Autumn colours in black and white

Autumn is a great time for photography. Vivid colours and still waters that give beautiful reflections offer great scope for the photographer.

However, with all these beautiful colours around, it can be a challenge for the photographer working in black and white. This time of year is one of the best times to get to know tones and to be able to look at colour but visualise in black and white.

For those who are used to working in monochrome, autumn should present fewer challenges, but for those who are new to the genre, it is a wonderful time to experiment, and it is a good lesson in using limitations and constraints to produce a final image without colour.

It was a gorgeous day when I decided to shot material around the River Spean in Scotland. The weather, as often the case in Scotland, was changing rapidly. One moment the sun would be out while 30 seconds later it would be overcast with low moving cloud.

I always resist using filters, but I appreciate some people like to use red or yellow filters when shooting with black and white film. Using filters to bring out the clouds or deepen a white overcast sky is a good technique, but I prefer to shoot without colour filters. At this time of year, I often shoot the sky separately from the main image, later combing it back into the image during post production.

Tree colours at this time of year are numerous. From evergreens to orange, red and yellow leaves, colours abound. One of the techniques that I do think is particularly useful at this time of year is the zone system of exposure, which I will discuss in later posts. But for those familiar with the system, using the zone method helps to place the tree in the correct dynamic position in the exposure scale.

In the image below, I underexposed a couple of stops, which put the furthest evergreen trees into the lower 3/4 of the exposure range, while it allowed the orange and yellow trees to retain their individual place in the dynamic range. I tried to capture all the different colours with their representative monochrome tones, from the very light grasses and ferns to the orange, yellow and green trees.

Click on the gallery to flick through the images I shot to get a context of the area.

My final image of the shoot is the dam at Laggan.. Again, I wanted to capture the structure and surrounding tones in their relative monochrome range. The autumn ferns were quite light but the darker evergreens had a two-stop difference, and the reflections in the water had a three-stop difference. I used the zone system to place the darker water in zone 3, which allowed me to retain detail in the lighter areas.

Autumn is a fantastic time of year to get out with the camera. If you shoot colour on either digital or film, you shouldn’t be short of opportunities. If, like me, you have devoted your photography to the art of black and white, autumn is a great test of your ability to see in colour but to visualise in monochrome.

Evolution of an image

How did you take that photograph? That is a question I am often asked.

Fellow photographers usually want to know about the technical aspects, such as shutter speed and f-stop or about neutral density filters that I used.

But producing a nice image is much more than the technical aspects of photography. Sure, exposure and filters are important, but to me there are many more non-technical considerations to think about. I love it when someone really wants to know how an image has evolved.

Whenever I arrive at a potential spot for a photograph, I rarely reach for the camera. Instead, I sit down on a rock or on the ground and take in the scene, listening to the sounds around me and closely looking at the visual elements. I think this is one of the most important aspects of photography; looking, listening and suppressing the urge to get the camera out.

In the case of my Lakeside image, I spent the morning walking around the area, watching the boats and passenger ferry, and watching the numerous birds landing on the rocks and beach.

Resisting the temptation to get the camera out leads to much more appreciation of the area and of the elements that might be important when I do finally get to work with the camera. I call this the contemplation phase of the evolution of an image. Letting the senses see, hear and sometimes taste the landscape is such an important part of landscape photography.

Lakeside is a village at the south end of Lake Windermere. The village, in the county of Cumbria, was established as a steamer pier for services along the 10-mile lake. It is an important area for wildlife, tourism, sailing and other water sports.

As the contemplation phase progresses, I start to get an idea in my mind about what the image is going to communicate. Is there a story to be told? Or do I want to stimulate my viewer, to encourage them to think deeply about the image? This is the conceptualisation phase. This is where the concept of the image starts to become clearer in my own mind.

And then comes the visualisation phase, which is the stage where I can ‘see’ the final image in my mind. At this point, I start to carefully visualise the elements of the picture and how they might work together to capture the mood, the atmosphere and the concept I have in mind. Now it is time to reach for the camera!

The production phase is about the technical aspects. Shutter speed, depth of field, aperture settings, filters and neutral density are things that need to be considered, in relation to the concept and visual image I have in mind. These need to work together to produce the picture that I want.

Capturing the image, usually on film, is of course only the first part of the production phase. To get the final photograph the way that I want it usually means making some alterations to the film processing time, and it often involves making tweaks to the scanned negatives to bring out tone and dynamic range.

