Tag Archives: black and white

Do You Prefer Images in Black and White or Color?

Sylvia's Tree (black and white)

I thought I was done with this image, I really did.  When I created the color version of it awhile back, I thought the colors were so compelling that there really was no need to explore other interpretations.  I was (and remain) very happy with that result.

Still.

There was a another interpretation of this image in the back of my mind.  An interpretation of a black, silhouetted form against a bright, almost glowing background.  An interpretation where color wasn’t the dominant feature (indeed, not a feature at all).  An interpretation that emphasized the sharp, black lines of the tree against the soft, textured layers of the sky.

I really tried to ignore this vision.  I generally don’t like to have two versions of the same image floating around, and the color image is quite nice.  But I just…  couldn’t…  get it…  out of my head.

And so here it is – “Sylvia’s Tree (black and white).”

Do you have a preference for black and white versus color?  I suspect most people do.  Rarely do I come across a photographer whose work is evenly balanced between the two.  Even when I do, to my eye, one of their bodies of work usually is stronger than the other – either the color over the black and white, or vice versa.  It’s hard to move seamlessly between these two worlds, because they really do emphasize different visual languages.

To me, color is about, well…  color!  Muted colors versus bright colors, contrasting colors versus similar colors, limited color palettes versus every hue in the spectrum.  For a color image to work for me, color really has to be its own, independently compelling compositional element.  It’s not enough that the image happen to be in color.  Rather, color has to be there for its own purpose, to make its own statement.

Black and white, on the other hand, is about all the other elements of composition:  line, shape, form, pattern, texture, and their arrangement to create relationships of rhythm, proportion, balance, and weight.  To me, a good black and white image really feels designed, where all the compositional elements are arranged just so to make a compelling, unitary whole.  And, of course, black and white is superlative for communicating that most essential of photographic qualities, the quality of light.  Diffuse or defined, high key or low key, dramatic contrast or glowing midtones, striking silhouettes or saturated detail – black and white, to my eye, communicates the nature of light in a way that color cannot.

I like a good color image, really I do, and as mentioned, I think “Sylvia’s Tree (color)” is quite nice.  It definitely fits my own personal criterion of color being its own, independently compelling compositional element.  When all is said and done, though, I think I prefer “Sylvia’s Tree (black and white).”  I find it to be a very different image than “Sylvia’s Tree (color),” and in the end, a somewhat stronger image overall.  Since, as mentioned, I don’t generally like to have two versions of the same image floating around, I’m taking “Sylvia’s Tree (color)” out of my image galleries and replacing it with “Sylvia’s Tree (black and white).”

You may have noticed that I have not included “Sylvia’s Tree (color)” in this post.  That’s because I really think these two versions do not look good when placed side by side. To my eye, they each seem to cancel the strengths of the other.  Those who are interested can see “Sylvia’s Tree (color)” here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , Leave a comment

Shoot the Icons!

Recent Work

I’ve encountered a line of thinking in landscape photography that argues against shooting iconic scenes or locations.  The thought seems to be along the lines that you will never be able to capture an iconic subject as well as the photographer or photographers who made it famous.  Who’s going to capture the Yosemite Valley as well as Ansel Adams?  Or the California coast like Edward Weston?  If a subject has been captured many times by many photographers under many conditions, what can you possibly add to the accumulated body of work that will be new or interesting?  Isn’t anything that you do simply going to be repetitive or derivative of what others already have done?

No, I say.  There are many reasons and much value to be gained from shooting the icons.  It’s probably fair to say the mountain in this image, “Longs Peak, Rising Clouds,” is an icon of Colorado’s Front Range.  Do a search for Longs Peak on Google Images and you will find countless images of it.  Here are a few of the reasons why I don’t hesitate to shoot it again (and again, and again!):

