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More re: Language of Black and White

Back in 2018 I took a week-long photography workshop (“The Soul of a Photograph“) at Santa Fe Workshops led by Christopher Michel. Along with a dozen other photographers, we explored many aspects of creating images with impact while out and about in some of the beautiful venues in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It was a wonderful week with a great teacher who is famous for his beautiful and prolific work.

For most of the week I was teamed up with Cira Crowell, another great photographer who lives in Santa Fe. We had a great time together working on our images – including a particularly great day working with a few models at Eaves Movie Ranch outside of Santa Fe.

The following year Cira taught a new course in Santa Fe titled The Language of Black and White which I was also able to attend. Cira is passionate about the power of black and white imagery and she built her course on some of the earlier work and teachings of George DeWolfe who had also taught at Santa Fe Workshops. Coincidentally, I had met George on a visit to Havana in 2013 and had several wonderful chats with him over buffet breakfast at our hotel that week in Havana. Note: Cira is planning to teach another section of this course in July 2021 in Santa Fe.

Taking Cira’s course in Santa Fe opened my eyes to exploring new techniques to apply black and white processing to my images – in particular how to add depth to my images so that they take on more of a three dimensional look even though they’re just two dimensional by nature. I shared some of my thoughts about the course on our local InMenlo blog. One of the exercises involved taking one of the color paintings of a great master and converting it to black and white – while adding depth.

This month I started an online version of Cira’s course as a follow-up to the in-person workshop I took two years ago. While being together in a classroom seems ideal, an online workshop comes pretty close in terms of providing the vehicle for teaching and understanding. And it’s a necessary approach in this pandemic era where our travel opportunities are so severely restricted. What falls away with the online approach are the social dynamics of being together – an important aspect to the workshops held in Santa Fe.

In the workshop, we’ve been exploring post-processing in Lightroom – converting a color image to black and white – and using some of the tools available to move beyond just the default conversion from color to black and white. Below is an example – a simple color photograph of an orange on a countertop being converted to several different versions of black and white.

Original color image
Default conversion to Black and White using Lightroom’s Auto tool
A manual conversion to Black and White by adjusting the color sliders independently
A “high key” conversion to Black and White
A “low key” conversion to Black and White

One of the important lessons in this process is understanding the difference between the values in an image versus the tones in an image. Different tones can result in the same values – creating some unusual situations such as red converting to the same tone as green, for example. If you have a red subject on a green foliage background, for example, the subject will almost disappear into the background.

This can be visualized by looking at these two images that depict the luminance values vs the color tones. You’ll notice that the reds and the greens have very similar grey tones while the yellows are much brighter grey and the blues are much darker greys.

Source of color image: https://www.widewalls.ch/magazine/color-theory-basics-elements-color-wheel – greyscale conversion done in iPhone Photos app.

Learning the language of black and white is all about learning how to translate these hues into greys so that the image of an image is enhanced.

When converting a color photo to black and white in Lightroom Classic, the color sliders can be used to change the tonal values of the different colors. You can actually adjust the colors first in color before converting to black and white and then take the image through a quick round trip through Photoshop to preserve your color edits before then converting to black and white and editing further. This technique provides the most control over the translation from hue to tone in the greyscale image.

A final round trip through Photoshop can also be used to add depth to the grayscale image. In Photoshop duplicate the background layer and change the blend mode to Soft Light. Adjust the opacity to a low value – say 15% as a starting point. If need be you can add a layer mask and control more precisely where the effect is applied. If you want even more you can duplicate the layer again and see how that works. Then save the image back to Lightroom Classic for any final edits.

And remember, black and white isn’t “plan b” – it’s an intentional approach to creating classic, more timeless looking images.

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A Few Links for Labor Day

Here are a few links to articles and podcasts that I found interesting this Labor Day morning and over the past few days:

  • Malcolm Gladwell and Timor Kuran. A few days ago someone mentioned The Portal podcast hosted by Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) and, in particular, the episode with Duke University professor Timor Kuran (@timurkuran). Their discussion about Kuran’s theory of preference falsification was fascinating – especially about how things in society can “cascade”. A day or two later I happened to watch this New Yorker video (April 2018) with David Remnick and Malcolm Gladwell (@gladwell) during which Gladwell highlights perhaps his favorite New Yorker article titled Thresholds of Violence (October 2015) – about how school shootings have caught on in America. In that article, Gladwell talks about Stanford professor Mark Granovetter‘s famous 1978 paper about how riots happen – in particular how “a riot is a case of destructive violence that involves a great number of otherwise quite normal people who would not usually be disposed to violence.” He asks the question: “But what if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is to go back and use the Granovetterian model—to think of it as a slow-motion, ever- evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?” The connection between Kuran’s false preferences and Granovetter’s threshold models of collective behavior was striking to me. I highly recommend both the Gladwell video and the Weinstein/Kuran discussion on the podcast – fascinating stuff with profound implications for our time.
  • Podcast: Land of the Giants – by Jason Del Rey. A few fascinating episodes exploring the success of Amazon.com. Highly recommended!
  • Podcast: The Moment with Brian Koppelman and his interview with author Ben Mezrich (author most recently of Bitcoin Billionaires which I also really enjoyed reading – see my highlights here).
  • Photography (YouTube): Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera Challenge – Sean Tucker – The challenge provides a photographer with a minimalist cheapie camera – and follows him shooting with it. Good fun!
  • Travel: The Insider’s Guide to Santa Fe – from Outside magazine and Tourism Santa Fe. One of my favorite small cities and the home of Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.
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Black and White Monochrome Photography Photography Photography - Black & White Portraiture santa fe

Gallery: Black and White Portraits from Santa Fe

Over the last few weeks I’ve been sharing some of the portrait work from my recent Santa Fe workshop (and one from a July 2018 workshop) on Instagram.

Here are a few examples in a tiled gallery – something I’ve been wanting to try.

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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.