Tag Archives: Ansel Adams

Exercise 25 Colours into Tones in Black & White

This exercise is designed to provide a “taste” of how understanding colour and putting it to work in black and white imagery gives a powerful tonal control.

I chose to take two still life pictures as my basis for this exercise. In both cases I set up the still life under a hot-shoe soft box loaded with a flash gun set to trigger remotely from my camera. The soft box was set to the left and slightly above the still life to allow me to glance the light off the objects and emphasise their texture. The set was in front of a small window so there was some natural light from the back and to reduce shadows on the right I used two small LED video lights that are of a similar colour temperature to the flash gun. The LED lights are diffused by translucent plastic sheets and the soft box is diffused with material.

Image 1 was a still life using fruit and vegetables.

Fig 1 - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig 1 – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Following the instructions in the exercise brief I used Photoshop (PS) to convert the image to black and white and then adjusted the tones using the sliders in PS and, as a comparison I followed the same sequence using Silver Efex Pro (SEP). In PS I used the sliders manually whereas in SEP I simply used their pre-set colour filters. Note that there is an orange filter in SEP but no orange slider in PS. As there were no blues in the still life I did not produce an image with a blue filter.

Fig. 2 Default PS and Neutral SEP

Fig. 2 Default PS and Neutral SEP

Fig. 3 Red Filter

Fig. 3 Red Filter

Fig. 4 Yellow Filter

Fig. 4 Yellow Filter

Fig. 5 Orange Filter

Fig. 5 Orange Filter

Fig. 6 Green Filter

Fig. 6 Green Filter

The results are mostly unsurprising. The most interesting aspects are:

  1. Silver Efex Pro gives a much more satisfactory neutral or default image that achieves a better overall tonal balance than the Photoshop  version.
  2. The red chillies are obviously quite a pure red because the other filters have minimal impact on their tone but we can see that the red tomatoes actually contain a lot of yellow and orange as those filters also effect their tone.
  3. I am surprised by the significant effect on the red tomatoes of the green filter in Silver Efex Pro.

For my second set of colours I wanted a wider range so I set up two sets of coloured pens and some Postit notes. This gave me a much broader spectrum. I restricted myself to using the filters in Silver Efex Pro which is the tool I now use for black and white processing.

Fig. 7 1/60 at f/22, ISO 100. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 7 1/60 at f/22, ISO 100. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 8 Silver Efex Pro Red Filter

Fig. 8 Silver Efex Pro Red Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeBlue and dark green become black. Yellow becomes white. Red becomes a mid-tone grey. Obvious why the red filter is a favourite with landscape photographers seeking a Ansel Adams black sky and very white clouds.

Fig. 9 - Silver Efex Pro Orange Filter

Fig. 9 – Silver Efex Pro Orange Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeSimilar effect to the red filter but more muted. Blue is nearly black so some texture is just discernible. there is more variation between blue and dark green especially on the coloured paper. Orange and yellow are much the same tone as the red filter. An autumn landscape would have an infrared feel and we would be able to tell the difference between grass and blue sky.

Fig. 10 - Silver Efex Pro Yellow Filter

Fig. 10 – Silver Efex Pro Yellow Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeOnly a  small shift from the orange filter. Blue and green have moved a little further apart as have red and orange, red is slightly darker and orange lighter.Yellow now has some texture.

Fig. 11 - Silver Efex Pro Green Filter

Fig. 11 – Silver Efex Pro Green Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeA continuation of the progression. Blue has more texture so is becoming lighter, Orange and yellow are darker and green much lighter. Blue and green have moved much further apart. Red  and purple are now black on the pen tops.

Fig. 12 - Silver Efex Pro Blue Filter

Fig. 12 – Silver Efex Pro Blue Filter

NK0_3980-pens-still-lifeWith the blue filter there is quite a significant shift. Yellow, orange and red have all become much darker with yellow quite black on he paper and orange black on the pen tops which shows how different materials reflect light and thereby effect colour.

Black and White Caribbean

I set myself the objective at the end of assignment 1 to improve my black and white processing skills. Whilst in Turks and Caicos I endeavoured to “see” in black and white which, as might be expected, is challenging in a place where colours are typically strong. There are a few obvious characteristics of a landscape that impact whether a black and white shot will work, the most obvious being the sky. A single coloured flat sky is even less dramatic, if dramatic is the aim, in black and white than in colour, this is even more true of pale skies. My single Ansel Adams reference book is a collection of his portfolios *(1) that I purchased in the Philippines over twenty years ago and has moved around with me ever since. It is noticeable that most of his skies are either deep blue, rendered as nearly black, or, when cloudy, often rendered in more subtle tones of grey.

