The Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow

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Over the last few years, most books on photography have been focused on the new breed of cameras and how to master the digital imaging workflow. In The Art of Black and White Photography author and photographer Torsten Andreas Hoffmann takes a different approach, focusing on image composition and image capture, with an emphasis on the creative aspects of black and white photography rather than on the digital workflow.

After introducing the ground rules of composition, Hoffmann illustrates their applications with his own stunning black and white images that cover various photographic genres, including architecture, street photography, portraiture, and surreal photography. Also discussed are the elements of a "photographic language"', which distinguishes creative photography from random shooting. Finally, you will learn valuable post-processing techniques, mostly using Photoshop, that emphasize the functions necessary for creating outstanding black and white images.

This second edition has been updated to include Photoshop CS5, as well as brand new images, content, and a revised layout.

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1 Choosing a Good Digital Camera

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In analog photography, the camera does not have the essential importance often attributed to it. It is the quality of the lens that is paramount, because the optical system and the type of film used are mostly responsible for a technically satisfactory image quality. These things are completely different in digital photography, where it is the quality of the camera sensor that determines image quality as much as the optical system. Therefore, most of the time—and in contrast to analog photography—the latest camera sensor model is in fact often the best one as well. Digital photography has evolved so much in recent years that high-quality images have become a reality; something that even a few years ago was by no means the case.

When digital cameras were in their infancy, three megapixels were insufficient to allow for significant enlargements. There were other problems too: image noise in night photos, moiré effects in delicate graphic structures, unnatural colors, color fringing in photo edges, and above all very slight burnt-out lights in backlit situations, making backlit photos almost impossible to shoot. In addition, shutter release delay was a problem in the early days of digital photography, making it totally useless for snapshots.

 

2 An Essential Rule for Digital Black and White Photography: Always Photograph in RAW Mode

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If you are just beginning to photograph digitally, you may be pleasantly surprised at the high-quality images that a good camera is capable of, even in the compressed JPEG format. For most situations, a skillfully taken photo in compressed JPEG mode is good enough at first glance. For the sake of convenience, it’s tempting to stay with this format because it uses up a lot less memory and there is no need to determine which RAW converter to load onto the computer. However, to surrender to convenience is a mistake in spite of the apparently satisfactory image quality of the JPEG format. This is especially important for black and white photography. Most of the high-end digital cameras have—in addition to the JPEG and sometimes the TIFF formats—the option of photographing in the so-called RAW mode. As the name indicates, all available RAW data is saved the moment you take the photo. Numerous automatic image-editing functions such as white balance, sharpening, and tone value correction are eliminated at first. Instead, the data is generally stored with 12-bit or even 16-bit color depth, as opposed to the 8 bits of JPEG mode. This greater color depth means a considerably wider tonal range. In order to open the data photographed in RAW mode, a RAW converter is needed. And this is where, unfortunately, every manufacturer clings to its own proprietary and very secret concoction. Although Adobe has suggested developing a uniform RAW format, the large manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon still won’t have anything to do with it. And yet, when it comes to optimum image quality, there is no way around using the RAW format: Photographs taken with this format have considerably better light scope, which means that photos shot in RAW format reproduce the brightest spots and the darkest shadows in backlit images more faithfully than photos taken in JPEG format. Thus, backlit skies taken in RAW format not only have more natural colors, they also have better differentiation.

 

3 Drama through the Use of Filters

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Various colored filters are used in analog black and white photography to change and determine gray scale distribution and subject contrast. Good digital cameras calculate this filter effect. Which filters should you use when photographing digitally in color mode?

In analog black and white photography, filters influence the translation of the various colors to gray values and consequently affect contrast as well. The most important color filters are yellow, orange, red, green, and blue.

Essentially, a filter allows the light waves of its own color to pass through but absorbs the light of its complementary color. For black and white photography, this means that colors in the image that are the same as the filter appear brighter in the photo, whereas those of the complementary color appear darker. The following colors are complementary: red and blue green, orange and blue, yellow and purple blue, yellow green and purple, green and purple red.

Filters are particularly useful in analog landscape photography, and Ansel Adams is the premier practitioner of this technique. His most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, would not have had such a dark sky without the help of a red filter. As a matter of fact, he took most of his landscape photographs with filters.

 

4 Overcoming Clichéd Photos

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After the previous brief yet important technical discussion, you are ready to focus your attention on the most essential element—the image!

If you want to improve your photographic skills, ask yourself if something is worth photographing. Think about what you really want to express in your photographs. You may be tempted to photograph clichés, such as the Cathedral in Cologne, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.

