"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
 

Paperwhites, Quince, and Camellia in Black and White

From Expressive Nature Photography: Design, Composition, and Color in Outdoor Imagery by Brenda Tharp:

“Until color film became reliable, many great photographers brought to light the beauty they saw in nature using black-and-white imagery. Some of them stayed with black and white their entire lives. While Ansel Adams used color in his early commercial work, he chose black and white to express the natural world that he loved. Black-and-white work has long been considered to be art photography.

“Working in black and white will actually strengthen your ability to compose pictures, and to see and use light. In the absence of color, we can see the shapes, lines, forms, and textures that light reveals in the landscape. Color can seduce us away from those things, if we let it. I maintain that you can work in both color and black and white and do well, if you are looking at the elements for their graphic representation and paying attention to tonal values. I still think in color, and I understand the language of color, after so many more years devoted to it…. But the digital darkroom has allowed me to explore black and white more easily again, and now, when I create a black-and-white image, it’s because the color isn’t doing it for me, while light and contrast are.”


“It was a dark and stormy day….”

Actually it wasn’t that stormy until a few minutes ago, but it has been unusually dark — dark gray winter dark — all day long, so despite my camera begging me to take it on an outing, I opted to stay in, keep it dry, and convert a few of my previously posted photos to black and white.

I probably don’t do these conversions often enough, especially since I do find the exercise interesting — more interesting than just pushing the “Black & White” button in Lightroom. The button-push creates a very literal interpretation of the image with the color replaced by gray tones that look pretty flat and lack contrast. The fun comes when you realize that in the color photos the white blossoms aren’t just white but contain blue, aqua, and sometimes yellow or orange; the stems contain green, red, yellow, orange, and a bit of purple; and the backgrounds (for those where I hadn’t already removed it) contain every color Lightroom lets you work with: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta.

Playing with the “Black and White Mix” in Lightroom lets you adjust various color channels to bring in more contrast; in this case, I could brighten up the flower petals, dim the backgrounds and stems, and create little black dots or other shapes in the center of those blooms that had yellow or orange filaments in the color photos. After doing that with these photos, I then used Lightroom’s Color Grading to add a little silver/blue to the midtones, shadows, and highlights — which is just something I like (and previously described here, here, and here). For these photos — especially the camellia’s, the last two images — I added more softening than I usually do using Lightroom’s Texture and Clarity adjustments, because they seemed to work well on those big white petals.

As I was working on these, I started wondering if I would have composed any of the images differently if I intended them to be black-and-white images instead of color. I already know that I often compose with the idea of removing backgrounds in mind, so it would seem that I might do something different on a shoot if I was intentionally trying to produce grayscale images. Like many people, I suppose, I shoot in color because Lightroom lets you convert color to black-and-white, but not black-and-white to color. Theoretically, the camera captures more shadow and contrast variations by shooting in color then converting; but I’ve never tried it so I think it might be worth switching the camera to black-and-white mode to see what happens. Also, creatively speaking, sometimes it’s good to work within an artificial constraint like this just to learn from it.

Below are the black-and-white images, paperwhites followed by quince then two camellia blossoms. After that, I’ve included a single gallery showing the color and black-and-white versions for comparison.

Thanks for taking a look!






Autumn Leaves / Autumn Light

From “Sleeping in the Rain” by Gordon Henry in When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Joy Harjo:

“It is autumn. Pine smoke hanging over the tops of houses, leaves sleepwalking in gray wind, skeletal trees scratching ghost gray sky.”

From “A Vagabond Song” by Bliss Carman in Three Centuries of American Poetry edited by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson:

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood —
Touch of manner, hint of mood;
And my heart is like a rhyme,
With the yellow and the purple and the crimson keeping time.


Autumn is my favorite time of year for experimenting with natural light and outdoor photography. With the sun at lower angles as fall and winter proceed through the northern hemisphere, there are several hours in the morning and afternoon where the less direct light produces combinations of shadows and highlights that are fun to explore. The low light angle is of course one of the reasons that trees decked out in their fall color not only seem to glow on their own but also wash their surroundings with more intense reflected and filtered colored light.

You could read a lot about how and why this happens — engage in a bit of study to teach yourself the astronomical characteristics — or you could simply walk around in nature and give extra attention to variations in the quality of the light. I prefer working in this kind of lighting over all others except slightly overcast days, and I usually sleep through golden hour and blue hour comes right during my dog’s soccer lessons.