The second characteristic is that the shot needs strong contrasts to work. I have found that I can’t force this contrast. It is either there and can be used to good effect or it isn’t and I achieve a flat looking image. I am not suggesting that this is rule for black and white photography just that I do not achieve a result that is satisfactory to my eyes unless I start with a contrasting scene. Using Adams as a benchmark tends to push me towards seeking a high contrast result and I think it is fair to say that Koudelka’s *(2) and Cartier-Bresson’s *(4) images, whilst very different in subject matter, also lean towards high contrast. I also find Koudelka’s images dark in tone (and content) and so far I have not been brave enough to process towards such dark tones but this may change if I start to shoot grittier subjects.

On my trip to Turks and Caicos I took very few books but one that did travel was Michael Freeman’s Black and White Photography Field Guide *(3) which I referred to frequently when trying to think in black and white. I have generally found this little book helpful as it is a very practical guide and quite appropriate reading for a beginner.

I had considered using a small number of black and white prints as part of assignment 2 but having asked about mixing media on the OCA forum the advice was to not mix black and white and colour in the same assignment. In the same vein I have been advised by both my tutor and some answers on the same forum to avoid mixing vertical and horizontal frames. I understand and accept the reasoning but this leaves me slightly disappointed as I feel I have made some progress in black and white processing and using some in an assignment would have given me the chance to hear my tutors views. I did consider submitting a complete black and white assignment but I felt that, whilst this might help me focus on the elements of design, it would be a perverse decision when attempting to document a place with so much colour.

This post is therefore an opportunity to record that progress and the thought processes I have gone through so I can refer back here when I next attempt a collection of monochrome images.

Sky at Chalk Sound - 1/125 at F/11, ISO 100

Fig 1 Stormy Sky at Chalk Sound – 1/125 at F/11, ISO 100

Fig 1 was taken on a perfect day when there were rain clouds blowing across the islands at some speed. I have an emotional attachment to this view as it is a familiar sight for any sailor sailing in bright sunshine whilst watching squalls only a short distance away. I have processed to maximise the contrast between the white boat on the right and the dark landmass in the distance. It was important to leave some sense of the rainbow in the image as this is an important curve linking the two boats. The sky is the real subject so I have framed it to dominate the composition.

Fig 2 Beach Bar - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig 2 Beach Bar – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

In complete contrast to fig. 1 The Beach Bar in fig. 2  is an interior to exterior shot and as such quite challenging to process. I have used HDR Toning in photoshop to get detail into the shadows and to preserve the definition of the woman on the veranda. I am pleased with this shot which was taken in a locals’ bar well away from the tourist areas. The women was very interested in something that was happening out of my view and I was taken by her pose and the fact that she continued to eat whilst looking out of shot. The old-fashoned wall paper and the advertising on the drinks cooler seem at odds with one another and add some tension to the scene.

Fig 3 - Sapodilla Bay - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100.

Fig 3 Sapodilla Bay – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100.

Fig 4 Sapodilla Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 4 Sapodilla Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 5 Sapodilla Bay - 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig 5 Sapodilla Bay – 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

With the three images of Sapodilla Bay I wanted to test whether I could create strong images from sea, sky and beach scenes. Before starting TAoP I would not have looked for a black and white answer to the question of how to make a beach scene more interesting but I reached a point that I was comfortable with after quite a lot of experimentation with the multitude of variables offered by Silver Efex Pro 2, which I purchased after reading about its possibilities in Michael Freeman’s Black and White Field Guide *(3). It appears to offer more creative control that the black and white layer in Photoshop but it is tempting to go too far and drift towards a HDR look which is not what I wanted.

It was quite hard to find a benchmark for this type of shot, I wanted to make the sky the dominant feature because it is the shape of the clouds and the varied tones within them that lift the image beyond “yet another” beach photo. I looked at the sky in Ansel Adams’ “Pinnacles”, Alabama Hills, Owens valley, California 1945 and the sea in “Dunes”, Oceano California and used his processing as a loose guide. I recognise that he would have looked for greater contrast between the foreground objects and the sky and I might have made more of the beaches in Fig. 4 and 5.