What characterizes a clichéd photo? A clichéd photograph is a shortened, simplified reproduction of a popular idea or image; it’s a poor copy, an imitation. Clichéd images do not need to be profoundly experienced by the photographer or audience, and they do not result from original thinking. Postcards are the best example of clichéd photos, generally showing popular urban attractions that are always under a clear blue sky.

cliché: A phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel.

 

5 Why Are Moods So Important?

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Just as in music, emotions can be expressed in photography. How is it possible to capture emotions using an image sensor and to generate tones and gray tones that equal the major or minor keys of the music scale?

There are many expensive cameras on the market that can give us the highest technical pictorial quality, but even these outstanding cameras cannot create atmospheric photos; only the person behind the camera can do that. The photographer can compose a perception of the world in a tight image. Well, what makes a tight image? First, it is the pictorial content, but it is how you place that content in the image that determines the impact it will have. The three photos taken at a beach in Lanzarote (figures 5–1, 5–2, and 5–3) show how different the same content can look.

As in music, images are perceived mostly at the sentimental level. Music conveys emotions that can move us to different states. This is hardly any different in photography. Images show us realistic content, but these are wrapped in emotions, as in music. And, these emotions are communicated to the viewer in the same way in which a concert attendee hears the emotional tones of a musical composition. Photographs that lack mood may cause indifference to the viewer. However, emotionally charged photographs have the power to evoke certain emotional states when they have captured a mood in all its intensity. Emotional expression is achieved only when the flow of enthusiasm becomes part of the act of photography. Without enthusiasm and a profound, internal participation, it is almost impossible to create an emotionally charged photo.

 

6 Street Photography

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Good photography does not always have to capture special moments; it can also devote itself to the seemingly trivial and commonplace.

Photographing people on the street is a challenge. How do you skillfully integrate strangers into a pictorial composition and still manage to maintain discretion?

So-called street photography has a long tradition. As early as the late nineteenth century, photographers started turning their attention from the ivory towers of static, staged, and idealized artistic photography to life on the streets. This direction often mirrored social reform. The camera served as an objective analytical instrument for documenting the dark side of early industrial modernism with its dramatic upheavals. The social fabric of large cities, in particular, underwent dramatic changes. Lewis W. Hine, for example, documented child labor in the United States as early as 1907, and his work was instrumental in the adoption of laws that outlawed the practice. Hine’s image of a young boy selling newspapers on the street became famous.

 

7 What Does Landscape Photography Mean in the 21st Century?

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On hearing the words landscape photography, you probably think of Ansel Adams, who is one of the world’s most famous photographers. He put his stamp on landscape photography like no other photographer has, traveled throughout the most beautiful places in the United States, and used all the technical means at his disposal to make landscapes appear heroic. Using the zone system, he divided the earth into 10 different black, white, and gray tones—each one aperture apart. In every photo, he used the zones to determine what area of the gray value curve of his negative he should expose. Just as important for creating his pictorial moods were his correct use of filters and his perfect darkroom technique. His photo Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is one of the world’s most celebrated photographs. What makes his images exceptional are not only their special atmosphere and their exact tonal values, but also the large format that shows every needle of a fir tree. Ansel Adams took photography of unspoiled nature to the highest reaches.

 

8 Architectural Photography

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The term architectural photography is often associated with those somewhat sterile photographs taken on behalf of a client for the simple purpose of showing architecture in the way the architect intended. This kind of photography is still taken nowadays with a professional (large-format) camera. A large-format camera allows the position of the film and optical planes to be adjusted relative to one another in order to correct architectural perspective in all focal lengths. Everything must be perfect in such photos: There should be no distracting elements like big cars to divert attention from the buildings, the light must be succinct, and the sky interesting. Frequently, architectural photos are taken in the “magical hour” (especially for color photography) when exterior light mixes with interior light.

Increasingly, architectural photography was made feasible with medium-format cameras and good shift lenses, but the digital method with a good back, or even a full-format camera with a small-format sensor, has become the norm. Photoshop now offers options for correcting distorted architectural lines.

 

9 The Graphic Element in Black and White Photography

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Black and white photography restricts the image to black, white, and gray tones. You can even eliminate gray tones in a black and white image to create a strong composition. Reduction is a very important design element—not just in photography, but in modern art as well. Many painters (such as Piet Mondrian) gradually moved from a complex composition to simple shapes, to the point of almost reducing the picture to a monochromatic surface.

