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Techniques and Tips For Black and White Photography 1

Black and White Photography:

Techniques and Tips

by James Pearce

As you may have guessed by now my passion is Black and White Photography.  I have been shooting in Black and white for about 40 years.  I have attended a few seminars but am pretty much self-taught by reading books and articles.  I guess you could say that I am basically book smart when it comes to Photography.   I think I take after my Dad.  He dropped out of High School to join the Marines during WW II.  After his stint in the Marine Corps he opened a business.  That did not fare so well so he became a mechanic and an Air Conditioning Repair Man. Then he became a licensed stationary engineer and a building manager  for several large facilities as well as the building manager for the construction of the WE Star communication stations.  All his knowledge was self taught.  So here are some of the things I’ve learned over the past 40 years:

A lot of my knowledge came from using film cameras.  My favorite film camera of all time is a used Technika 4×5 camera I picked up in a Pawn Shop in Boston.  This camera was a totally manual camera and I had to load the film holders as well as perform all the film test to ensure I could see an image on the negative.  Learning how to use one of these cameras is an experience unto itself.  Anyway, in order to get the results I wanted I built my darkroom and I developed my own work flow from loading the film holders to printing the final images.  So when I moved to digital photography, the process was similar.  I had to create my own workflow and take the process from loading the card into the camera to the finished print. However it did require modifications.  So here are my hints to creating good Black and White Prints. I am going to address them from a workflow process. So before we even start to capture an image we need to discuss how we are going to store our images in the camera and the options available.

This blog is going to take several editions to complete I am starting with gathering the items you need to take with you to do Landscape or Cityscape (Architectural) photography.

Camera

I currently have several cameras but my ‘Camera of Choice’ for landscape photography is the Canon 5D II.  Today all cameras are excellent and I don’t want to go into great detail on cameras but I have a few suggestions.  These suggestions are for DSLR’s but they also apply somewhat to other digital cameras and to some extent to analog cameras…… first, the size of the sensor (Film in a film camera) along with the number of mega-pixels determines how much information the camera can capture.  The camera I have is called full frame because it is the same size as a 35mm negative or slide.  I have no problem enlarging my photographs up to 20X24 prints.  The newer cameras can capture up to 50 mega-pixels of information however the chip is still the same size.  So, the closer the pixels are packed into the chip the more likely they are to influence each other and create noise.  Noise is synonymous to grain or light spots in a film camera and can affect enlargements.  If you are considering purchasing a camera make sure you do your research because a camera that is used for landscape photography may not be the best camera for sports photography.

Memory Cards

I am basically a landscape, city scape photographer.  I shoot one image at a time (with some exceptions which we will discuss later).  So when I purchase memory cards I am not that concerned with the speed of the cards.  I just purchased two 32G cards for $15 each at the local Walgreens.  Someone doing sports photography or filming would probably not use these cards because speed is very important to them.  Therefore, depending on your type of photography, please research memory and purchase memory cards that fit what you are shooting.  I have had people complain that their cameras burst rate is not fast enough to capture action shots but once they upgraded to a faster (and more expensive) memory card their camera worked just fine.

RAW vs JPEG

As a landscape/cityscape photographer I always try to capture my images in RAW.  That being said, not all cameras have a RAW setting. So, when I shoot with my JPEG only camera, I always pick the largest JPEG file available to me in the camera.  Remember the bigger the file the more information you are capturing.  Also the bigger the file the slower the camera stores the information.  This is another reason the burst rate of your camera is not going to be as fast as it might  be in other circumstances.  If you are shooting action shots with a JPEG only camera, select a JPEG file (probably not the largest) take a few test shot then put them up on the screen and check the resolution then adjust the file size accordingly.

Here is some information I pulled from the internet that may help you with RAW vs JPEG…

RAW

• Not an image file.  It is a propriety machine language (Camera) interpolation of the information captured by the Camera’s sensor.  Since each camera manufacturer captures the information off of the sensor differently, it will take proprietary camera manufacturer’s proprietary software to decode the information.  It needs to be downloaded from the manufacturer.
• At least 8 bits per color (Red, Green, and Blue) though most DSLRs now record 12-bit color (36-bits per location).
• Uncompressed, a 24 megapixel camera will produce a 24 MB Raw file.
• All the data from the camera sensor is made available for processing.
• Has a larger dynamic range so it can show more highlight and more shadow detail
• Normally lower in contrast the image is flatter and maybe washed out looking.
• May not be as sharp as a JPEG file.
• May not be suitable for printing directly from the camera without post processing.
• Read only format.  All changes are saved in an XMP file or to another format such as JPEG.
• Needs to be processed by a computing device.