  1. No one sees the world quite like you do.  Everybody has a unique vision.  The subject matter of an image is just the building blocks by which this vision is expressed.  If people get in trouble shooting the icons, it seems to me it’s because they’re simply trying to copy what’s been done before.  Every subject, big or small, iconic or mundane, has limitless possibilities for interpretation and expression.  If you’re in touch with your own vision of the world, it will come through uniquely regardless of your subject.
  2. Shooting the icons trains the creative mind.  If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you’ve probably seen art students practicing sketching the masterpieces of the collection.  As photographers, it’s probably not very profitable to set up your camera in a gallery and shoot someone else’s photograph on the wall.  However, it is valuable to set up your camera and shoot the iconic landscape, in the same way that it is valuable for artists to sketch copies of masterpieces.
  3. There is no preemption in art.  Just because Ansel Adams became famous for his images of Yosemite, and Edward Weston for his images of the California coast, does this mean other photographers are preempted from ever shooting there again?  Of course not.  Did authors stop writing literature after great works by Tolstoy, Dickens, or Hemingway?  Did composers stop writing classical music after great works by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven?  Every artistic field has limitless opportunities to be explored, and the potential of iconic landscapes are not exhausted by the great photographers who have worked there before.
  4. Icons are marketable.  Yes, it’s true.  People relate to well-known, iconic landscapes and may give your work a second look if they recognize the subject.  It may or may not be an important consideration to you, but it’s something to think about.
  5. Why not?  Especially for digital photographers, there’s really no downside to trying your hand at the icons.  In fact, I might suggest that any opportunity to practice with your camera, especially when faced with the challenge of capturing a well-known, iconic landscape in your own way, is good practice for your photography skills!
Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

Having a Vision Beats Being a Technician

Longs Peak, Indian Summer

I’m excited to share that five of my images are being shown in Denver this month, including the image above, “Longs Peak, Indian Summer.”

This image is one of my personal favorites.  It was my first image ever to be accepted into a juried exhibition, and has since proven to be one of my more popular images.  But that’s not why it’s one of my favorites.  It’s one of my favorites because it embodies the idea that having a creative vision is more important than being a master technician.

This image was literally among the first captures I ever made when I started pursuing photography back in 2006.  It was taken with my first digital SLR camera, a 6.1 megapixel Pentax *istDL with a Pentax 75-300 SMC lens.  As might be expected from a novice, it had a lot of technical problems.  It sat on my hard drive for six years before my technical skills caught up to my vision for what the image could be.  In 2012, without any advance planning or forethought that I was going to work on it, I suddenly opened it up one day and over the course of several hours created the image above.

Did technical skills play a role?  Absolutely.  A fair amount of work was involved, including sharpening up some blurry edges, evening out the contrast in the foreground, and creating a tonal gradient in the background.  Perhaps most importantly, cropping to the 3.4:1 aspect ratio emphasized the long horizontal lines of the composition in a way that the initial 3:2 aspect ratio did not.

Am I therefore a master digital darkroom technician?  Certainly not.  I know just enough to get me by, and that’s enough.  Don’t get me wrong – I value technical ability and am always striving to improve my technique and skill.   But technique should not get in the way of vision, and skill need only be good enough to communicate the vision underlying an image.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature.  If I had demanded perfect technical ability in the making of this image – both in the initial capture seven years ago and in the digital darkroom editing last year – I would never have made this image at all.  Instead, once I realized my technical ability was sufficient to communicate my vision for the image, I was happy to do so.

For those who are interested, here are the other four images currently being exhibited:

Spire at Rock Cut

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

Longs Peak, Curtain of Clouds

Touch the Sky

You can see them at Alpine Fine Art, 826 Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Santa Fe arts district.  There’s plenty of other nearby galleries you can visit too, including the John Fielder photography gallery across the street and the Denver School of Photography a couple of doors down.

While you’re in the area, you may as well stop by the Denver Art Museum as well.  The Georgia O’Keefe exhibit is up until April 28th, and I was inspired in particular by a small pencil and watercolor (if memory serves) of an adobe studio doorway I had not seen before.

Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

In Defense of Photographic Opportunism

Snowy Spring Pastoral, Loveland, Colorado

What the heck is photographic opportunism?  Well, mostly it’s a couple of ten-dollar words to describe a two-dollar concept, but let me explain.

Many of the photographers I admire are advocates of working in groups of images on a single concept or theme – a series, a portfolio, or whatever.  Probably the one who comes most immediately to mind in this regard is Brooks Jensen of Lenswork magazine.  The whole premise of Lenswork, after all, exactly is to publish these kinds of series and portfolios.  It can be a little intimidating, when so much good work done by so many great artists is being presented in this kind of format.

I love a good portfolio of photography, I really do.

I might even aspire to start working this way myself one day.

But that’s not where I am right now.  I’m an opportunistic photographer, and I take my images where I can get them.