However, black and white photography is about something else: An image without color emphasizes the graphic form. In black and white photography, pictorial content is based on a more or less graphic, abstract image structure. Photojournalism can also strongly convey the content, such as in this basic graphic structure. A fundamental component of black and white photography is the interaction of light and shadow. Looking through the viewfinder, it is essential to abstract and design the interaction between light and shadow. This is easier said than done because it is not always so easy to ignore the influence of color. With good digital cameras, it is possible to take one test photo in black and white mode and view the image on the camera’s display. The final picture should be taken in color mode, however, and converted to black and white with an image manipulation program.

 

10 The Poetry of Melancholy Moods

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In our contemporary society, which is characterized by suppression, melancholy is often frowned upon. Yet, what would art or the world of photographic images be without the special poetry of melancholy moods?

Although in today’s fun-loving society a melancholic person is seen as a spoilsport, Leonardo da Vinci saw melancholia as a special quality that was an important prerequisite of the artistic personality. However, in former times melancholia was not linked mainly to taking everything seriously; rather, it was defined as an impulse to seek out the depth and true nature of things in a quest to turn away from life’s superficialities. If you carefully read about the lives of numerous composers, writers, or visual artists, you will notice that melancholia characterized their lives. How much would the world lack if it didn’t have Hermann Hesse’s writings, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems, Van Gogh’s canvases, Caspar David Friedrich’s grand landscapes, Edward Hopper’s urban scenes, Ferde Grofé’s suites, or Rachmaninov’s piano concertos? From this you can discern a fundamental truth: It is the nature of many artists to pour the “unbearable lightness of being” into an art form and to fathom the deep nature of things. Why should photography, as an artistic way of representing the world, not also participate in this expression? And it is especially in photography, as you have seen, that the tendency is to produce pretty, clichéd photos. In reality, viewing a sunset is certainly a fascinating and exhilarating experience, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid creating a clichéd photo of a sunset! A photo will only be really successful if, whenever possible, it does not compare badly with reality.

 

11 Abstracts

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Photography took the place of eighteenth and ninteenth century naturalistic painting. Starting with impressionism, painting went in its own direction and has increasingly liberated itself from a natural way of viewing the world. The exception was the realistic movement that emerged from naturalism. In painting, the realistic movement had the task not only to depict reality, but also to represent deeper traits of reality.

Photography had taken over the representation of nature, but photography also had to liberate itself from the restricted representation of reality. Thus, the movement to take photography out of the convention of realistic representation began at the turn of the century with the Russian photographer Aleksander Rodchenko and in the 1920s with Hungarian photographer László Moholy-Nagy and his famous Photograms.

It may seem that an endless variety of abstraction methods have been used in photography. However, what does abstraction really mean? According to the dictionary abstraction is “detachment from material things.” Thus, abstract thoughts start detaching themselves from objects and developing their own inner life, and exactly the same holds true for pictures. If painting makes reality into an abstract and presents a new creation of shapes and colors, then the fact is that photography is always the portrayal of an objective world. And yet for photography, the concept of abstraction also means a detachment from the world of objects. When, for example, the abstract structure of a picture becomes the meaning, photography has detached itself from the actual object. Although pictorial meaning is based on an abstract structure, as frequently stressed in the example images throughout this book, most viewers are accustomed to noticing only the pictorial meaning. Only when the subliminal pictorial structure is seen abstractly (i. e., detached from the object) and found to be interesting will the pictorial meaning become powerful. In order to test the abstract structure of a very objective photo, it’s a good idea to turn the image upside down because then it will to lose its connection to reality and its abstract basic structure will become visible to the eye. This structure is the basic pattern that pervades the image, the interplay of lines and shapes of all kinds. A master of abstract design was the painter Vassily Kandinsky. He developed an entire philosophy about how the most varied shapes could be placed next to one another to create tension. He saw this as an act of creation.

 

12 Surreal Photography

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Surrealism was an all-encompassing movement that expressed itself mostly in the visual arts starting in the 1920s. One of the founders of surrealism, André Breton, was strongly influenced by the revolutionary ideas of Sigmund Freud and thought a lot about mental associations. Freud was interested in discovering the repressions and suppressions of the human soul that were dormant and remained unrecognized in the inner self yet determined existence. The surrealists sublimated all the instinctive urges of the subconscious because they believed in the “omnipotence of the dream” (Breton) and started to express themselves creatively. Because the subconscious also expresses itself very strongly in images (dreams, for example), it goes without saying that surrealism found its strongest mode of expression in pictures as well. Dalí, Magritte, Delvaux, and Max Ernst are universally known, yet Man Ray or Moholy-Nagy expressed themselves so strongly in their photographs that surreal thoughts determined their work.