Old Timber Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Fig 6 Old Timber Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 160

Broken Screen Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720

Fig 7 Broken Screen Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 720

Post and Rope - 1/125 at f/f11, ISO 100

fig 8 Post and Rope – 1/125 at f/f11, ISO 100

Old Timber Taylor Bay - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig 9 Old Timber Taylor Bay – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Ruined Roof Emerald Point - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100

Fig 10 Ruined Roof Emerald Point – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100

The last images, figs. 6 to 10 are all part of a study of decay. Turks and Caicos is in the hurricane zone and even when the weather is more peaceful it is still an environment of harsh sunlight, frequent rain and strong winds. Ruined houses, weathered timbers, washed up wreckage and a few sunken boats were evidence of nature’s fight-back.

Fig 6 and fig 9 are the remains of a washed-up door and frame from something large, I am not sure whether it is from a ship or something like a barn door. It was weathered and sea rolled before ending up at the back of the beach at Taylor Bay.

Fig 7 and fig 8 are details from a large, abandoned house overlooking an idyllic beach. It appeared to have been deserted quite recently as the main fabric of the building was still sound but I was intrigued by the weathering on the details such as the fly screen and the posts that lined the path to the beach. These might be the first signs of the eventual demise of the whole structure.

Fig 10 is more dramatic showing the sky through the roof of another large abandoned house at the other end of the island. I think this was probably first damaged in a hurricane and is now well on the way to collapse so, in some ways is a natural progression from 7 & 8.

Overall I have found these exercises in black and white useful. I feel that I have learnt a little about what works in black and white and I am more confident in using this medium. My tutor suggested that I needed to have a position on the black and white versus colour debate but I am not ready in my own mind to take a position. I have enjoyed my forays into black and white processing and am very interested in the work of the many masters of the art, I see it as a valid medium in the 21st century and would respect anyone who chose to work entirely in this way. If I had to choose I would stay with colour but I would prefer not to choose and to use both. I am increasingly finding situations where I find black and white works best but the majority of the time I want to capture the colour of both the natural and the man-made world.



* (1) Adams, Ansel, with an Introduction by John Szarkowski. (1981) The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, New York, New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company.

* (4) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999), The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers. Aperture Foundation, New York

* (3) Freeman, Michael. (2013) Black and White Photography Field Guide, The art of creating digital monochrome, Lewes, The Ilex Press Limited.

* (2) Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thanks and Hudson.

* (5) Eggleston, William, (1976) The Guide with an introduction by John Szarkowski, New York, The Museum of Modern Art

Assignment 1 – Reflection and Objectives Going Forward

I found Assignment 1 to be challenging partly because I am quite literal by nature and nurture, forty years in IT has to have some effect.

To try and overcome this limitation I spent a lot of time thinking about and planning this project. I found that slowly leafing through the work of several photographs helped. I have mentioned Camilo José Vergara as a specific inspiration for my pair of graffiti images and, although I did not use the images as part of the assignment, I took several photographs in Aldershot that were influenced by his work.

Sweet Shop - 1/100 at f/8, ISO 125, 24 - 70mm zoom lens at 56mm

Sweet Shop – 1/100 at f/8, ISO 125, 24 – 70mm zoom lens at 56mm

Sweet shop is one of those photographs and shows two Nepalis outside an Asian fast food shop in Aldershot.

One of my earliest ideas was to base many of the images around an industrial theme. This led me to seek out artists who had used this theme extensively and this took me to Lewis W. Hine. I found a copy of  “Women at Work” second hand but I’m still looking for an affordable copy of “Men at Work”.

Hine’s work is remarkable, in his introduction to Women at Work, Jonathan L. Doherty points out that Hine saw the American Worker as a heroic figure.  Many of his photographs focus on the skill and application of his female subjects even though he is known to have held strong views on poverty and exploitation. As a result his images are very positive, I do not believe that he intends us to feel sorry for the workers, he wants us to see them as people with ability and strength, to celebrate and admire them.

I sought out Hine to see how he photographed machines but came away more influenced by the way he portrayed people in a positive light even if their circumstances were clearly unsatisfactory. An example of this is “Italian Immigrant, East Side, New York City 1910” which is of a women in a run-down district, carrying a heavy load but instead of this being a depressing image it emphasises her strength and purpose. His ability to emphasise the positives has made me think more deeply about street photography and how important it is not to fall into the trap of type casting people by the way you photograph them.

