Making a Black & White Picture

Processing the image, not the real scene

I seem to be following a couple of converging streams lately. Several times recently I have discussed whether art, specifically photography, should be “real” – e.g. faithful to the original. I have also been thinking a lot about black & white. Today I am merging these thoughts (don’t cross the streams!). I want to talk about making a black & white picture. That is explicitly chosen rather than saying “taking” a black & white picture.

A unique art

In my last post I mentioned some of the history of black & white imaging. This is important to keep in mind. This is not just general photography. It is a specific art form with a long tradition.

We are not talking about just taking the color out of a picture. How many times have you heard someone say “that did not work in color, let’s try it is black & white”? As if to say that black & white processing is a last ditch effort to save an image. What a very limited view.

When we step into the black & white world we are now following a different path. The way we look at the image, the way we work, the results we try to achieve are all very different from working a color image.

It is art

By its very nature, a black & white image is an abstraction. It is removed from reality. We use black & white to reinterpret scenes we see. This is art.

As art, the results do not have to recreate the reality we originally started with. Did VanGogh actually see what he painted as Starry Night? If he did, he was on some serious drugs. Are Monet’s water lilies a faithful representation of the original scene? No, they are an interpretation. This is a characteristic of art.

Likewise, black & white images are not meant to be a colorless picture of the original scene. It should capture a unique view or feeling about what it was.

Recent videos

This was brought home to me when watching a recent video by Serge Ramelli. The course was “Mastering Black and White Photography in Lightroom”, available on Kelby Training. (I get no compensation from Serge or Kelby One.)

What hit me was not that Lightroom is a pretty good tool for doing black & white – I knew that. I came away with a new view of how Serge approaches modifying a picture to become a good black & white image. Not just the techniques, but the boldness.

Serge has the ability to forget about the scene as shot and just look at the image on screen and ask what should be done to it to make it interesting. What it was originally is not even a consideration at this point.

Realization – I haven’t let go

The realization the hit me is that, despite all my talk about art not necessarily being representational, I have trouble making that transition in my black & white images. I get stuck too much in my memory of the scene as shot.

All that matters is the image I am working with on the screen and the final print. That is the art. What I started with doesn’t matter.

I have to get better at letting go and just working the image.

No sales pitch

I don’t want you going away thinking I am just promoting Serge. No, while he is unmistakably a very good artist, he is too commercialized for my taste. He has a neatly packaged set of products encompassing books and training videos and actions and tie-ins to other photographers and their training, etc. There is a strong a flavor of “follow my instructions and you can make pictures just like me”. Thank you, but I don’t want to copy you, Serge. I just want to improve my ability to realize my own vision.

I have learned good things from Serge’s videos, and I recommend you checking them out on Kelby One or Creative Live. He presents a lot of excellent information, but I do not want to be a Serge Ramelli clone.

My takeaway

Serge opened my eyes some. I realize that the boldness I thought I had is only a shadow of how I ought to be behaving. What I saw Serge doing was just working with the image until it was the artistic piece he wanted. I need to completely let go of my “knowledge” of what it is and where and how it was made. Those things are not important at this stage. All that is important is how can I make this set of pixels an interesting black & white image?

The image here is an attempt to follow this advice. This is where I live and this is a snapshot I took on a daily walk from my studio. This is basically the original image, no compositing or major editing. Creating this result was frustrating and a little painful until I really broke down my inhibitions and got in the spirit of the process. What you see here is very different in feeling and impression to the original. It works well in black & white, but it is not a faithful representation to the original. This picture was made, not just taken. I like the result.

How about you? What do you think? How much liberty should artists take?

I Don’t Know

Man and airplane blanaced in windows

How did it get to where we think we are supposed to know everything? Why is it wrong to say “I don’t know“? I think it would be horrible to believe I knew everything. Where would be the opportunity for discovery? To be able to let my curiosity run free? I am quick to tell anyone I don’t know, if I don’t.

Fallacy of certainty

Believing we have to know everything is a trap. It will doom us to failure and disappointment. I would say there are 3 general classes of knowledge:

  1. Our values.
  2. The things we interact with on a regular basis.
  3. Everything else “out there”.

As a person you have to know your values. Those things you will not bend. At what point will you fight for what you believe? These are the bedrock principles we build our lives on.

In the next circle, we all do our jobs and use a lot of technology every the day. We probably drive a car or use a computer for various tasks or bank or shop online. It is important to being able to function in society that we understand enough about these things to be able to use them. That doesn’t mean we have to have a deep understanding. I was an engineer in the technology/computer industry for a career, and I absolutely know I do not fully understand all aspects of everything I use. In most cases it is OK to just understand enough to efficiently get the task done and minimize surprises. Maybe just to know enough to know how to not be stupid.

Then there is everything else. The world is so big and interconnected and complex that no one knows how or why most of it works. I don’t understand micro or macro economics, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. NFTs still seems like a Ponzi scheme to me. I don’t understand why people become zombies when they enter politics. Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know and I will never figure it all out. Nor do I have to.