So, whenever someone asks me ‘how did you take that photograph?’ I usually hesitate before launching into a summary of the evolution of an image: contemplation, conceptualisation, visualisation, and production. Or, sometimes I simply say, ‘I took the shot at 1/125s at f-8!’

Why black and white film photography is great!

Black and white film has the ability to inspire creativity. But so does digital, so what is the big deal about black and white film photography?

Film photography has been in my blood since childhood. I was given a Kodak camera when I was eight years old and have been shooting film ever since. I built a darkroom in my parent’s attic and spent many a day experimenting with processing and printing negatives.

Having used, and still use, digital cameras, I think there is something very different about the results from film photography. Black and white negative film offers creative opportunities that digital and colour can never do. Here are a few of my reasons for shooting with black and white film.

Firstly, it is about mindfulness. I know, mindfulness is a much-overused word now, but this is a definite aspect of film photography that I think is the most important. Although the digital photographer has to think about composition, light, contrast etc, there is nothing stopping him taking tons of photos to find the one that looks just right. On the other hand, the film photographer has to really concentrate on getting the image in the camera right the first time, because each shot costs money. Getting the image right involves much more deliberation and concentration, a very mindful experience.

Film photography is about anticipation. You never really know what you are going to get until the film is processed and scanned or printed. I process my own film, and the sense of wonder is compelling when the film emerges from the developing tank, especially when a quick look reveals some really nice negatives.

Film photography is about challenge. There are so many things that can frustrate the photographer. Dust, scratches on the film, uneven development or even light leaking into the camera are all possibilities when shooting with film. Yet, even with these factors to consider, film offers the opportunity to accomplish skills that the digital photographer will never master. The challenge is definitely worth the frustration!

Colour is great, but it can sometimes confuse the viewer. A colourful image tends to hide patterns and shapes. When these elements are important features to communicate, black and white can win hugely over colour. It is almost like the analogy of the forest and the trees. Seeing a huge forest is great, but sometimes the overwhelming view of a forest hides the most important element, the trees. We can overlook the detail when overwhelmed. Colour can often have the same effect, while black and white lets the viewer see the detail.

Many people who give film photography a try can be disappointed with the results because the final image can look very different from a digital comparison. Film can have a grainy look to it and it definitely has a subtlety of its own. And, different films have different characteristics. For example, I use Ilford FP4 and Delta 100 for most of my work. Although both are rated about ISO 100, they behave quite differently. Delta is more contrasty while FP4 has a slightly better dynamic range. Working with film means learning the characteristics of the material and how it will behave. Almost like working with colleagues – you never really know their real character until they are pushed a little!

So, frustration, challenge, and never really knowing what you are going to get are some of the aspects of film photography that make it a special craft to master. By turning those challenges into a positive, film photography, especially black and white, offers amazing opportunities.

Have you given film photography a try? Let me know how you get on.

Don’t forget about the sky

I was leading a group of photographers a few weeks ago at one of my workshops, in the beautiful Braemar area of Aberdeenshire. We were discussing the river as it meandered around the gorgeous heather-clad hillside. Many of the group were chatting about filters or exposure settings and some were talking about using slow shutter speeds to try to capture the movement of the river as it flowed over rocks.

I listened to the chatter for a while before interrupting their conversations. I asked ‘haven’t you overlooked something wonderful that is about to happen?’ They just looked at me as though I had lost my marbles!

What the group hadn’t noticed was the sky. Behind us, from the west, a magnificent cloud formation was forming over the nearby mountains. The clouds looked very ‘angry’, more than likely bringing a little rain to the occasion.

Sky in a photograph is crucial to the emotional meaning of an image. The sky can either help or hinder the meaning of a picture. In landscape photography, the sky is about creating balance between the tonality of the sky and the foreground.

Of course, in everything related to photography, personal preference plays a big part. Some people like a picture that has a large chunk of white sky, but in my opinion, the best skies are those that add lighting, texture and tonality. Adding these elements create balance and interest, but it will also add drama. A bland sky with no tone often results in no interest.

Often, it is not possible to get a dramatic sky, because it is either too overcast or it is such a nice day that the sky is cloudless and blue. In these situations it is always better to minimise the amount of sky in the picture. On the other hand, if the sky has interesting cloud striations or the clouds are bearing storms, use this to advantage and include a large expanse of sky in the frame.

Moving the horizon in the picture will help to add interest depending on the weather and sky conditions. A simple rule to remember is: low sky interest, high horizon; dramatic sky, low horizon.

In conclusion, whenever taking pictures, always remember to look up!