Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Power of Color in Black and White Photos

Black and white photography can produce some captivating and artistic photos. By removing color from the image you emphasize the tonality, geometric shapes, and composition of the photo. Of course, not all images work in black and white. A brilliant sunset loses its a beauty when all the color is removed. I find converting an image to black and white to be a fun creative challenge that can result in an image to be proud of.

Most digital cameras and even some cell phones can take photos in black and white. If you let your camera do the conversion to black and white it will store the image without the color information. You have now limited your ability to adjust the image later.  My suggestion is to always capture your images in color and convert to black and white in post processing.  Here's why.

The best way to explain what I am talking about is by showing an example.  The video below shows how powerful the color information is behind a black and white photo.

I hope that video is helpful.  Making videos is new for me and was a little intimidating.  I think I need some practice.

Here are some more examples of converting a color photo to black and white.

Sample Number One - Street Portrait

I made this photo of Carrington Kay at the Music On The Square in Jonesborough TN. I wasn't in a great position to make photos and was more interested in enjoying the music anyway. The musicians were in the shade but the background building was still in the sun. I edited the color version to deemphasize the background and focus on the two individuals, however, the red brick still grabs your attention more than I wanted it to.
I used Lightroom to convert the image to black and white using the color sliders like I did in the video. The red brick wall no longer grabs the viewers attention allowing the musicians to be what your eye sees first.

Converted to BW in Lightroom
Click on the first image to zoom in then use the right and left arrow keys to flip through the different versions to see the differences in each.

Sample Number Two - Dull Sunrise

I said earlier that sunrises or sunsets are not typically what I would convert to black and white. In the example below the sunrise colors were very muted.  In fact, there is very little color in this image.
Fuji Provia Profile
When you shoot color in RAW format you can apply camera profiles later in Lightroom. In this example, I used a profile that simulates the Fuji Acros B&W film.  Applying this profile also changes the contrast and introduces simulated grain to make the digital image appear as if it was shot on Fuji Acros B&W film.

Fuji Acros Profile
By converting this image to B&W I removed the color distractions and emphasized the repeating patterns and composition. The surface of the water was blurred by using a 9-second exposure.

I really like the Acros profile and it's easy to apply in Lightroom.  If I don't like the result, it is easy to switch back to the default Provia color profile.

Sample Number Three- Timeless Scene

One more example of converting a color image to black and white.  In this case, the crisp color image appeared too new for the subject, which looked like it was set in the 1950s.  
Produce Stand in Color
 By converting to B&W the resulting image fits better with the subject.
Converted to BW in Lightroom
There are a number of ways to convert a color image to black and white.  I have shown you two ways in Lightroom. Other tools I use are Silver Efex Pro 2 from Google (Nik) and On1 Photo RAW.

Converted to BW in Silver Efex Pro 2 High Structure (Harsh) preset.

Converted to BW in On1 Photo RAW 2017 - Black & White Rugged Preset
These are just a few tools available for converting to B&W. There is an infinite number of ways to adjust an image when converting.  How you convert your photos is up to you. Use your creativity to express yourself and tell a story with your photos. Just make sure you capture the image in your camera, in color, preferably in RAW format.

Do you find these blog posts worth the time it takes to read them? Is there something you would like to see on the blog? Send me a note and give me some feedback.  I really do appreciate the feedback.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Working A Scene

One of my favorite waterfalls can be found in Western North Carolina near Rosman. It's not in a National Park, National Forest or even a State Park. In fact, it's not on public lands at all.  It is in the back yard of a private residence! The owners are nice enough to allow, and even encourage, visitors to their own private waterfall on Shoal Creek.

After parking behind the house and walking about 200 yards the trail climbs a very short distance and then descends a set of stairs to the base of the falls. This is the first view of the falls taken next to the small pool below the 60-foot falls.

1/2 sec at f/16

I've been here twice and neither time was there a lot of water flowing over the falls. I think this level of water is just about perfect. It allows individuals streams to separate when falling over the rocky bluff. There is a lot of interesting details and patterns in these falls. While you can easily see the entire waterfall from this vantage point, there is much more to see and photograph.

Landscape photographers need to move around and "work the scene".  Avoid the temptation to place your tripod in the first place you find.  Move closer or farther back.  Use your zoom lens, which can give a different view from moving closer.  Get lower.  If possible, get higher and shoot down. We didn't stay long enough because standing in water with thunder storms near by is not a good way to live long and prosper.

1/2 sec at f/16

Hoping across the rocks to the center of the stream gives you a slightly different perspective with the rocks in the foreground. The first and second shots include the lush green foliage and thick moss on the sides of the waterfall. It was an overcast day and the soft indirect light really made these greens pop.
1.8 sec at f/16

The pool below the falls is not very interesting and does not add much to the composition. Wading through the pool I got closer to the falls and made the shot above, cropping out most of the pool and the gray skies. You'll notice I also cropped off the top of the falls. I did this to emphasize the shapes and patterns in the lower falls, which I found to be very interesting.

2.0 sec at f/16

I think the triangular shape of the bottom of the falls with the water flowing down the stair step to makes an interesting composition. I was able to include just enough of the water flowing in from the left and the greens in the upper right.  

Tall waterfalls like this typically work best as vertical portrait orientation shots. However, the horizontal ledges in the falls made an interesting landscape orientation composition when I zoomed in closer.

0.9 sec at f/16
I zoomed in closer to emphasize the hard geometric lines and shapes of the rocks and the soft flowing water. I always like green plants or moss showing through behind a waterfall.  
4.3 sec at f/16
All these photos were shot at ISO 200 and f/16. The shutter speed varied due to the changing light conditions. By the time I made this last photo the skies had turned dark from the returning thunderstorms. It was time to head for the safety of the car again.