A couple of my photography books — Expressive Nature Photography by Brenda Tharp and Beyond Auto Mode: A Guide to Taking Control of Your Photography by Jennifer Bebb — have sections devoted to different types of light photographers encounter. Bebb’s is a more detailed discussion, but Tharp’s shorter version is a bit more conducive to using in your own natural experiment.

In a section of her book called “The Angle of Light,” Tharp separates the kinds of sunlight into top-down light, front light, sidelight, and backlight. With respect to the position of the outdoor sun, the terms are pretty straightforward; but here’s a way I like to experience them in nature, with or without a camera.

  1. Find a big-ass tree with plenty of autumn-colored leaves, one you can walk under without hitting your head (safety first!)
  2. Start outside the tree, a couple of feet from the tree’s bottom branches, with your back to the sun.
  3. Examine the light and color on the leaves. Depending on the sun’s position in the sky, the light could be characterized as top-down (if the sun is high in the sky as it would be closer to noon), or front light (earlier in the morning when the sun is closer to the horizon). These two kinds of light produce similar renderings of color and shadow, though top light tends to be brighter and whiter — creating excessive highlights and strong shadow contrasts that may wash out much of the color and some of the tree and leaf detail.
  4. Still outside the tree’s circumference, walk now about a quarter of the circle and observe how the light changes from top-down/front to sidelight. With autumn leaves especially, sidelight can be excellent to work with. It’s easier to expose than top or front light but also begins to reveal some of the effects of backlighting, which makes the leaves appear to glow both to your eyes and to a camera’s sensor.
  5. Continue walking outside the tree until you are directly opposite your starting position, the sun now facing you. Here you’ll experience backlighting, with the leaves looking as if they’re lit up individually, twinkling like Christmas lights. Your eyes will likely love this position; the camera may like it slightly less since it will be challenged to find a correct exposure between the bright light and shadowy contrasts.
  6. Now, walk under the tree, close to the trunk, and repeat the same movements: start with your back to the sun, walk about a quarter of the way around the tree, then walk to where your opposite the starting point. Each of the four lighting variations will still be apparent, but now you’ll see how they change when the light is filtered by the tree’s branches and leaves. Working underneath a large tree — or even in the shadows of a nearby tree — can create a nice balance for all the colors, shadows, and highlights that you photograph, and have the additional advantage of keeping the sun (mostly) out of your eyes.

I took all of the photos in the galleries below — except one (can you tell which one?) — from the backlight or sidelight position. I typically start with the camera’s program mode — which interprets the scene and gives me a starting point for exposure settings — then switch the camera to manual mode, slightly underexposing the image by increasing the shutter speed. For sidelight and backlighting, underexposing the image helps reduce flaring highlights; but with the capabilities of today’s cameras and software like Lightroom, the subject’s details and shadows are still well-captured and can be recovered or emphasized during post-processing.

I use the camera’s exposure bracketing function to get three shots of each scene, one that will use the settings I chose, one that underexposes the image, and one that overexposes the image. Using bracketing like this has a couple of advantages: it helps ensure that I have good focus on at least one of the images (in case the leaves move and try to go blurry); and ensures that I have a few exposure variations to work with in Lightroom from which I can choose the image with the best balance of color, highlights, and detail.

Here are the photos, the first two where I found and isolated a single leaf then removed the tree trunk and branches manually with Lightroom brushes

… and these three where I did something similar, but let Lightroom’s masking select the subject (previously described in my post Autumn Daisies 3 of 3). It chose the branches the leaves were attached to (because they were of similar brightness and focus) and I liked that result.

This was a “from under the tree” photo — and you can see in this single image variations between side-lighting on the left and filtered front-lighting (toward the right).

Full backlighting here, the kind where the light coming at me was bright enough that I could barely see the scene in the camera’s viewfinder — which, in real life, is a good way to learn how to rely on what the camera is telling you about your exposure settings rather than what registers (or doesn’t register!) in your eyes. It can be something of a crap-shoot, this approach, but I’ll just take a big handful of such pictures then throw most of them out when I get home. I don’t mind that, though, because I can get some of the nicest bokeh in the background with the light coming through nearby trees.

