Review: The Art of Black and White Photography

First of all, let me get something off my chest. I’m not picking on this book in particular, but generally, when will photography book authors quit talking about digital photography like it’s some crazy new thing that people need to be gently introduced to? Why does every photo book have an “introduction to digital” section that is all but useless filler? It’s 2008 people! If I wanted an introduction to digital photograhy, I’d have bought an introduction to digital photography book. Ok, rant over.

Read on to learn more about the book and find out how you can get a free copy.

Mercifully, The Art of Black and White Photography by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann keeps the intro to digital section to a mere 9 pages.

The meat of this book starts in section two. Section two devotes a full chapter to each of many different genres and concepts and attempts to show by example how to make black and white photographs.

Topics include overcoming clichés, architecture, portraits, street photography, and moods. Arguably, these are all topics that apply equally well to color photography. And in fact you could easily open this book to the chapter on, say, street photography, and apply the advice easily to color photos. If the example photos were in color you might even forget you were trying to learn something about black and white.

The example photos are quite good but very little space is spent explaining why these photos are better in black and white or how the removal of color enhances them. A person unfamiliar with the attraction of black and white might come away scratching his head. Technical details are lightly sprinkled throughout the text. For example, page 121 states “The photograph was taken with an analog camera, a 20 mm wide-angle lens, and a red filter. Yet, in spite of this red filter, the sky had to be burned in towards the top in the darkroom so it could unfold to its full effect.” On page 93 you’ll find “It was important to bring out the white highway stripes in the darkroom and to increase the contrast as well.”

And for a book subtitled “Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow,” a surprising number of images were creating using film cameras and traditional darkroom techniques. In many of the examples, rather than black and white techniques we get discussions of history, Greek mythology, and rather bland details like “This photo was taken with a 20mm wide-angle lens.” It’s an interesting read but not at all what I thought the book would contain based on its title.

Section three is devoted to compositional techniques. Again, most of these principals apply to photography in general, not just black and white. In this section though, I think it’s easier to see the connection to black and white because composition deals with concepts like shape, line, and form—basic components that often become more prominent once color has been removed from a photograph.

Section four covers digital conversion techniques using Photoshop CS2 and CS3. This is a solid but brief section with good information on basic conversion, dodging/burning, contast, sharpening and more. (Although, at one point the author shows one example of replacing a bland sky with an even blander gray scale gradient.)

Would I recommend this book? Well, maybe. Not if you’re looking for an introduction to black and white photography, certainly. But if you’ve already got some experience with black and white and you’re looking for some inspiration? Sure. I would have liked to have seen a lot more explanation of why particular photos work better in black and white or why the photographer chose to use black and white over color. But possibly, the best audience is anyone who can benefit from the lengthy and detailed discussions on various photographic genres and compositional techniques that fill most of the pages. And if you want to talk philosophy, mysticism, or history in relation to photography, this is the book for you.

Want my review copy? Leave a comment with a valid email address. One reader will be chosen at random this weekend to receive a free copy.

This book was provided to Photodoto free of charge for review.

The importance of focus and quick tips on how to get it right

Focus in photography is about a lot more than simply sharpness or being able to see what you are looking at. Focus can enhance a subject by making it stand out from or blend into its surroundings, focus can draw you in, and the right focus can create an emotional connection with the viewer. No matter what style of photography you enjoy, focus can work for you or against you.

Portraits

The number one rule when shooting portraits of people or animals is this: focus on the eyes. (There are always exceptions—like all rules. But really, focus on the eyes.) By virtue of millions of years of evolution, human beings are hard-wired to very quickly recognize and respond to faces. (It’s definitely an important survival trait in my family to recognize when someone is angry at you, for example.)

Sure, you could focus on the tip of the nose or the ears if you like (which might work really well in some dog photos…) but nothing draws in a viewer to a portrait like sharply focused eyes and a blurred background.

How do you do it? Use a large aperture (f/2.8 or lower if possible), longish focal length (50mm and up), and get as close as you can.

Landscapes/architectural

Landscapes, photographs of nature or the environment around you, usually aim to capture as much of the view as sharply focused as possible. The idea is to give the viewer a sense of size, of scale. A buffet of sights, a feast for the eyes. Landscape photographers often avail themselves of a little knowledge of hyperfocal distances to keep everything in the scene in perfect focus, from the closest flower to the furthest cloud.

When everything in a photograph is in focus, the viewer’s eye is drawn first to important bold elements in the composition such as a strong line, large blocks of color, and rule of thirds intersection points. From there, the viewer wanders through the photograph like a virtual traveler, exploring every nook and cranny and taking everything in.

In the photo above, for instance, my eye goes first to the bottom of the trail and follows it up to the cloud and then over the rolling curve of the ridge to the blue sky above.

