As I have gotten more into black and white photography, I have learned many things. The biggest one is that most black and white photos are different levels of grey. Many photographers hit the black and white button in Lightroom, do a little dodging and burning and call it good. When you are interested in purchasing a black and white fine art print, there is more to a black and white than different shades of grey. Images with high contrast make the best black and white prints.
ARTISTS I STUDY
As I study the works of Joel Tjintjelaar at Bwvision.com, Jim Welninski with Alteredspacephoto.com, one thing stands out in their work. There are only 2 elements in the majority of their photos. The Figure and the Ground. The figure is the subject of the image and what is highlighted. The Ground is the rest of the image. The ground could be the sky, buildings, water, etc. Anything else that is not the Figure. When you look at a black and white image to purchase for your home gallery, make sure you know what the figure is in the image. This will make the image stand out while hanging on your wall.
By stripping away the color of an image, it becomes timeless and can transport you back to days long past. The absence of color allows the viewer to concentrate on the subject without distracting colors. Without color, the eye sees the components of the image like composition, subject, mood, etc. When it comes to photographing people, color images show their clothes, background and other distractions. Converting the same image to black and white, it feels as though you photographed the person's soul. It gives the viewer a sense of what the person is feeling at that moment or what you perceive the person to be feeling. The light and dark create a feeling there is more going on than represented and the moment becomes the focus and not the subject.
KNOW WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN THE IMAGE
In the above image, the "Figure" is the Smith Tower and the few buildings to the right. The "Ground" is the rest of the image. You know exactly what is going on in the image. If it was just different tones of grey, your eye would not know where to go and get lost. What creates the sense of Figure and Ground is the area with the highest contrast. Essentially where the light meets the dark. Of course this is not the case for all black and white fine art prints. If the image is a portrait of someone, that makes it hard to have a figure and ground elements. In the case of landscape or architectural photography, the Figure and Ground are the important elements.
Some of the black and white images I create, I need to determine where the light is coming from. I then focus all my efforts to make sure everything has the same shadows and light areas. If the light is coming from the top left of the image, I don't make the right side of the objects bright. You want to make sure this is uniform throughout the image. Black and white photography takes a lot of thought when I comes to editing and knowing what is important. It takes time with dodging and burning techniques to create the image you want.
HOW TO CREATE THE FIGURE AND GROUND
What makes the Figure/Ground elements difficult is the amount of masking needed to separate different elements of the image. I can spend days to weeks making hard masks of all the elements in an image I want to edit. In the case of Cityscapes, I make a mask of the sky, then the buildings, then each individual building, etc. along with luminosity masks. Then I need to combine several masks to make a single edit on one part of the image. You can see the editing process can be tedious but it really makes a difference. This allows me to edit the image and show exactly what is the figure and what is the ground. Once you get this part figured out, the image will come together and stand out from most black and white images. Although it sounds complicated, it's well worth the effort. Sometimes it takes editing an image 3 or 4 times before you figure out what you want. I have done this many times. Use the color image to make all the masks, create a black and white version, spend several hours editing, realize it's not what I want, delete it. Never delete the color image because that is where all the masks are located. Now I start the editing process over and hope it turns out like I want.
HOW TO CREATE BLACK AND WHITE IMAGES
Right now, there are countless ways to turn a color image black and white. Any photo editing software can do this. Using Lightroom, it's as easy as clicking the black and white button and moving some sliders to darken and lighten different colors in the image. Photoshop is similar but more options are available using a Black and White layer and moving the color sliders.Gradient Maps offer an additional option with slightly different results than the black and white layer. These can also be combined. I use a Photoshop plugin called Artisan Pro X. This plugin allows for more control over the process for superior results. This panel allows me to control the light, create dimension, and use special FX to create the images.
Most of my black and white photographs have been created using hard masks of all the important elements. These masks allow for editing individual parts and not the entire image at once. Although this takes much longer to create, the results are far better. Controlling light, shadows, and directing the eye of the viewer is part of the this process. With nature scenes, creating masks isn't hard but cityscapes can take days. Since I edit each building individually, I use the pen tool in Photoshop and trace each structure. It's time consuming but worth the effort.
FOUNDER OF MODERN BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS
When most people think about black and white photography, Ansel Adams is the first person that comes to mind. To some, he is considered the founder of modern black and white photography. But not only was he an amazing photographer, he played a vital role the conservation of national parks like Yosemite by being part of the Sierra Club's board of directors. But back to photography. I couldn't imagine what Ansel had to go through to get his images. Especially in Yosemite. Carrying a large format film camera, large tripod, and everything else he needed. Then have to find a dark room to do all the post processing on each image. And before you say post processing is cheating and that it should be perfect out of the camera, Ansel would spend at least a full day processing each image. I don't know how it works in the dark room but he would dodge and burn his images to get the viewer's eye to see what he wanted. Dodging and burning is lightening and darkening areas of the photo to draw the eye where it should go. I often wonder what he could do with a modern camera. I also think that while he is considered one of the best, times and equipment have changed and I prefer modern black and white images. It's not better, just different.
Just like in normal photography, light plays an important role in black and white photography. Light produces the shape, texture, contrast and pattern in a good photo. Creating black and white images in the middle of the day is possible due to the harsh shadows created by the objects in the image. These shadows produce lots of contrast and shape in the scene. For instance, if you are photographing building, the shadow may cast a triangular shape on the ground or another building. You can lighten or darken this triangular shape to fit the scene. The limits to what is possible with black and white photos begin and end with the light, texture, shape, and contrast.
When purchasing premium fine art black and white prints, you want something that stands out. I feel that most of my fine art black and white prints do just that. But then there is a good chance I'm a bit biased when it comes to my work. Black and white photography has been a fun journey. Since I haven't been able to get out and shoot as much as I want, going through old photos has been fun. Went on a trip to San Francisco last year and what I thought were boring images since we didn't have any clouds the entire time, are now turning into fun black and white projects. If you want to get serious about black and white photography, spend the money for Artisan ProX by bwvision.com. It will make your editing come to life.
Please contact me with any questions about purchasing limited edition premium fine art prints from any of my galleries.