Fine-art photography is photography that displays the creative vision of the photographer as an artist. While fine-art photography can be either in color or black & white, in today’s digital world, black & white photography is quintessentially art since it comes as a result of an artistic choice on the part of the photographer.
Guy Tal’s latest ebook, Creative B&W Processing Techniques, Using Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop, explores Tal’s techniques for creating fine-art black & white photography. However, this book does not provide any formulas or “prescriptions” on how to make black & white images. Indeed Tal does not give such advice, stating that while “it’s very easy to create high impact images by simply following prescriptions or using automated tools … such methods merely produce cookie-cutter works that, despite being visually appealing, tell me [Tal] little about what the photographer was thinking or wanted to express.” If you are looking for quick and easy methods to make black & white images, this ebook is not for you. Instead, if you want to create black & white images that express your inner vision, this book will definitely help you on that path. I highly recommend it for any photographer who enjoys black & white, wants learn to think holistically about their craft, and has the twin goals of improving their artistic vision as well as their photography.
It’s not surprising that Guy Tal would write a book with few prescriptions that is heavy on following your own vision. Tal is an extremely talented landscape photographer who has been making unique images for years. I first became aware of Tal approximately 10 years ago when I first starting doing digital photography. Last year, I started following his blog. While I have always admired his work, it was through his blog that I learned how seriously Tal takes his art. He often discusses photography as art. For example, some of his recent blog posts are titled The Case for Landscape Photography as a Fine Art and Photography and the Creative Life. He continues his emphasis on art in his new book, where he explains in detail the creative visioning process that goes into digital black & white photography.
That’s not to say the book does have technical details as well. He discusses RGB values, how color is mapped into black & white tones, how histograms relate to the Zone System, bit depth, color spaces, how digital noise is different in the different color channels, etc. There are plenty of technical details in the book. So many, in fact, that occasionally I found myself wishing for less. However, when Tal does go into technical details, he does so usually to make a valuable point about why such knowledge is important to the black & white photographer artist. For example, he explains how digital sensors record red, green, and blue (RGB) values for each pixel, how with an 8-bit file there are approximately 16.7 million colors possible in an image, and how for a 16-bit file there are over 281 trillion possible colors. Why is this important for black & white? Because, as Tal explains, when the RGB values are reduced to gray tones, the possible number of tones falls dramatically – for example, there are only 256 gray tones possible in an 8-bit file. That is too small a range to provide smooth transitions in many images, which leads to banding, posterization, or other artifacts. Therefore, it is critically important in digital black & white photography to shoot 16-bit files (which have 65,536 possible gray tones).
The book is setup almost as a text book, with each chapter ending with a set of exercises or questions to test the readers knowledge of the subject present (answers are given in the back). After an introduction, Tal discusses the importance of color to black & white photography. He states, “while it may seem intuitive to think about B&W photography as the elimination of color … such characterization is, in fact, inaccurate. Rather than eliminate color, the B&W photographer converts (or maps) colors into tones, that is, degrees of lightness.” The idea that color is mapped into gray tones is important to all aspects of digital black & white photography, so Tal presents it right up front.
The rest of the book follows Tal’s general black & white workflow, which builds upon a creative process framework Tal presents in one of his earlier books, Creative Landscape Photography. The steps to the workflow are:
One interesting fact about his suggested workflow is that three of the six steps occur prior to pressing the camera’s shutter release – a demonstration of Tal’s emphasis on the artistic aspects of photography.
Tal defines Concept as “the instinctive realization that there is an image to be made.” It is “a significant impression … an inner voice whispering ‘there’s something here.’ “ He discusses training your brain to become more aware of these impressions, to know when there is a new concept to be had. According to Tal, developing your own concepts is important because with the advent of digital photography and the abundance of work on the internet, “the challenge of distinguishing one’s work is no longer one of technical skill but rather of creativity, personal expression and originality.”
He describes Visualization as “a mental process aimed at imagining the different ways in which the concept can be realized in an image and picking the most effective one.” Visualization “is not a momentary decision point” but is rather “a process of ongoing refinement that drives all activities from the moment of inspiration until the image is finished.” This process requires the photographer to have an ability to imagine how a scene will look in gradations of tone, including the multiple possibilities of those tones (since any given color can be translated into multiple different tones). He suggests developing such ability takes time and effort to perfect.
Tal’s discussion on composition is relatively short, since composition is not unique to black & white photography. For Tal, composition is more than the arrangement of visual elements within a frame, it is “a visual language that can be applied in order to communicate facts, emotions and thoughts.” He reminds his readers that different compositional options than originally planned can become available, so a photographer should take care not to exclude different options for the sake of their original concept. Only working on first impressions can lead a photographer to miss out on “other stories the scene has to tell.”