No one knows even most of everything

We listen to the talking heads on the news spouting meaningless information with full confidence. We know they are probably wrong, but they speak with authority. Therefore, we distrust ourselves. And after a while we realize they don’t know anything, either. When neither side of the debate or the “experts” can be trusted, we tend to check out, become cynical and angry. Don’t forget, though, that they have an off button.

There is a saying called Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I have my own corollary to that: Sturgeon was an optimist.

If most of the information you get is bad, what do you do? Hopefully you start to trust yourself. Learn to research things that are important to you. Research means even listening to people whose opinions you don’t like. You can’t just listen to your favorite guru who says things you like to hear. Make your own decisions. Build enough knowledge to trust your instincts and decisions. Don’t believe anything you hear until you check it out.

Curiosity

Too much ranting about heavy stuff. Let’s talk about art!

After a long time of working up to being an artist, I have concluded that I have to follow my curiosity and trust my instincts. Sounds simple, but it is sometimes hard.

I have spent time at times doing things in a way that they would be accepted by other people. It wasn’t entirely wasted, but is seemed kind of phony, and it was. I realized I was making someone else’s art. I don’t do that now.

But do we follow the fashion of the day? Do whatever we have to do to be accepted by the ones who style themselves as the opinion leaders? Who anointed them with this divine authority? They are just people with opinions.

I find that most of my best work happens when my inspiration is to ask “what if?” or when I say “I have never seen this like this before”. And do something with it.

Adventure

Do you lead a boring, monotonous life? Or is every day a new adventure? Much of the choice is ours. It depends on our attitude.

I believe that artists have the opportunity to lead lives of adventure and excitement and personal growth all the time. Even if we never leave our town.

Adventure is exploring and finding new things that excite us. We don’t have to go to exotic locations to find that. Our point of view determines our adventure.

Nearly every day I go walking in the areas around my studio. I always take my camera. It is covering the same ground. Occasionally I create a new route, but there are only so many variations. Sometimes I get bored with it. But I am coming to realize that when I am bored I am not letting my curiosity roam free. If my attitude is better I am likely to discover new things or appreciate something for the first time. The same with driving through Kansas. It can be a nice adventure.

Artists are on a journey of discovery

As artists, we should be explorers. Not discovering unknown lands, but finding new things about ourselves and the world we live in. These discoveries could be as close as our back yard.

To do that, we need to be always asking questions: What is this? What else is it? Can I see it different? What if this was combined with that? What if …?

At the root, all of these questions are based on the assumption that I don’t know – but I will explore it to see where I can take it. Not knowing is fundamental to being creative. When we don’t know, it should excite and inspire us.

Forget about the rest of the world that is pressing in and telling us what we should see and believe. We are capable of deciding for our self. Being an artist means being comfortable with high levels of ambiguity. And the accompanying joy of finding new answers or showing the world something they have never seen.

Be yourself. Trust yourself.

The Decisive Moment

Sunn Tracing reflections on flowing water

Henri Cartier-Bresson was well known for promoting the “decisive moment”. I know from experience that in some situations there is an optimum instant to capture the image you want. But for some it becomes a mantra. Let’s examine some nuances of the concept of a decisive moment.

Sometimes it is not a precise moment

Almost all of my work is shot outdoors. Sometimes I shoot straight landscapes. Often other found objects around me.

I believe I have the experience to say that in these outdoor settings, the “decisive moment” may last from a second to many minutes. Or I may have to wait an hour for the moment to occur. In a slowly changing landscape scene it can be difficult to recognize which moment was decisive – and hope you had the presence of mind to capture it.

In these situations, there may well be a decisive period of time, maybe not an actual moment. It often requires great patience rather than lightning fast reflexes.

A decisive moment

I have shot some sports and kids. These are areas with definite decisive moments.

Sports is easier, in a way. Most sports have a rhythm, a pattern. Once you learn it for a particular sport, you can anticipate the action and predict the best moment. It still may be difficult and you may not be in the best position, but you often will know when it will happen.

I consider kids more challenging than sports. They are unpredictable. Their moods and expressions can change quickly. Framing then, lighting them, and being in position with the right lens and camera settings requires constant attention. Then on top of all of that is the delicate trigger you need to “spring” at the right moment, when the expression or activity is just right. You have to be fully engaged and in the moment.

I make it harder on myself, because I never do formal portraits where I try to control things. I greatly prefer being in the environment where they are comfortable and letting them basically forget about me. Candid shots are what I like.

Now is the decisive moment

This brings up one of the main points I want to make here: now is the decisive moment. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, we should consider it a decisive moment. We need to be in this moment. Things will never be the same. We will never have exactly this light or these clouds. We won’t feel the same or look at the subject the same.

This used to be a problem for me. I would see something interesting, but I was on my way to do something else “important”, so I didn’t stop. If I even remembered what interested me, it was usually not the same when I came back. The light was wrong. The vegetation had grown up and obscured it. It was raining and foggy. Just not the same. If I wait a couple of months before coming back, it may be a housing addition now!