 

13 Portraits

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It is the widely held belief that a good portrait is generally a well-lit depiction of smiling, young, and dynamic faces. However, that is often superficial because the artistic depiction of a person should be more than just good compositional lighting: Every person has an individual personality and spiritual beliefs and a close relationship to his or her surroundings, which undoubtedly leave their mark. A sophisticated photograph of a person should attempt to show their individual traits (including wrinkles and spots) as well as factors from their surroundings that have influenced them. Such portrait photography can be achieved from both maintaining a certain distance and from having an intimate knowledge of the person. Obviously, it is easier to take photos of friends or acquaintances than of strangers, and it is also very tempting to mount the telephoto lens on the camera and shoot voyeuristic portraits.

Usually, a better alternative would be to photograph strangers by approaching and getting to know them. If you decide on this method, it’s a good idea to engage in a conversation before making a portrait, and you should also attempt to ask unconventional, personal questions to get to know the person a little better. When doing this, it should not be a problem to have a brief relationship with the person and to move beyond conventional conversational topics. The individual being portrayed will remember such a conversation very well, and the photographer, in turn, will get a deeper understanding of this person, which is the prerequisite for a good portrait. After such a conversation, you can bring out the camera. Ideally, it would be best if someone else would remain in the room to continue the conversation so you can concentrate on taking the photo.

 

14 Man and Surroundings

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Photography can showcase the surface of things, as do the large portraits by Thomas Ruff, one of the world’s most expensive artistic photographers. Apart from Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, he is probably the best known of the Becher School photographers. To support his viewpoint, he takes portraits of people with a large-format camera, as if he is taking a meaningless passport photo that says nothing about the sitter’s personality. He then enlarges this “neutral” photo, to a size of almost 7 feet. You initially get the impression that it is a passport photo, but as you come closer to the image, the face starts disintegrating into its surface components. Standing directly before it, you see only a collection of pores, pimples, and other skin blemishes in vivid sharpness. The character that cannot be captured becomes nothing more than a surface when seen up close. Photographs conceived and enlarged like this do indeed capture just the surface because the nature of a person cannot be glimpsed in them.

 

15 Mystical Photography

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16 What Is Pictorial Composition?

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The space in a photo resembles the tones of a melody that produce a composition. An image is by no means successful simply if everything shown is razor sharp; what is crucial for the quality of a painting or photograph is how the individual pictorial elements relate to one another. An inexperienced viewer looks mostly at the content of an image, but the image is based on an abstract, basic structure that dictates whether its contents will elicit a strong or boring, chaotic or orderly impression—and that is what pictorial composition is all about.

If a classical painter such as Caspar David Friedrich worked on his compositions by sketching various possibilities, we photographers have to proceed in an entirely different way: We imagine how we can frame reality from every conceivable spot at any given time, and we decide upon large frames (wide-angle lenses), medium frames (normal lenses), or small frames (telephoto lenses). We compose pictures only by selecting the frame, the site, and the time. When doing so, we must apply all our pictorial capacity and creative ideas.

 

17 The Golden Ratio and Elementary Construction

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Good pictorial design means distributing pictorial elements in such a way that the eye perceives harmony and tension simultaneously. In other words, it is the placement of these elements that makes the composition interesting.

Mathematically speaking, the golden ratio is the division of a line into two differently sized parts. The smaller part relates to the larger part in the same way as the larger part relates to the entire line: a de facto ratio of 1:1.618. The golden ratio is relevant when dividing areas within a photo. The lines that divide an image in the golden ratio (i. e., in an approximate ratio of 5:8) are also known as harmonic dividing lines. Our eye perceives such a division as especially pleasant because it likes to move back and forth between two different sizes but at the same time also loves harmony. This balance between image tension and proportion is achieved with the golden ratio.

The golden ratio (or golden section): In mathematics and the arts, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio between the sum of those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the smaller. The golden ratio is approximately 1:1.618.

 

18 Triangular Composition

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Triangular composition is one of the best-known classical ways of composing an image. The triangle is a harmonic entity, and this is especially true of isosceles or equilateral triangles, which are optically harmonious. In older buildings, pointed roofs were often built with exactly the same angles so they would form an equilateral triangle.

The well-known German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich often composed his canvases with a pair of compasses and a geometry triangle to attain triangular composition in his paintings—to the point of even frequently arranging the clouds in his majestic skies in the shape of a triangle.

As far as photography is concerned, the same principles used in classical painting apply; the difference is that you must search your surroundings to find so-called “optical triangles.” In a photo, you can either hint at or clearly show a triangle. The optical triangle in a photo has a very orderly, harmonizing function, similar to the golden ratio, but it can also have an excessively static effect that is perceived as too rigid. Although generally static, you can use an optical triangle to create a dynamic composition, such as using a blurred movement to create a triangular shape.

 

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