 Shooting in RAW

If you do shoot in RAW, your computer rather than the camera will process the data and generate an image file from it.  Shooting in RAW will give you much more control over how your image looks.   You have the ability to see exactly what the camera sensor saw.  It allows you to make intricate corrections and gives you the ability to see exactly what you captured so it can be used as a learning tool.

To take advantage of this you will certainly need to use some software on your computer to process the files.  I happen to use LightroomPhotoshop and Adobe Bridge to import and process the images.   Once I am finished developing the image into what I saw in my mind’s eye and evoking the feelings I had, I save the file (how I manipulate the files is a huge process to be discussed in a later installment).  Files can then be saved in a number of file formats.  Photoshop creates PSD files unless told to save the file as something else.  I normally save my files as TIFF files.  TIFF files are larger than PSD files but PSD files are proprietary to Adobe while TIFF files are a common format that are recognized by most other photography programs.  Once my files are saved as TIFF files (and I want to put them up on the internet or view them from a projector) I save my files as JPEG’s.  I size them at 60% of full file size with the longest side of the image being 1024 and the Resolution being 72 Pixels to the inch.

JPEG

• Is a standard format readable by any image program on the market or available open-source
• Is exactly 8-bits per color
• Compressed by looking for redundancy in the data (like a ZIP file) and stripping out what humans can’t perceive (like an MP3)
• Fairly small in file size  12.7 megapixel camera will produce a small JPEG file of 2MB and a Large JPEG file of 4MB’s in size (RAW = 12.1MB)
• There is much less information so it produces lower in dynamic range (the highs and lows have been thrown out).
• The image is higher in contrast because it has been modified
• The image is usually sharper, again because it has been modified
• A JPEG file is immediately suitable for printing, sharing, or posting on the Web because it has been modified and is open-source file format.
• May not be in need of correction.  However, I modify every image either JPEG or RAW
• A JPEG file tends to compress itself every time it is saved.  So my recommendation is to complete all adjustments to the image at once or convert a JPEG to another format such as a TIFF while you work on it only save it once you are finished.
• A JPEG file is processed by your camera.

 Shooting in JPEG

When you shoot in JPEG, the camera’s internal software will take the information off the sensor and quickly process it before saving it. Because the image is being reduced in size, most of the information is being thrown away.  In the example given above, a 12. 7 MP camera makes a 12.1 MB raw image.  However, it only makes a small 2 MB JPEG file.  So that is about a 60% reduction of the information being presented to you.  So I only shoot in JPEG when there is no other option.  I want to be the one who decides.  Some color is lost as is some of the resolution (and on some cameras there is slightly more noise (spots) in a JPEG than its RAW version).

 The major actor in this case is the Discrete Cosine Transformation (or DCT) which divides the image into blocks (usually 8×8 pixels) and determines what can be “safely” thrown away because it is less perceivable (the higher the compression ration/lower quality JPEG, the more is thrown away during this step). And when the image is put back together a row of 24 pixels that had 24 different tones might now only have 4 or 5. That information is forever lost without the raw data from the sensor recorded in a RAW file.
 The quality of a JPEG taken with a DSLR will still be far better than the same shot taken with a top-of-the-line point-n-shoot camera that is as old as your DSLR. If your camera can burst (shoot continuously for a few seconds) you’ll actually be able to shoot more shots using JPEG than RAW because the slowest part of the whole process is actually saving the file to your memory card – so the larger RAW photographs take longer to save.

Lenses

I normally use a wide angle lenses.  I do have 3 lenses that have tilt and  swing.  Since I used a large format camera for several years, which allows the bellows to tilt and swing,  I like  having these options available to me on my DSLR.  I do have a 70 to 300 zoom lens I like to use if I want to capture an image of a bird or other wildlife and want to blur the back ground.

Filters

I do use filters.  I normally use a polarizer filter when photographing outdoors. I like how a polarizer can make the scene pop.  At times, I use zero density filters to allow me to create more ethereal effects.

Tripod

I always use a tripod when taking landscape photographs.  I know that most cameras have motion dampening, however, when shooting landscape, it takes only the slightest bit of movement to blur the shot and make things look out of focus. This is especially true for Architectural photography.  So please get in the habit of using a tripod.  When using a tripod it is important to turn off the anti motion dampening.  If you do not turn it off the auto motion dampening may still try to compensate and actually make the photograph Blurry.

More to come in the next blog.