The Language of Black and White

From a post I wrote earlier for InMenlo.com

Model: Rene Reyes

I’m just back from a weeklong workshop titled “The Language of Black and White” held at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. Taught by Cira Crowell, the week involved a deep dive into the key aspects of black and white photography — a genre that I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy very much. Cira (@ciracrowell) is a superb black and white photographer who I met last summer in a workshop taught by photographer Christopher Michel (@chris_michel)

Each day of the workshop had a theme: Who, What, Where, Why, How and When. After introductions on Sunday evening, Cira asked us each to share what black and white photography means to us. “I’ve come to appreciate the timeless quality of black and white photography,” was my comment. Others shared insights about the simplicity of black and white, how dropping away the color helps add clarity to a photo, and more.

We began each day with a short reading from a wonderful Georgia O’Keeffe book: Some Memories of Drawings to help us set a mood for the day. O’Keeffe comments on many of her early drawings describing what was in her mind as she moved from concept to drawing on the paper.

Continue reading “The Language of Black and White”

Enlistment Day

Marine Enlistment - San Carlos - 2008

In 2007, I got back into photography in a more serious way using the birth of my first grandchild as a bit of an excuse to get a “good” camera. That camera was a Canon 30D – and it served me well for a couple of years before I upgraded to a 40D and then, ultimately a Canon 5D Mark II. The 5D marks the end of the road for me with Canon – as I’m selling all of my Canon lenses and the 5D body to make way for the new mirrorless cameras from Fujifilm – but that’s another story.

In June 2008, I went to the helicopter airshow that used to be held at San Carlos Airport. One of the events that day was an enlistment ceremony conducted by the US Marine Corps. Here’s a shot, processing in black and white with a touch of platinum toning, from that ceremony.

Another Monochrome Processing Example: In the Light in Havana

In the Light - Havana - 2013

Following on from yesterday’s “The Leader” image, here’s another example from our visit to Havana, Cuba last January. Also shot with my Nikon D600. I’ve been experimenting with some new techniques for monochrome conversion using a new action being developed by Dan Margulis as some other special tricks.

Here’s the before image:

Beauty - Havana - 2013
Beauty – Havana – 2013

The Leader of the Band at Cafe Taberna in Havana Cuba

The Leader - Cafe Taberna - 2013

This is one of my favorite images from our trip to Cuba a year ago this week. It’s a shot of the lead singer in the band the night we were at Cafe Taberna – which plays that wonderful Ry Cooder / Buena Vista Social Club style of music. By the end of the evening, the band had us on our feet with lots of folks dancing in the aisles. Such a great memory!

I re-processed this image last night and uploaded it to Flickr. Today, it got picked up by Flickr Explore and went viral – resulting in thousands of page views and many new followers to my Flickr photostream. Pretty amazing to watch! The re-processing I did last night primarily involved a new Photoshop action being worked on by Dan Margulis which does some magic to portrait shots. I then processed it into monochrome in two steps – first using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 and then applied a platinum gradient map to give a gentler look to the monochrome treatment.

If you’re curious, here’s the original image straight out of the camera – my Nikon D600:

The Band at Cafe Taberna in Havana Cuba
The Band at Cafe Taberna in Havana Cuba

Cafe Taberna - Havana Cuba
Cafe Taberna – Havana Cuba

Sketching in Havana

In the Market (Sketch) - Havana - 2013
In the Market (Sketch) – Havana – 2013

Over breakfast this morning, I stumbled across a recommendation for the iOS application (both iPad and iPhone) My Sketch – which costs $1.99. I installed it and tried it out on one of my recent photos – which took all of about 30 seconds for me to complete and save! I liked the look of the pencil sketch lines coming into the image very much like the rays of light behind him actually did at the time I shot the image.

See more of my shots from Havana and Cuba here.

Train Your Gaze – Musing about Portrait Photography

Our Gal

So far in my pursuit of photography, I’ve spent much more time shooting images of landscapes, architecture, buildings, etc. than I have taken portraits. Oh sure, I’ve taken lots of family photos along the way – snapshots – but not much serious portrait work. Well, then there’s Lily – portrait above!

As I wrote in my summary of my learning about photography in 2011:

I began, for the first time, to try to learn more about portraiture. I’m still a relative novice at it – there’s a lot of difference between shooting a landscape and a person – but I’m beginning to appreciate and try to apply those differences. Portraiture is definitely an area I want to continue to focus on in 2012!

One of my learnings came from a portraiture class taught by Neal Menschel at Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. Neal’s a great photographer and his approach to critique and instruction helped me make some early progress. As so often happens, we learned a lot from each other in that class – as we were each progressing week to week. Definitely a valuable experience!

Of course, there’s really nothing better to build skills than to practice – but that’s been more difficult for me. Part of it is my social skills – not being much of a “chatter” (!) – along with my other pursuits. I’m sure it’ll come – as I get more comfortable with it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working my way through Roswell Angier‘s “Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography” (aff link) – a seriously wonderful book about photographing human subjects “in many different ways and from a number of different perspectives.”

Each of the twelve chapters in the book includes three elements: a discussion of one aspect of portrait photography, example photographs illustrating that aspect and a shooting assignment to pursue. I’m reading through the book now – and plan to go through it a second time to work through the assignments.

Here’s an example assignment – from the first chapter “About Looking”. You put the camera on a tripod, and find a willing subject able to spend an hour. The goal is to use the full hour and take a “36 exposure roll of film” of that person over the full hour – not in the first five minutes. Angier’s using this technique to highlight Richard Avedon’s approach to stillness. Turns out that Angier’s got my concerns about banter with the subject in mind:

First and foremost, the photographer must be quiet, thereby relinquishing the responsibility to keep the subject amused with reassuring banter. This is markedly different from the chatty masquerade that characterizes commercial portrait studios… The process may be uncomfortable or it may not be. It may seem like a quiet struggle or it may feel like a seduction. The end result will be witness to the process. Whatever quality the result may have, it will not feel like a picture that has been caught on the fly.”

Earlier this week, at the Google+ Photographer’s Conference, Peter Hurley – master of the head shot – spoke. Hurley’s technique is effectively the opposite of this – he talks A LOT to his subjects – continuously from the way he described it. And he gets some great head shots.

So, what to learn from these two approaches? Hurley’s certainly more of production “machine” – being paid by his subjects for his work. Avedon, for much of his work, didn’t want any personal connection with his subjects. Different strokes – both producing strong images.

Like most things in life, this feels very situational – for me to apply, it depends on the situation. If I was shooting senior portraits, a Hurley-like chatty approach makes sense. If I was shooting, for example, strangers – the dispassionate, disconnected Avedon approach would likely capture them at their most realistic. Bottom line for me: spend more time doing portrait work and try to find my technique.

By the way, here’s a great review of the book on the Luminous Light blog. It includes notes on each chapter and links to related content.