There’s a pragmatic component to my thinking here.  Portfolios really take a substantial investment of time and effort to complete.  While I am dedicated to pursuing photography and committed to making time to practice it, it’s not my whole life.  The reality is I have a full-time day job as well as several other competing interests and priorities to handle.  While photography is important to me, most of the time it has to fit into the bigger schedule of my life and be pursued on a time-available basis.  This does not lend itself to portfolio-making.

There’s a technical component here too.  My impression is that many portfolios are undertaken by very experienced photographers, perhaps as a challenge to themselves, or perhaps to generate excitement when making high-quality single images becomes routine or repetitive.  That’s not where my mindset is right now.  I still find a camera to be an intrinsically exciting way to interact with the world.  I enjoy having it with me as a way to visually experience and explore many different kinds of environments in many different expressive ways.  If photography is a learning curve, then I’m still on it, and being open to capturing different kinds of subject matter and making prints in different kinds of styles is an excellent way to develop your skills.

Finally, there’s a philosophical component at play as well.  I’ve heard it said that to make your mark as a photographer, you should become known for one style of image, one kind of subject matter, one approach to prints, etc.  I agree that being consistent in your output will make you known for that kind of work.  But I disagree that consistently generating the same kind of output is required to become known for your work.  Good work is good work.  Think of Picasso, probably one of the most widely recognized artists in history, and the great variety of styles and subject matter his work spanned over his career.

The image in this post, “Snowy Spring Pastoral,” embodies a lot of these themes.  It was very opportunistic, in the sense that we had a quick spring snowstorm here in Colorado last week.  I had no particular plan or objective other than getting out to capture some images of snow, which I don’t do very often.  It also definitely was a learning experience.  Working with wet equipment (kudos to the Canon 5D Mark ii, by the way), getting compositions and exposures right in a driving snow, all added up to expand old skills and develop new ones.  Finally, this image arguably also is a bit of a break from my other work.  The snowy subject matter lent itself to a more high-key treatment than I usually do, and my composition included a mix of the man-made (the fence, the telephone lines) and the natural (the tree, the snow) that I otherwise don’t tend towards as much with landscapes.

So am I troubled that I’m not producing portfolios of work on single subjects or themes?  Not at all, I’m an opportunistic photographer.  That’s just where I’m at right now.

Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

f/16 and Be There

Clearing Storm, Mummy Range, Colorado

One well-known axiom of photography goes “f/8 and be there.”  The quote is attributed to (and I had to look this up) New York photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, who apparently gave it in reply to a question about how he consistently achieved high quality work.

The meaning behind the quote is fairly simple: ” f/8″ is a versatile, middle-of-the-road aperture that strikes a good compromise between achieving acceptable depth of field while letting in enough light to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur, and “be there” simply means you can’t capture the image if you’re not there to take it.  Fellig’s formula allows one to shoot quickly without taking undue time to think through the camera settings before hand, undoubtedly a very useful ability for photojournalists capturing fast-moving events.

Landscape photography probably does not conjure up thoughts of fast-moving events in the way that photojournalism does.  Personally, I like taking the time to think about a scene, compose my image, and select the camera settings accordingly.  Don’t be fooled, though – conditions in the landscape can change very fast indeed.  Such was the case for this image, “Clearing Storm, Mummy Range.”

First, the “be there” part.  After spending the better part of an evening driving around Rocky Mountain National Park in a consistently flat, dull, and pouring rain, I was just about prepared to go home.  I figured I would drive the car around one last bend in the road, turn around, and pack it in for the night.  Cresting a rise in the road, though, I was treated to the sight of the trailing edge of the storm, with the rain abating and the sun peeking through the clearing clouds just before it was to set.  The setting sun lit up this view of the Mummy Range like a spotlight.

Now, the “f/8″ part.  The sun was going down so fast that I could literally see the light fading on the peaks as I pulled my car over to the side of the road.  I jumped out of the car, fumbled with setting up the tripod and locking down the ball head as I composed the image, all the while observing the light fade as fast as I’ve ever seen it do so.  Fortunately, I keep my aperture set to f/16 by default, so I simply adjusted the shutter speed to get my desired exposure, did a quick manual focus of the lens, and tripped the shutter.

But wait a minute, shouldn’t I have set my aperture to f/8?  Well, no, for landscapes I am of course interested in maximizing my depth of field, and while landscape conditions can change quickly, they still generally don’t change so fast that motion blur is a problem.  So, I’ve modified the axiom for my needs to “f/16 and be there.”  This formula is flexible enough to meet nearly all my landscape shooting needs, saves me time in fast-changing conditions, and generally simplifies my thought process in the field so that I can concentrate on seeing what’s around me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

The Story Behind “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky,” Part 2 – Hiding in Plain Sight

Touch the Earth

This tree is hiding in plain sight.