How do you do it? Use as small an aperture as you can (f/11 or higher), focus on something in the middle distance (or use the hyperfocal distance), and, if possible, use a tripod. Very tiny apertures (f/11, f/16, f/22) lead to longer shutter speed so tripods are often necessary for maximum sharpness.

Macros

Macros are the ultimate close-ups. Often focusing on a single, tiny subject, macros require special techniques and a lot of patience to get right. I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I’d bet money that the rate of mental illness is higher among macro photographers than the rest of the photography population.

Macros are well-known for their ability to isolate and enlarge a single subject that often goes unnoticed to the naked eye. They’re also characterized by extremely shallow depths of field (sometimes just millimeters).

The shallow depth of field is usually a consequence of the very short working distances between the camera and the subject often required of macros (just inches). Counter-intuitively, with macro photography it is a constant struggle to increase the depth of field as much as possible so that the right amount of the subject is in focus.

How do you do it? Attach your favorite macro lens or use the macro mode on your camera, get as close as you can focus, and use the smallest aperture you can (f/8, f/11 or higher). Small apertures and close working distances sometimes mean low light as well so you may need to bring extra light, a tripod, and/or use a higher ISO setting.

Environmental portraits

These types of photographs are a blend of standard portraiture and landscape photography. The idea is that a portrait subject is shown in surroundings that tell the viewer something about that person. There are many different approaches to this type of photography but in general, since the person is primary subject, the person should always be in focus. Whether you keep the background in focus (and how much) depends a lot on the composition of the photo, whether the background is cluttered or clean, and how much emphasis you want to place on each (the subject vs. the environment).

Since these usually aren’t close-up portraits (head shots), focusing strictly on the eyes isn’t as important.

How do you do it? Use a medium aperture (f/4, f/5.6, f/8), a medium to wide focal length to include some background, and a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the portrait subject.

Learning Composition: The Rule of Thirds

Rule of thirds Whether you’re feeling artistic or not, good composition is important for making images that resonate with viewers. Everything else being equal, poor composition can create an itch in a viewer—a subconscious and annoying one that can’t be scratched.

Composition in photography refers to the arrangement of elements in an image. Those elements can be subjects, foreground, background, and props. They can also be color, focus, and balance.

It can be a difficult concept to grasp which is why people invented “the rule of thirds.” Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Rule:

The rule of thirds is a compositional rule of thumb in photography and other visual arts such as painting and design. The rule states that an image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The four points formed by the intersections of these lines can be used to align features in the photograph. Proponents of this technique claim that aligning a photograph with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the photo than simply centering the feature would. — The Rule of Thirds, Wikipedia

The theory is that aligning your subject along one of the lines or at an intersection makes a stronger composition. Let’s see how that works out in the example below:

Read more…

The making of a “simple” snapshot: a photo essay in four frames

Last night, as she tucked our son into bed, my lovely and talented wife came into the office in search of the camera. Our conversation went something like this:

Wife: “Where’s the camera? I need to take a picture of your son. How do you get this thing off the tripod?”

Tripod head

Me: “Wait a second. You’re going to need some light.”
Wife: “This is supposed to just be a quick snapshot.”
Me: “Do you want a blurry mess or do you want to be able to see what’s in the photo?” (Set flash to TTL BL, +1 EV, on-camera, oriented to bounce off ceiling and adjacent wall. Camera set to ISO 200, P mode, +0.7 EV)

SB-800 Speedlight

Me: “Oops, you’re going to need some film.”
Wife: Grrr.

Flash memory

Me: “There you go.”
Wife: *Click!*
Me: “Hey, presto!”

Snapshot

Scene and composition: The Lovely and Talented Wife
Camera setup: Me

Quick Fix for Cluttered Backgrounds

Despite all that has been written about keeping the background of your photos simple, that goal is not always achievable. Sometimes your subject is in a place with a busy background everywhere. Or perhaps the subject is doing something that you don’t want to interrupt by walking around the person or requesting that she or he move to a different location.

I have found a very quick solution for such cases. Take the picture you want and then work on the background in Photoshop or another image editing program. First, I crop such images to remove part of the background. That alone makes the background somewhat less intrusive. But often I don’t want to eliminate it entirely; I merely want to de-emphasize it. One quick fix is first to blur the background slightly and then to adjust the saturation of both background and subject.

My brother PeteRecently, my brother came to visit. He and another friend of mine had an animated conversation in my kitchen. These were two very large guys and their expansive gestures and expressions really captured my interest. I grabbed a camera and took a whole series of pictures of them holding their conversation in my cluttered kitchen. The first picture shows enough of the background to distract from the person, my brother.

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