Capture is the process of using the camera to record light. He considers the capture one of securing the raw data necessary to create an image, not one of making a final image. He states: “creative photography is not a sport. No trophies are awarded for getting the image ‘right’ in the camera and/or in a single exposure, despite the attitudes to the contrary. Therefore, the proper way to approach the capture phase is not with the aim of rendering the final image in-camera, but rather as a process of harvesting raw materials to be used later in making the final image.” He goes on to explain several best practices to use to help ensure capturing the highest quality data from which to make the final image.
The Processing phase is “where most the ‘heavy lifting’ of B&W image-making occurs,” and Tal devotes a large section of the book to it. He does assume his readers are generally familiar with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and suggests his earlier book Creative Processing Techniques for those who are not. One is not surprised, at this point in the book, that Tal’s processing workflow is “visualization-driven” rather than formulaic. He believes in having a final vision of what your image should look like to guide your processing. His work follows a non-linear workflow, which leads to iterative processing of an image where the photographer identifies gaps or weaknesses where the image doesn’t meet the final vision, uses adjustments to fill those gaps, re-analyzes to identify additional gaps, adjusts again, etc., until the final image is reached. His general workflow phases are: RAW conversion, analysis, global adjustments, local adjustments, dynamic visualization, master file, and output.
Guy Tal uses Adobe Lightroom to handle RAW conversions, though his techniques could be applied with other software. He does not attempt to make the final image in Lightroom, preferring the more powerful capabilities of Photoshop for that. He considers Photoshop essential to image processing, and suggests that reasons photographers give for not using it “generally fall into one of three categories: lack of time, lack of skill, or lack of motivation.” This is one of the few points I disagree with Tal. Although I do own and use Photoshop (granted several versions old), I think outstanding, creative images can be made using only Lightroom – such as the work of David duChemin (another photographer who emphasizes photographic vision). That said, I do agree for many images, and particularly for black & white images, Photoshop is superior for processing.
Because he does not use Lightroom beyond RAW conversion, his approach is to create a RAW-converted image that does not look like the final visualized result. Instead the converted image should be the best starting point for later editing to create the visualized result. Therefore, the converted image often ends up not looking particularly good, and generally has low contrast. Tal generally uses Lightroom to set white and black points, adjust the mid-tones, and adjust the white balance. He does not necessarily adjust the white balance so that the image looks good, but rather adjusts it with an eye toward how the conversion from color to black & white will occur and how it affects digital noise. Though I have made many black & white digital images, using the white balance to improve my final result was one concept I was not familiar with, and I found this section very enlightening.
Next he discusses global adjustments – those adjustments that affect the complete image rather than parts of it (local adjustments). The most basic global adjustment is the actual black & white conversion. Though there are many methods of converting to black & white in Photoshop, Tal recommends using a Black & White Adjustment layer (available in CS3 and later versions). He also discusses using a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer to modify the results of the black & white conversion. The other major global adjustment he discusses is toning.
Tal follows with a discussion on local adjustments. Here Tal talks about using layer masking and multiple Black & White Adjustment layers to convert different portions of an image using different tonal relationships (for example, making blues darker in one portion of an image and lighter in another). He also discusses selective dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening); hybrid images, images that combine both black & white and color (color popping); and hand tinting. He ends the processing section of the book by giving an enlightening, in-depth example of the processing of a single image.
The final step in Tal’s workflow is Presentation. Although there are various types of presentation, Tal focuses on prints, which he states are “the quintessential product of a fine-art photographer.” Digital printing of black & white images presents special problems. The inkjet printers commonly used for digital prints use color profiles to obtain the correct color. Theoretically, a perfect profile can be used to print a black & white image, but even a tiny variation from the perfect blend of inks will cause a visible color cast to a black & white print. Because profiles depend upon a large number of factors, including temperature and age of the equipment and ink, color casts are common when printing black & white images with an inkjet printer. Tal discusses this issue and gives several options to get around it.
Overall, I am favorably impressed with Tal’s book and highly recommend it those wanting to improve their black & white imagery. However, it is not for everyone. Photographers who are looking for easy methods and formulas to create black & white images will be disappointed. The book is not a “how-to” manual, but rather the book is about creating your own vision and how to achieve that vision using best practices. It is definitely written for the photographer who wants to create art and is not afraid to take the time to do so.
Creative B&W Processing Techniques is available from GuyTalBooks.com for $9.95. It is well worth it.
This article was first published on July 15, 2012 in the authors blog: joebeckerphoto.wordpress.com
About the Author
Joe Becker is a freelance photographer based in Tacoma, Washington. His work has recently been published by American Bungalow Magazine, Northwest Travel magazine and Washington State Tourism. You can see more of his images at his website seldomseenphoto.com and on his blog joebeckerphoto.wordpress.com.