 

It stands just off the side of the road on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, and I passed by it several times a week, dozens of times in all, over the course of several weeks last summer.

 

I should probably explain, and remind you that this is part 2 of the story behind my image “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky,” currently appearing on my Home Page.

 

Over this past summer, I decided that I needed regular field practice for my camera technique, more than just the occasional weekend or evening that I had been getting out with my camera.  As it happens, I live fairly close to Rocky Mountain National Park.  During the summer, the days are long enough that it is possible for me to drive up to the park after work and have one to two hours of daylight – indeed, prime golden hour sunset sidelight – to shoot.  From my front door, I can be at the top of Trail Ridge Road – around 12,000 feet – in about 45 minutes on a good day.  And so for several weeks during the longest days of the summer, I would spend two, three, or four days a week in the park.

 

On the way up Trail Ridge Road, there is a stretch of a mile or two at the treeline where there are these fantastic, gnarled, windswept trees set against backdrops of hard, solid rock or perched on top of sky-hugging ridge lines.  They have white, bleached trunks and, when the light bounces around just right up there, take on their own glow as the sun lights them up on its way down.  They are fantastic.

 

But here’s the thing.

 

Despite the fact that Trail Ridge Road is highly traveled by volumes of camera-toting tourists in the summer, I hardly ever saw anyone stopping to photograph them.  Maybe they were too excited to move on and get to the wide open tundras and spectacular mountain views up the road.  Or maybe they just didn’t see them the way I did.  The few times I did see other people stop to photograph these trees, I think it was because they saw me photographing them first and then wanted to photograph what I was photographing.

 

As I said, this particular tree was hiding in plain sight, probably not more than twenty yards from the side of the road.  Passed by hundreds or more people every day during the high season in the park.  And hardly noticed by most of them.  But I noticed it.  If you’re a photographer, or even if you’re not, take the time to notice your surroundings, and don’t be afraid to follow and explore whatever catches your eye.

 

And of course, this image became the second panel of my eventual diptych.  Next time, Part 3 of the story behind my image “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

The Story Behind “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky” Part 1 – Always Stop

Touch the Sky

This is the story, in three parts, of how I created the image “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky,” currently appearing on my Home page.

 

It begins with the image in this blog post called, naturally enough, “Touch the Sky.”  In general, I try not to have preconceived ideas about what I’m going to shoot.  This image was an exception.  For a long time, I had a mental picture of a bare, skeletal tree against a background of full, billowy clouds.  I would keep an eye out for the right kinds of trees and the right kinds of clouds.  Sometimes I would see great trees but no clouds, sometimes I would see great clouds but no trees.

 

Then one day, I was driving down the highway on my way to accomplish an errand, when I saw a thin line of clouds on the horizon, full and billowy, just like I had imagined.  As luck would have it, I also happened to be driving by a location where I knew there was a tree, bare and skeletal, that I thought might make the composition I wanted.

 

I almost didn’t stop.  When I have my mind set on something, I like to see it through.  And I wanted to complete the errand I was on my way to do.

 

But of course I did stop.  I did capture this image.  I no longer have any idea what the errand was or why it seemed so important.  But I do remember capturing this image.  I remember thinking how I would use my long telephoto lens to compress the perspective, placing the tree right up against those clouds.  I remember pacing the scene back and forth to get just the right perspective of the tree against the clouds.  I remember how that line of clouds was so thin that I could fill the frame with them only so much, and no more, or else I would get the bright blue sky creeping in from above or below.

 

Photography has been a great teacher of many things for me.  One of them is the synchronicity between opportunity and action.  When the right opportunity comes along, you have to act on it.  Moments are fleeting, and when they are gone, they are gone.  When you see a moment coming together for you, an opportunity that demands your action, always stop for it.

 

Next time, Part 2 of the story behind my image, “Diptych, Touch the Earth, Touch the Sky.”

 

P.S.  I learned the “Always Stop” lesson from one of my favorite photographers, Cole Thompson, who wrote a great blog about it here.  Please check it out if you have the chance, with my apologies to Cole for appropriating the phrase he coined for my blog!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Also tagged , , , , , , , 1 Comment