Making Photos With Flowing Water

To make photos with the soft flowing water you should start with a shutter speed of 1/2 second and vary it to get different effects. You might need to adjust your exposure compensation or use manual mode to not let the white water become over exposed in the long exposures. Of course, your camera must be steady through the long exposure so a tripod is pretty much essential to keep the rocks solid and sharp. If you place your tripod in a stream be aware that the water will introduce some movement and potentially blur your long exposure photos. I  place my hand on the tripod and press down during the shot to control as much of the movement as possible.

The other thing I find to be essential for these shots is a polarizer filter. This will reduce the glare off the wet rocks and foliage.  Be sure to turn the filter to adjust how much glare you want to remove.

Finally, if you have read this far you probably want to know where these falls are so you can visit them yourself.  These are Eastatoe Falls near Roseman North Carolina.

Directions to Eastatoe Falls:

  1. From Rosman NC, drive south on U.S. 178 for approximately 3.4 miles to a private drive on the right.
  2. There is a sign for Mountain Meadow here, and the driveway leads back to a house, and what used to be a craftshop on the left.
  3. The home owners have made a small parking area behind the house labeled with "Park Here" signs. The trail leads across the lawn into the woods and to the falls.
Please be courteous and respectful when visiting these falls. There are many beautiful falls on private property, but very few of them are accessible to the public because the land owners do not allow access.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

An Easy Photoshop Trick for Blending Exposures

Our eyes are amazing creations and in most cases, far superior to a film or digital camera.  Our eyes are able to look around a scene and dynamically adjust based on subject matter. This trait accounts for many of our commonly understood advantages over cameras. For example, our eyes can compensate as we focus on regions of varying brightness, can look around to encompass a broader angle of view, or can alternately focus on objects at a variety of distances.

Cameras capture a single still image.  Some adjustment to the image can be done after capture with photo editing software, but that is limited by the camera technology.  If areas of our photo are too bright (blown out) or too dark then no information will be available in those areas, no matter how much we try to fix the image.

Our eyes are more akin to a video camera — not a still camera.  Our eyes and brain work together to compile relevant snapshots to form a mental image. What we really see is our mind's reconstruction of objects based on input provided by the eyes — not the actual light received by our eyes. As a result, we can see into dark and light areas of a scene at the same time.

There are techniques for overcoming the limitations of our digital cameras to try and simulate what our eyes see.  One of the most popular is High Dynamic Range or HDR.  Even our cell phones can do HDR now.  However, the result can look unrealistic or even cartoonish.  Recently I have been using image masking in Photoshop that can produce more realistic results.

Warning - this works in Photoshop.  If you don't have Photoshop you may not be interested.  If you are, please read on.

1. Make a series of photos using exposure bracketing.  You want the darkest shot to have no blown highlights and the brightest shot to have no underexposed areas.   I set my camera up to take 5 exposures at - 2 2/3, -1 1/3, 0, +1 1/3, and +2 2/3 EV.  Most DSLRs support bracketing. You may have to find and read your manual to make this work.  You should have your camera on a steady tripod to make sure the images line up.

-2 2/3 EV

-1 1./3 EV

0 EV

+1 1/3 EV

+2 2/3 EV

2. Load the five images into Lightroom.  You can use other photo editing tools.  Lightroom is what I use.

3. Pick enough of the bracketed shots to cover the dynamic range by looking at the histograms. The histogram on the darkest one should not be touching the right side.  The histogram on the brightest should not be touching the left side. 

First Shot

Third Shot

Use control-click in Lightroom to select those images and any in between.

4. In Lightroom, choose the Photo menu, Edit in and Open As Layers In Photoshop...  This will launch Photoshop and bring the images in as individual layers.

5. Drag the layers around to put the brightest on top and the darkest on the bottom.

6. Click the eye icon to the left of the layer to turn off all but the bottom two layers.  In this example, I only have 3 layers.

7. Click the second to the bottom layer, then click the Add Layer Mask icon.


8. With the layer mask on the second to the bottom layer selected, go to the Image menu and select Apply Image.
A dialog box will appear.  Click the Invert box and click OK.

Photoshop will create a layer mask for you that masks out the brightest parts of the top image. You can click the eye icon on the second to the last layer to turn in on/off to see the effect.

9. Turn on the next layer up by clicking on the eye icon and then repeating steps 7 and 8.  Do this for each layer.

I will sometimes paint in some additional masking on some layers to brighten or darken areas of the photo.

The resulting image will be low contrast and will appear flat and uninteresting.  You'll fix this in Lightroom.

10. You can save the image as is with the layers or flatten the layers before saving.  I flatten the layers this to make the files a little smaller and save space.  Close the file in Photoshop.  It will appear in Lightroom along with the originals.

11. Use Lightroom Tone sliders to darken the backs, lighten the whites and add some contrast.   Be careful to not reintroduce blown highlights or dark shadows. At this point, you can do what ever additional edits you want.  In this example I used the Vertical Transform slider to correct some of the perspective distortion, and added a little clarity.

This example does not have extreme contrast to deal with.  I have used this technique in some extreme situations, such as the sunset example below.

Exposed for the sunset sky

A little brighter

Exposed for the flowers in the foreground

End Result

I hope this is helpful for a few people who use Photoshop.  There are other techniques, such as Luminosity Masking, which are even more powerful but are much too complicated to explain here.  I have found I can use Image Masking in most cases.