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!

Big Blue (and Black and White) Hydrangea Blooms

From 100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names by Diana Wells:

“The big pink or blue garden hydrangea is as common in America as blue-haired old ladies, and has the same feel of dyed unreality.”

From Hydrangeas by Naomi Slade:

“[Many] hydrangeas have a ‘preferred’ colour, and they will lean towards this, regardless. Simply, some would rather be … blue….”

I started out assembling photos for this post with this image of two very blue hydrangea blooms. At first I didn’t mind the green leaves behind the petals, but after a while they got on my nerves and the hydrangea bones in the background made me nauseous (exaggeration alert!) … so…

… I removed the background, ending up with two floating flowers…

… and then created five virtual copies in Lightroom so I could crop the blooms as four separate photos at different sizes, plus a fifth large crop (of the first, most symmetrical bloom). Notice that in the fifth image, it’s more apparent that these blue blooms have purple-brushed petals… which is almost always the case with blue flowers of any type.

Side-eye note: These five images demonstrate one of (to me) the best things about shooting raw files, that you can crop out large sections of an image with little or no loss of detail, which is well maintained even after exporting the photos for uploading to a blog or website. As you may know, WordPress blogs compress images and reduce quality slightly; but if you click here to view the last image at full size, you can see that despite selecting only about a third of the image during cropping, it’s full of sharp detail.

Such was my delight at these big blue blooms that I thought it might be fun to do something else to the images.

I passed them in and out of the Nik Collection a few times, and while they looked fine with filters that converted them to sepia tones, or an antique look, or to an old film style, none of those renditions appealed to me that much. Funny how that works: you have an idea you want to do something creative with an image (without necessarily knowing what), and certain things strike you but many do not.

I then took several different approaches to converting them to black and white in Lightroom; and again didn’t like the results at first as they just looked like black and white variations of blue flowers.

Tools like Lightroom and Nik Collection of course provide the potential for endless possibilities and results. Yet I always try to think of that differently, as a way of exploring how we create and how we sense that something we create has reached a satisfactory “end state” — “end state” in itself being an ambiguous condition, never quite answering the question: am I done yet?

Whenever I feel a little stuck, I try two different mental tricks to change the way I’m thinking. First, in Lightroom, I try extreme changes for various exposure and color settings — which basically means moving Lightroom sliders to the far left or far right in different combinations to see what happens. Second, I consider what I usually do to an image, what changes I typically make (we tend to follow similar patterns or processes when creating pretty much anything), and try to break out of that pattern. In my former tech life where part of my job consisted of software quality assurance, such an approach would have been considered exploratory testing of edge cases to try and break the software; in photography post-processing it translates (for me) to experimenting with methods I don’t usually use to see what new potential is exposed.

Black and white conversion in Lightroom is initially a button-push, which typically renders a fairly flat (as in dull) variation of the original image — but many of the same exposure and color options (color in this case meaning the red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta colors in the original image) are still available. Adjusting the black-and-white renderings of those color channels not only teaches you more about how color is represented in photos, but it can also produce surprising effects. For all five of these images, I discovered that the tiny pin-buttons at the center of each four-petal flower cluster — which initially appeared as dark black dots — actually contained red, orange, and yellow; and increasing those three colors to their highest value (an experiment with “extreming” the settings) changed the overly prominent black dots to white or light gray instead. Before adjusting the red, yellow, and orange, my eye kept getting drawn to the dots; afterward, the dots blended with the rest of the flower and weren’t such a distraction.

In addition to the Sharpening tool, Lightroom has two other tools for enhancing detail: Texture and Clarity. With a black and white image, a bit of extra sharpening (even though I had already applied sharpening to the original color image), adds a little sparkle to highlights around edges without creating jagged traces that you sometimes see in over-sharpened images.

While I use the Texture tool frequently, adding more than was in the color image didn’t have much of an effect. I hardly ever use Clarity to add detail (preferring Texture’s more subtle enhancements instead); but in this case, I broke from my typical approach and played around with Clarity to see what would happen. Lowering clarity reduced detail and produced a uniform softness in the flower petals, while also adding a bit of brightness — and the combination of softness and brightness appears as a bit of glow throughout the blooms. An illusion, perhaps; but your eyes will see what they want to see… or maybe what I, The Photographer, want them to see. Ha!

Finally, I used Color Grading to add a bit of blue color back into the shadows, highlights, and midtones; that produces a light silver effect on whites that I like and, to me, is more appealing than flat white.

The End!

If you read all that, bless you! Treat yourself to some ice cream!

