Sunday, September 28, 2008

The road less traveled

I remember the day when the paper I worked at in Turlock made the move to color photos. A then state of the art Leaf Scan 35 film scanner we dubbed “The Mr. Coffee” would spend 10 minutes grinding out one color image. It was a brave new world as we stepped from the grainy world of black and white film imaging for full color reproduction.

How the road has changed since those days. Digital cameras with high megapixel resolution have replaced rolls of film forever. And in the thousands of pictures I have taken since then I thought my days of black and white photography were gone forever. But in my photo explorations of late I have seen a path I haven’t taken in years, a path to think more about shape and form, texture and composition than just the quality of color and light.

With hiking partner Alice back from Africa we headed out for an easy hike to the Morgan Territory near Livermore. Our plan was for a short two-hour or so trek around the Coyote Trail. I brought my Canon 40D and 24mm to 70mm lens along with a special plan, I was going to try and shoot in black and white.

I have always admired Alice’s black and white photography skills. Her photographic eye switches effortlessly between color and black and white as she see shape and form better than I can. On the trail she sees images in front of her in the subtle tones and shades of black and white and I have been itching to push my skills to see if I could see the same way.

Anyone who has worked on a picture in Photoshop or a similar photo-editing program knows it is a simple process to change a color photo to a grayscale image. It is most often just a mouse click to remove the color information. But I am talking about something more, it’s about seeing the picture in camera as black and white. Selecting a subject and composition that favors the contrast and shades of gray over color. Some of the trouble is that you see everything in color, as a photographer you become enamored with the colors more than the content.

So hiking through the trail I looked for scenes that would be striking not for the play of their colors but more for their shapes. Dramatic lines, stark lighting and deep textures were some of my choices. On my 40D I have a monochrome mode programmed as a custom function so I can easily switch between color and black and white. In black and white mode I made use of the exposure compensation to help generate the level of shadow and highlights I wanted knowing I could fine-tune the picture in Photoshop.

Every now and then I would come across a scene that just cried for color, peeling park on a manzanita tree or a clump of berries by the trailside I thought could only be captured in color. But sights from tree branches falling to the brush to leaves by the trailside were worthy black and white subjects.

I don’t think I did very badly for my first serious attempt at black and white photography in some time. It takes a little bit of thought to free your mind from the idea of color and focus on the composition and tones of the scene. One day I hope to be brave enough to shoot an entire hike only in black and white. That will be a path in my photography I haven’t ventured in some time but a journey well worth taking.


Melanie said...

What a fun experiment! I love the gloss and texture of the manzanita -- it reminds me of my grandparents' place up in Mt. Shasta, where manzanita is everywhere. And the drama of the downward-angled dark branches in the second shot...

Mike McLellan, D. Min. said...

As a old guy, I started taking pictures in black and white with a twin lens reflex. I like B&W for its texture and focus on form. But, Melanie is right about the manzanita berries. You have to have that color to bring back memories. Glad you are back on the trail with your hiking pal.