Below are the same three images, with the backgrounds removed. Here again, I used Lightroom’s new masking and let it select the subject. It did a nearly perfect job picking out these finely detailed branches, filling in black around each needle with very little intervention from me. Doing the same thing by manually brushing the backgrounds would have taken several hours per image because of the tiny spaces between needles — and I probably wouldn’t have even tried — but letting Lightroom do it was nearly instantaneous and gives me a whole boatload of new ideas about post-processing some of my images.

And, finally, here we have an example of a big-ass tree, the kind you can walk around and under to enjoy the lighting. This is backlit, obviously, with the starburst effect created by using an aperture setting of f/22.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Autumn Daisies (3 of 3)

From The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson:

“Eleanor went alone into the hills above Hill House, not really intending to arrive at any place in particular, not even caring where or how she went, wanting only to be secret and out from under the heavy dark wood of the house. She found a small spot where the grass was soft and dry and lay down, wondering how many years it had been since she had lain on soft grass to be alone to think. Around her the trees and wild flowers, with that oddly courteous air of natural things suddenly interrupted in their pressing occupations of growing and dying, turned toward her with attention….

“Idly Eleanor picked a wild daisy, which died in her fingers, and, lying on the grass, looked up into its dead face. There was nothing in her mind beyond an overwhelming wild happiness. She pulled at the daisy, and wondered, smiling at herself, What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”

From “Hell” in White and Other Tales of Ruin by Tim Lebbon:

“Chele was squatting on her haunches, picking at the lush green grass, sniffing it, running her hands across the bright daisies that grew in profusion between the coach and the trees….

“Dark things darted in the air around her head and she waved them away. I waited for them to attack her, pierce her skin and puncture her insides, but then a couple landed on her arm and they were only flies.”


Halloween approaches, so I was pleased to find a couple of daisy-related references (quoted above) in some spooky stories. My Invisible Man costume has been fetched from the dry cleaners, and I’m all set for my traditional participation in the festivities. I do still have to pick up a few severed heads of broccoli; I normally hack it into florets and dispense them in tiny orange bags. Gotta keep those kids healthy, don’t you think? Maybe I’ll splurge this year and include some dismembered baby carrots and a ranch-dip potion. Or Vampire Beets! Everybody loves Vampire Beets!


For this last post in my series of autumn daisies, I’ve included an example showing how much easier it is now to remove backgrounds from images with the newest release of Adobe Lightroom Classic, version 11. For comparison, see Lilies on Black Backgrounds: A Photo Project (1 of 10), where I describe the detailed (and often tedious) brushing actions required to isolate and change a background to black. With the new version, I can accomplish the same thing with a few mouse clicks.

Here, for example, is a before screenshot of one of the images in the first gallery below, with all my adjustments completed except the background change:

To get started, I first chose “Select Subject” from Lightroom’s local adjustments panel…

… and Lightroom created a mask over what it determined to be the photo’s subject. Lightroom included all four flowers and a bit of the background between the cluster of three and the fourth flower, but that’s okay.

Because I wanted to work on the background rather than the flowers, I then chose “Invert” to flip the mask…

… and Lightroom switched the mask from the foreground to the background.

I decided to exclude the fourth flower from the final image, so I selected “Add” to increase the coverage of the mask and then chose “Brush” to use a brush to do that.

Then I brushed over the fourth flower (swoop-swoop)…

… and, finally, I changed the background to all black by setting these sliders (or using the preset I previously created)…

… and it’s done!

It took way-much longer to write this description than it did to actually make the background changes. And — for this technique that I use so often — there are two huge timesavers. First, Adobe’s mask is consistent throughout the background; meaning, I don’t have to repeatedly brush over certain bright areas to effectively cover them up. And, second, there’s no need for me to zoom in and out to carefully brush around the flower petals manually — which was the most time consuming step in creating these masks in the olden days of… last week!

Occasionally, if the subject is a little fuzzy around the edges or the background at those edges is of similar brightness, I’ll make a few additional adjustments with the brush. But wherever there’s decent contrast between subject and background, that’s unnecessary. For the photos in these galleries, the only image that took a little extra effort was the fourth one below, the cluster of seventeen white daisies now floating on black. All the others were 1-2-3-done!

If you would like to learn more about Adobe’s new Lightroom masking functions, I included links to their help documentation in the first post in this series: Autumn Daisies (1 of 3).

Thanks for taking a look!







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