My previous hydrangea posts for 2021 are:

Baby Bluebird … Hydrangeas (1 of 2)

Baby Bluebird … Hydrangeas (2 of 2)

More Bluebird Hydrangeas! (1 of 2)

More Bluebird Hydrangeas! (2 of 2)

Pink Mophead Hydrangeas (Five Variations)

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Tales of Two Grapevines (4 of 4)

From “The Appeal of Black & White” in Black & White Photography by Michael Freeman:

“[Far] from a universal march towards more colourfulness, there is now a significant and growing reverse flow in photography, towards the new black and white. It’s new because it’s created from colour with processing software that makes the experience a delight, which means that you don’t even need to decide at the start that it’s a black-and-white image you’re after. You can even trawl your archives with a reconsiderate eye and look for images that might work more powerfully, or at least differently, in the single range called grayscale.

“So … what is this persistent appeal of black and white? There are some semi-practical answers, and a trawl of internet opinions throws up emphasis on form, shape, line and texture, as you might expect. Basically these all have the root argument that removing the distraction of colour allows you, actually compels you, to concentrate on other things. There is also the corrective argument — when the colour is somehow spoiling your idea for the shot, just switch. However, it seems to me that there must be deeper reasons, maybe not all of them easy to pin down. In fact, the underlying appeal of black and white ought to be difficult to describe, because surely any art form that has the potential to move people must have some enigma to it.”

From “Black & White Craftsmanship” in Black & White Photography by Michael Freeman:

“One recognised darkroom master was Ansel Adams, and he also wrote extensively on the subject. His 1982 book The Print is not just a classic of photo instruction, but peculiarly relevant to contemporary black-and-white digital processing. Peculiar because it confines itself to the wet darkroom and shows none of the technology that we now all use. Relevant because it deals with the fundamentals of turning [an] already-taken shot into a final image….

“Adams was at pains to insist that this wasn’t all about technique by any means. There is, he wrote, ‘great latitude for creative variation and subjective control’, and the process involved ‘endless subtle variations which are yet all tied to the original concept’.

“The reason why Adams and other serious printers made plans — actual physical plans on paper or on a work print — was that the clock was running, literally, whilst the paper was on the easel under the enlarger. Any dodging and burning had to be done in a finite and short space of time. In his book … Adams details the printing of one of his best-known photographs, ‘Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park’, shot in 1944. The basic exposure was 10 seconds, during which time the dodging had to happen — holding back areas that needed less exposure to make them lighter. Burning was always easier — adding exposure to darken areas — although it meant taking care not to let light leak onto any other part of the image….

Burning was done in stages — a few seconds concentrating on one area, followed by another few seconds somewhere else, all of this typically done with a timer on the floor with a foot-operated pedal…. Dodging tools were typically metal circles, ovals, and oblongs at the end of thin rods, often painted red, to which colour the silver bromide paper was insensitive. Burning tools were most commonly your hands, cupped and shaped. Otherwise you cut holes in large sheets of black paper or card. Adams made a distinction between the umbra (shadow) and penumbra (the soft surround), as the latter helped smooth the transition during dodging or burning so that this manipulation would not be noticeable in the final print….

The modern digital equivalent is called feathering, as on a radial filter.”

This is the last of four posts featuring two grapevines growing in my garden. For the first post and more on the series, see Tales of Two Grapevines (1 of 4). For the second post, see Tales of Two Grapevines (2 of 4); and the third post is Tales of Two Grapevines (3 of 4).

For this post, I selected nine photos of each type of grapevine and converted them to black and white. I’ve done a little bit of black and white work before, but converting these grapevine photos seemed like a new experience nonetheless. Because green and yellow colors dominated both the foreground and background of these photos, there was little to differentiate the main subject from the background once the photos were changed to grayscale. So I used Lightroom’s radial filters to remove most of the background, allowing its feathering to leave mostly subtle hints of light around or behind the subject. In some cases, eliminating the background meant that the subject was quite small for the size of the image frame, so I cropped the images to enlarge the subject (though not enough to create excessive noise or loss of detail).

Once I was satisfied with the background appearance of each image, I used Lightroom’s brush tool to add highlights to the more prominent leaves, along with a bit of extra texture and sharpening to increase details. I don’t do that very often with color photos (I typically reject and delete photos that require sharpening to make them look like they’re in focus), but I’ve noticed that when working in black-and-white in Lightroom adding a bit of texture and sharpening has a neat side effect: it brightens the highlights further, creating tiny pixels of light without giving the subject an over-sharpened look. As a last step for each photo, I used Lightroom’s color grading tool to add a bit of silver tone (emulating the matte-finish side of a sheet of aluminum foil) — which is actually done by just slightly increasing the color blue in shadows, midtones, and highlights.

Here are the Catawba Grapevine images…

… and here are those of the Concord Grapevine.

Thanks for reading and taking a look! Next up: Irises!! 🙂