Overall I spent a lot of time looking at black and white photos from great photographers but lacked the confidence to bring much black and white to the assignment. My trip to the military cemetery in Aldershot was to look for many and few or large and small contrasts. I thought the gravestones and the memorials might offer these comparisons. But, I also thought that the older sections would provide strong gothic images that would work well in black and white so I could include this technique in my final set.

I think I captured several images that fitted those criteria but in every case I preferred the colour version.

Grave of a Small Child - 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child – 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child - 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child – 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel - 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel – 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel - 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel – 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

I found Michael Freeman’s Black and White Photography Field Guide immensely helpful and looking at the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Lewis W. Hine and Ansel Adams is also a great help but I have to make major step up in terms of technique to produce even average results in black and white.

As a result only high and low had a monochrome element and I feel those images have several processing flaws. I have asked myself why I included them if I knew they were flawed but I like them as images and believe a “good” print is hidden in there but that I don’t have the black and white processing skills to extract it. It is therefore helpful to post them as a marker that I can look back on to measure whether I am improving these skills.

My first objective moving forward is to improve my ability to capture and print work in black and white so that I am confident to present it in an assignment.

I am very conscious that I lost momentum in the course of completing this assignment. I knew that my instinct would be to produce very literal representations of the contrasts and therefore spent a lot of time looking at the potential meanings of the words, brainstorming ideas, planning locations, taking and analysing test shots and selecting images. This all sounds very positive and it would be easy to spin it as a diligent and efficient process but it wasn’t.

I actually used very few of the dozens and dozens of ideas I had on my mind maps. I spent a second day at Milestones Museum to get one usable image and know that most of the unplanned “test” shots were better than the planned versions. In reality the process was flawed and it took at least three weeks of elapsed time before I changed tack. I was far more effective when I picked locations that might offer opportunity and just went out and took photographs or by just having my camera with me when I had to be in places for other reasons. Italy, MC Motors, Salisbury and The South Bank were all places I went to for work or social reasons; the three locations I used in Aldershot were more planned and the trampoline photos in our back garden were staged.

Overall I feel that I have been working on this assignment for far too long, I was defiantly bogged down and have my daughter, who teaches photography, to thank for getting me out of a lot of blind alleys and onto a clearer path. It is hard to define exactly what I need to do to address this going forward but I do not want to move steadily through the exercises and then stall when I reach the assignments.

My current thoughts are that I need to carefully manage the time spent planning and the amount of process and get out there with a camera more quickly. I feel that my best work was when I put myself in a good location, with the assignment objectives in my mind, and just took photographs that felt right. By doing this I took some photos that I liked but that didn’t fit the assignment but also found photos that did both.

The desk work that really did help was looking at top photographer’s work. Looking at the thousands of images that Google can find only helped to confuse the issue. I need to focus my attention on gaining inspiration from great photographers and to strive to learn from their skills. Although it didn’t directly impact the assignment I felt that reviewing Vergara’s work on a Saturday led to me taking better photos on Sunday morning.

My second objective is to focus my research on gaining inspiration as a creative fuel and to use this fuel by moving quickly to capturing images.


Hine, Lewis H. (1981) Women at Work. New York, Dover Publications

Researching Black and White and Some Thoughts on Digital Capture

The Maiella from Roccacalacsio October 2010 - 1/125 at f/6 ISO 100

The Maiella from Roccacalacsio October 2010 – 1/125 at f/6 ISO 100

I sense that this is a subject that I will return to time and time again during this course. For me, black and white images have always had a strong effect, I respond to the qualities of tonal breadth and graphic design that are often present in landscape and architectural photography; the gritty, timelessness of old Life magazines or the frighteningly, brilliant and moving war photography of Don McCullin; the intimacy of the best contemporary street photography or the work of the great masters of the art that crosses many genres.

However, it has never been my forte and it is a key objective of my learning journey to start to “see” in black and white and to produce well thought through, technically strong black and white images that work. Lofty ambitions indeed. To this end, and over the last few weeks, I have been starting to read more of the thoughts of people who have mastered monochrome and to spend time just looking at great black and white photographs. On-line, second hand book shops are a great source of material and that combined with a couple of books I already own and a visit to the local bookstore has given me a starting point for research.

