photoshop article with three ways to convert black and white.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob

Why you should make new versions of your photographs

Are there gems in your photo library that were overlooked or rejected? Is there something earlier that you loved and considered finished?

Look again, there may be new life in those older photographs. Over time your style and editing skills probably changed. What’s something you would update? Why did you keep the original? Were you hoping that there was more to draw out? What’s stopping you?

You might decide that now is the time to make a new version of that photograph and apply some lessons learned. In this article, I’ll showcase some photographs that I revisited as black and whites.

Cathedral Rock, 2015

Cathedral Rock starting point. It took a while to realize the potential.

I kept this photograph of Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona from 2015. The scene was good, there was drama in the clouds and it’s an iconic subject. Even with all that, the image just didn’t do anything for me. I recently decided it was time to make a new version of this photograph and as I worked I found myself leaning toward black and white.

My initial edit started with cropping out the bland sky and adding some contrast and other global changes in Lightroom.

I decided what I didn’t like about the original before editing started. There was too much negative space in the top of the frame. The sky above the rocks seemed bland and distracting.

What I did like was the dramatic mist drifting across the peaks. I started with a crop and immediately felt better about it. From there, I added a black and white adjustment layer in Photoshop to selectively bring some tones up and some down. Then I spent some time dodging and burning in the clouds with yet more adjustment layers.

As a result, new version was a huge improvement. I remembered feeling the sense of awe when I was there in person. Now the photograph evokes an emotion that was missing from the original version.

Done or done for now?

Yosemite Falls starting point

In February 2016, I captured a scene of water cascading down Yosemite Falls that repeated a pattern framing a solitary tree. The initial image was OK, but there was lots of room for improvement. There was a color problem that I didn’t know how to address at time, but I was happy enough with the photograph and even sold a few prints.

A year later, I started on a new version by adding some contrast to the water. As a result, the drama of the waterfall was more apparent.

As my editing improved, so did the photograph. Another year later the next version had improved color correction, better contrast, selective sharpening and added even more drama. My current favorite version of this photo is a dramatic black and white inspired by Nathan Wirth. Over the past five years I think I’ve made five versions of this photograph. Each version was “done,” but it was just done for that moment.

Keep revising

Apply the lessons you learned as your skills develop. Make another run at those photos in your library that didn’t make the cut the first time. Feel free to make new and improved versions over time.

Why black and white photography needs intention

Ask anyone who specializes in black and white photography what makes it great despite the absence of color, and they will give you a variety of answers. It has a timeless and elegant quality. It forces you to examine the composition and pay more attention to the story. It’s an effective way to demonstrate the contrast of light and shadows. Just to name a few.

However, all of that boils down to one word: intention. This is what Ohio-based Matt Day discussed beautifully in the video above. He explains what shooting with intention means to him, and why it especially applies to his black and white photography. Much of it involves looking at things that aren’t left to chance or changes in color — like moment and emotion — and how he can use them as basis for his composition.

He also reminds us that shooting black and white isn’t as easy as shooting anything and everything in your camera’s black and white mode, or converting any image into black and white in post process. “Not every photo is gonna translate as well when it’s black and white.”

If you’re thinking of shooting primarily in black and white, hopefully, his insights and tips will inspire you to get into the monochrome mindset!