Well, it may still be a problem, but I recognize it and fight it now. I am much more prone to go ahead and stop and get the shot when I see it. If I am late to something, I don’t mind asking forgiveness. It has not become a problem, except maybe for my wife. She knows now to bring something to read, because I will stop at unpredictable times and places.

Being mindful

This all now brings us to the larger issue of mindfulness. Not the pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo we get from the self-help crowd. Real mindfulness involves being in the moment. Being fully aware and conscious.

Modern society does it’s best to train us to not be mindful. We are constantly distracted and entertained. Other people’s ideas bombard us and lead us to pay attention to what they want us to do. But learning to think our own thoughts and to look around and actually see what is there is necessary and healthy.

Do you walk down the street looking around and actually seeing what is there, or are you scrolling Facebook or email to make sure you don’t miss something? Where is your focus?

Do you ever take time for yourself? To think, to consider things, to read? Not to think about work or politics or where you are going with your friends tomorrow night. Is the idea of being alone with yourself scary or exciting?

I suggest you practice being alone in your own head. It might be hard at first. Give yourself some time to just think and to just look around, not expecting something – just looking. Making a quiet place in your head could be a welcome retreat in our noisy, distracting world.

The image with this post is a result of just being mindful. I noticed this scene on a walk along an ugly little canal in town. The location was not “pretty” in itself, but the conditions were right to make an image I love. I am very glad I took the time to notice it.

Do you practice mindfulness? Let me know your experience!

Time

Sometimes the effect of time is significant

Time is common to all of us. We are all given the same amount of time each day. Most of us are not as aware of time flowing by as we are of the events we have scheduled at certain times. Rather than moaning about how busy we all are or talking about productivity, I would like to discuss time as a creative element.

What is time?

Time is the continued sequence of existence and events that occurs in an apparently irreversible succession from the past, through the present, into the future.” Deep, but it helps frame the problem.

We all “know” what time is, but we would probably have a difficult time describing or defining it. Yet it is what we live in. It controls almost every aspect of our lives. We all experience it constantly. We can’t control it or buy or sell it or save it. It flows on by with no regard to our desires.

It may be a cliche that we all have the same amount of time each day, but like most cliches, it is very true. We can’t control it, we just decide what we are going to do with it.

Most art deals with moments

Most art, and most photography, captures discrete moments in time. This is the conventional view of the world. It is what we think we see all the time. Don’t take it as me sounding critical of capturing moments. I do it all the time, too. It records an event or a place or a person at a certain moment, and that matches and triggers our memories.

In a sense, it is our way of freezing and controlling time. As photographers we usually think in terms of the best shutter speed to use to stop the action, to minimize blur. This is the right thing to do for normal image captures. We, and our viewers, expect the moment to be recorded in sharp detail with no distractions like blurred movement.

Photography is unique

Photography is unique in it’s ability to represent time in varying ways. Time is one of the variables of the photographic process.

If you are painting or sculpting you usually represent what you can see or imagine. We seem to see things still, not moving or traveling through time. And it is very hard to imagine what the movement of time looks like. We may be able to see the effects of years or centuries on something, but even then it is impossible to visualize what it looks like as it is happening.

But photography has time built in as one of the parameters being controlled. We balance aperture, shutter speed, and sensitivity (ISO) to determine an exposure. Think about that for a moment: we can adjust aperture and sensitivity to set the time window of an image to whatever we want. Within limits.

Yes, we usually use this to set the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the motion. But that is just the normal convention. We could just as well make the shutter speed very long to observe motion over time. Some photographers do this regularly to feather moving water. It is almost a convention of landscape images, sadly.

I know my friend Cole Thompson gravitates to very long exposures to give a different view of the world. Many of his images create very interesting effects.

Movement

I have recently found myself drawn to visualizing the passage of tiime.. More and more I tend to use relatively long exposures, often hand holding the camera, to examine the effects of movement over time. Some of my images done this way do not have a single sharp edge in them.

This may seem controversial to many photographers. We are trained to maximize sharpness. We buy very high resolution sensors and ultra sharp lenses to record the sharpest detail possible. But I use those great sensors and sharp lenses to record – blur. A waste? That is an artistic judgment.

One of the things I am trying to capture is the unseen way things move over time. We know they move. We can point to it and say “that is moving”. But it is nearly impossible to visualize what it really looks like as it moves. That is what I am exploring.

The image with this article sort of illustrated this idea. This is an event called Cowboy Mounted Shooting. It is a speed and shooting event at some of our local rodeos. I believe the blur and slow shutter speed capture the speed and dramatic action of the event better than a crisp, frozen frame. The sharpest focus is on the face of the horse. That seemed appropriate to me because one of the things I wondered about is how the horse felt about guns going off over his head.

A new viewpoint

This concept is a new viewpoint for me. Time exposures are certainly not new and I have done a lot of them over my career. Now, though, I am more consciously using time as a creative element. Instead of a limitation of low light I now see it an an opportunity to show a new view on the world. I am working on a series that emphasizes this. Maybe more on that later.

Time is too much of a subject to cover in depth in a blog post. It is a theme I will probably return to in the future.