For many years my interests lay with Landscape so the first book from my own shelf is The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, a book I purchased in a Manilla bookshop that recycled books from American libraries. As the title suggests this is primarily a collection of Adams’ photographs, in fact seven portfolios selected by Adams himself to show his work across many different subjects. There is a preface written by Adams where he makes the intriguing comment that he has worked with much the same approach and the same general techniques for forty five years.

Ansel Adams lived from 1902 to 1984, and I wonder whether he would have said the same if he had been born 50 or 60 years later? In the very late 20th and early 21st Centuries we have seen photography turned on its head by the “perfect storm” the need for digital image capture, transmission and storage created by, amongst others, the space race, the rapid development of that technology converging with a quantum leap in computer processing power for the home user and the coming of the ubiquitous smart phone.

The first commercial digital camera was patented as early as 1972 by Texas Instruments but I would argue that few professionals or serious amateurs would have considered a full or partial switch to digital until Nikon launched their first digital SLR in 1999, the D1, and Canon quickly followed with the EOS D30 in 2000. The Nikon D1 boasted 2.7 megapixels and the Canon D30 3.25 megapixels. This compares with the 36 megapixels offered by the Nikon D800 launched last year. I am not technically qualified to answer whether Ansel Adams could have created the subtle tones of his masterpieces with 36 megapixels, Photoshop CS6 and modern papers and printers but I am certain that he would not have been able to do so as recently as 2000.

It is not for me to say what Adams would or would not have done but many, most (?) or a sizeable proportion (?) of working photographers and a high percentage of amateurs born in the 50’s and 60’s discarded a significant amount of the technology they grew up with sometime after 1999. For some, such as press photographers, it might initially have been an enforced change and for others an act of faith to climb onboard the digital revolution and to explore the possibilities. I wonder if, in the year 2030, when like Adams they are 79 or 80 and publishing a portfolio of their life’s work, that any of this generation of photographers will write that they have worked with much the same techniques and the same approach for the whole of their career.

But, that is all about technology. Adams chose to use black and white, long after colour processing became available. Initially his reservations could have been analogous to using the limited ability of a D1 in 1999. According to Richard B. Woodward writing in the on-line Smithsonian Magazine (2009) Adams wanted to control the whole process from capture to final print and the complexities of colour processing from the 1930’s to the 1950’s meant that processing occurred in laboratories and the results were, in Woodward’s words, a “crapshoot”. However, Adams this icon of black and white photography, did use colour and captured many Kodachromes in the 40’s and consulted to Eastman Kodak and Polaroid in their quest to create accurate colour film so he was obviously no Luddite. We know that Adams continued to predominantly use black and white long after colour was available and, indeed practical, so this was clearly an artistic choice.

The answer to why he made this choice lies in his work. His famous American Western landscapes are more about tone than shape. The range of light captured, for example, in Lower Yosemite Fall where the highlights on the leaves leap from the page, defined and textured above the dark waters of the river with its glistening reflections and sense of deep waters. The towering peaks subtly receding into the clouds above the pine valley in Winter Storm includes a tonal range as broad as the valley he photographed.

My research this week has helped me understand that his technique of processing the minute detail of his prints, selectively managing every tone to create the desired effect would have been impossible in colour then and is still impossible now. To reach this understanding I needed two key pieces of input, one was obviously to look at the work of a master of his art but the driver to take me to that point was my local book store purchase; Michael Freeman’s Field Guide to Black and White Photography is a compact and informative introduction to the subject. His practical comparison of the broad limits of post production processing of black and white versus the narrow limits of processing colour and how detail filled highlights and deep textured shadows can more easily coexist in a black and white world begin to explain why, for the right subject, managing tonal range can provide a more compelling image than the best processed colour original. Freeman (2013) explains that monochrome is not what we normally see, it is “distanced from what we take in through our eyes”  and that allows us to manipulate it in post processing in more extreme ways without breaching any norms of acceptability.  Understanding this is an important step for me to have taken on the road to understanding when and why to create black and white images and hopefully to discovering how to create compelling monochrome images.


Adams, Ansel, with an Introduction by John Szarkowski. (1981) The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, New York, New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company.

Freeman, Michael. (2013) Black and White Photography Field Guide, The art of creating digital monochrome, Lewes, The Ilex Press Limited.

Nikon DSLR History – www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/dslr.htm

Canon DSLR History – www.canon.com/camera-museum/history/canon_story/2001_2004/2001_2004.html

Texas Instruments – inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bldigitalcamera.htm

Ansel Adams and Colour Photography – www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/Shades-of-Ansel-Adams.html