“It takes practice to get the look you want, and each situation is unique in what it presents in terms of light, color, and pattern. The best way to determine a reference point for this type of picture is simply to experiment and see what you get.”
“When trees are bare, their graceful forms are starkly revealed. The tones of beige and gray or black and white form a subtle palette in the landscape. The lines of grass and shrub, ice and fallen leaves, display themselves in simple, elegant designs, like a drawing or etching…. Winter photography offers us options at all scales.”
I liked the first quotation above because it accurately expressed what I was trying to do with the photographs in the galleries below. Winter color in my part of the southeastern United States is often an odd mix of monochrome interspersed with bright whites, pale yellows, and greens from those hardy plants that don’t mind temperatures in the forty-to-fifty degree range; so some days I go hunting for washed-out colors and other days I look out for hidden bits of bright color instead. These photos are from a mostly-monochrome day.
The first five photos show the remnants of Japanese Maple leaves still clinging to their branches; and the six that follow are desiccated hydrangea leaves and flowers — all with some color and luminance adjustments (among other things) and with their backgrounds “painted” black.
Given the fine details within each of these photos, Lightroom stumbled a little at automatic subject selection; and I ended out spending quite a few hours carefully mousing around the edges of these leaves and branches to get the look I wanted. In the end, there were only a few photos in this set that I was satisfied with, but decided to post them anyway since that’s what experiments are all about: seeing (and in this case, sharing) what you get. I may take a shot at converting some of these to black and white; they might look good that way, and help reduce what (to me, at least) appear to be flaws in these renderings.
The last gallery, at the end of this post, shows the before-and-after versions of each of the five maple leaf photos and six hydrangea photos.
Thanks for taking a look!
Here are the before-and-after images; there were a lot of details to paint! 🙂
“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.”
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.
“Domestic dogs do not generally hunt. Most are not born into the family unit in which they will live: with humans the predominant members…. Even feral dogs — those who may never have lived in a human family — usually do not form traditional social packs, although they may travel in parallel.
“Neither are we the dog’s pack. Our lives are so much more stable than that of a wolf pack: the size and membership of a wolf pack is always in flux, changing with the seasons, with the rates of offspring, with young adult wolves growing up and leaving in their first years, with the availability of prey. Typically, dogs adopted by humans live out their lives with us; no one is pushed out of the house in spring or joins us just for the big winter moose hunt….
“What domestic dogs do seem to have inherited from wolves is the sociality of a pack: an interest in being around others. Indeed, dogs are social opportunists. They are attuned to the actions of others, and humans turned out to be very good animals to attune to.”
“Methinks the hawk that soars so loftily and circles so steadily and apparently without effort has earned this power by faithfully creeping on the ground as a reptile in a former state of existence. You must creep before you can run; you must run before you can fly.”
“We may cast our gaze downward to watch the field mice and the insects that creep along the bending grasses, or to glimpse the snakes that slither into hollows deep underfoot, yet, at the same moment, hawks soaring on great winds gaze down upon our endeavors. Melodious feathered beings flit like phantoms among the high branches of the trees, while other animate powers, known only by their traces, move within the hidden depths of the forest.”
As the first week of 2022 approaches its end, all my shiny baubles and tiny trinkets have been boxed and packed away, with the wreaths snuggling nearby in their storage bags. The tree — undecorated, dismantled, squashed, tied up and crammed in a closet — fought back and screamed a little (it may have been me screaming), but has now gone quiet. The floors and shelves, the tables and windows have all been de-glittered (though my eye still catches a shiny dot now and then), and, visually, my house appears to be about thirty percent more spacious. So the holidays are officially over and it’s time for some things new.
The galleries below feature some photos I took while experimenting with one of two used Minolta lenses I bought in December. One of them — a 50mm f/2.8 macro lens — got a workout with this year’s “Days to Christmas” series; its ability to achieve focus as close as seven inches from a subject (and produce excellent color and good background blur) made it ideal for those photos. I have a Sony 100mm macro lens that has similar characteristics (and has a Minolta predecessor that I will probably buy at some point); but the older 50mm gave me a wider angle of view to work with while still allowing my subjects to loom large in the images.
Most of the Minolta lenses were manufactured in the 1980s and 1990s, originally of course for film cameras. I didn’t realize until about a year ago that there was a vibrant market for these lenses, many of which can be acquired inexpensively; and all of which provided part of the technology basis for Sony’s entry into the digital camera and interchangeable lens market when Sony acquired Minolta’s assets in 2006. My first film camera was a Minolta (I still have it, though it’s not functional) and my first DSLR was also Sony’s first: the a100, designed from Minolta’s tech and capable of using many of Minolta’s lenses, as well as those built and marketed by Sony as “A-mount” lenses. I eventually sold the a100 and replaced it with an a55; then, in 2018, replaced the a55 with the last of Sony’s A-mount cameras: the a99 II full-frame DSLR — which is freaking awesome. So apparently I have a good bit of nostalgia for the Minolta-Sony history and how it aligned with cameras and lenses I’ve owned, and it really is fun to take one of the lenses from the 1980s, slap it on the nearly-new camera, and get results that remind me of the film camera I originally started photography with.
(If you would like to learn more about the history of Minolta and Sony, Tony and Chelsea Northrup discuss it here: Sony Alpha and Minolta Camera History. If you are interested in acquiring some used photo gear from a great source, I can certainly recommend KEH Camera, from whom I’ve bought five used lenses that arrived in a few days and in like-new condition.)
I didn’t try the second lens — a Minolta 100-300mm zoom lens — until the Christmas photo project was behind me. It’s now the zoomiest lens I own; so of course one of the first things I did was try to use it for not-its-intended-purpose: some 300mm closeup-zoom photos of flowers. All of the photos in my New Year’s Day post were taken with this lens, and while there were plenty of rejected photos because I was experimenting with the lens’s capabilities… I was quite happy with how well the lens captured color and detail, even though I was twenty feet or more from the subjects and the lens was extended to its 300mm maximum.
Before heading out to take the white flower photos, though, I just took it into my back yard with my little companion, where I managed to snag a few decent photos of him doing what he does so often: hunting the English ivy for choice sticks — the longer, the better. A couple of the photos aren’t as well focused as I would have liked; but the rest are surprisingly sharp — which helps me understand more about using the zoom lens and what settings work best. Lobo is about thirty feet from me in these photos, something that works out well because if he’s too close when I try to take his picture, he turns away like he’s camera shy. For these photos I just stood still and waited for him to check in with me (dogs do that, you know, check in by making eye contact with you at least every few minutes; you just have to be ready for it) and it looks like he’s posing for the shots.
While I was wandering through Oakland Cemetery’s gardens for some white flowers to photograph, a little drama started playing out in the old oak trees between a tiny finch and this hawk — which I believe is a red-tailed hawk — as the two seemed to chase each other among the highest tree branches for about thirty minutes. The finch was way too small to photograph at this distance — but I did manage to capture some decent shots of the hawk… who eventually gave up on the escape-artist finch as it flitted among the twisted branches until it was safe to streak away.
The first four photos below are the originals taken with the lens at its 300mm setting; the second four are the same photos but cropped in Lightroom to show the detail that the lens was able to capture. Wheeee! I like this lens… which, by the way, only cost me $39.