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In this Foundations of Photography, Ben Long shows photographers how to develop a black and white vocabulary and explains the considerations to take into account when shooting for this medium. The course follows Ben as he goes on location and explains what makes good black and white subject matter and how to visualize the scene in terms of tonal values and contrast rather than color. Along the way, he demonstrates some exposure strategies for getting the best images. Back at the computer, Ben demonstrates techniques for converting the resulting photos into black and white using Photoshop and other imaging tools, and offers tips on printing and output.
It's a lovely afternoon here in Southern California, and so I decided to get out shooting, as one should do all those lovely afternoons. We've got this cool railroad trestle here, and we've got about an hour left of daylight. So, we are in great black-and-white shooting situations here. The light is really turning in our favor. You can probably see that I do have the warm late-afternoon glow. We don't care so much about that because we are shooting black and white, but I am also getting a lot of texture, a lot of shadows, a lot of play of highlights and things. So, all I am going to do here is just see what I can find.
This is how shooting works. I don't really have any grand idea; I am just going to start poking around. Right off the bat, I'm thinking that depth of field is--I probably want as much of it as I can get. So, I put my camera in aperture priority mode. I have set it on f/11. I am just going to leave it there for right now. It's already a little bit dark, so at f/11, I have bumped up to ISO 200 to be sure that I get good exposures. If I come across something where I feel like I want some shallow depth of field, I will change it then, but I think for the most part I am going to be deep. So, I want a lot of depth of field.
However, before I even head into the trestle, I'm looking this way and I have talked a lot about shadow, and I keep saying long shadows and so on and so forth, but what's striking me when I look this way is the highlights off of the rails and off of the wire on the fences. And I'm wondering if there's something there. Because I'm shooting into the sun-- again direction of light here--because I am shooting into the sun, I'm getting nice silhouettes on those palm trees, so the black silhouettes up against these bright highlights on the rails and the fence might be something interesting.
So, I'm focusing with the idea of getting deep depth of field, and I am just trying a few things. I am trying a few different compositions. I am going in tight, I am coming out far, I am keeping the sun out of my shot, and most importantly, I am keeping an eye out for lens flare, because I am shooting into the sun and flair is a dangerous thing in those situations. Now, let's get to work on this trellis here. I'm just going to start walking and see what I find. Right off the bat, it's a little bit interesting that we've got all these graffiti and stuff. But the graffiti is all color, and it's mostly the same tone as the rusty metal.
So, I'm just going to skip that because I am shooting black and white. I don't think there's really anything to be had there. I've got nice long shadows here from the structure itself, and I am about to plunge to my death, which would make a good picture, but I don't have anyone else with me to get the shot. What I am liking in here is--and this is something that happens with low-angle light-- I am getting all this cool texture on this stuff. It was actually a little more vibrant earlier; it's gone a little flat.
Now the trick is, is there a photo here? I can do detail work. I can just see what kind of stuff I find here, trying different orientations, and for the most part I'm finding that all of these pictures are incredibly boring. But I am going to shoot them anyway because it's good to know. It's good to get some practice with texture in my grayscale conversion. I want to know what that's going to do when I convert it to black and white. There are a lot of pictures that you just have to take to learn about them, or in some cases to get them out of your system.
As you first start paying attention to light, you're going to get really interested in texture, and when that happens, you need to get those shots and learn about texture and learn how it renders in black and white. So, even though a lot of these are not pictures that I am going to keep, they are possibly good experiments. Now the other thing that's going on in here is just a lot of line. With all of these beams and girders and things going places, I am getting just lots of interesting graphical detail, so there might be something I can build up from all these lines. Now, I have also got all these plants back here. And at first, I think, "Oh, they are kind of lit up.
That's pretty," but for the most part they are all the same tone of green. It's just going to be a flat wall of gray, and that's not going to be very interesting. I don't really see anything here. Notice I'm also not necessarily taking a shot every time I look through the viewfinder. I don't want to make my post-production a nightmare of gobs and gobs of useless and/or bad images. So, some of the shadows on the ground might be interesting. The problem is I'm now getting my own shadow, which I am not so interested in, so I am going to try and hide in this shadow and get a shot.
It's very easy to ignore shadows when we are walking around, because they're not real things. As you are shooting black and white, you want to really pay attention to those as objects that you can shoot. But for the most part, I am coming on here and I'm not really seeing very much. I am not really seeing anything that strikes my eye, and that's not so unusual. Just because a situation is pretty, doesn't mean there's a picture there. There are a lot of people who are pretty, but they're not photogenic. Similarly, there are a lot of scenarios that you walk into that are pretty but not scenic.
They may not make a good picture. But I am not ready to give up yet; I am going to keep looking around. And we are almost to the end here, and as I turn around, now I start to see something, and I should've noticed this from before-- again, a direction of light thing. Walking this way is not so interesting. The shadows are all going that way, and I am mostly in shadow; I am not seeing a lot of stuff. But if I turn around, now a whole bunch of things are happening. I am getting the highlights off the rails. I am getting the highlights off the fences. I'm getting the bridge thrown into silhouette.
This is getting much more interesting, and these plants over here are now backlit. It's no longer a uniform tone. I am getting a lot of interplay of light and shadow. So, now simply by turning around, this whole structure has turned into a different thing. So, now it's time to play a little bit with this. Now, one of the tricky things here is I am shooting, again shooting into sun can cause flare. I can block some of that with my hand, or I can try and work with the sun and intentionally get flare, or I can try and position it so that it's not shining into the camera.
So, I am just working these. Now, what I'm doing here is shooting all these shots. If you're out and shooting a gob of pictures, that does not mean you're a bad photographer. No photographer walks into any particular situation says "Ah! I see the picture, takes a shot, and goes home." You have to work your subject. You have to take lots and lots of pictures. Because I want deep depth of field, I am being careful about where I'm focusing. Now, as I'm framing these shots, the sky is empty. It's a really boring sky. It would be great if there were some really puffy cumulus clouds up there, but there aren't, and that's kind of bugging me.
So, I am going to try something else. I am going to just start cropping the sky out and not worrying about it and going wider and getting some kind of cool maybe distortion. But I got to tell you, for the most part, I'm still not feeling like I'm getting very much. Now, you may be thinking that, "Well, you are also not talking at all about all this grayscale stuff you've been haranguing us with." And that's true. At the moment, I'm not thinking so much about tone.
I am thinking that these brightly lit rails are going to be interesting against black stuff, but this is what I was mentioning before. I'm recognizing this as a potential black-and-white scene because of the dark silhouettes and the light highlights and the plays of light in the grass, but I can't actually see it in gray yet. That's okay. I will worry about that later. And I hadn't really shot the grass yet. We will see if there's something there. I am not really seeing anything. I've got to tell you, for the most part, I'm kind of stuck. Even looking in this direction, I'm not seeing much.
We like to think that the creative process is one of raw emotion and taking what you feel and pushing it through your camera and coming out with some great work of art on the other end, and I've got to tell you, it rarely works that way. The process of creation is an intellectual process most of the time. And so at this point, I need to stop and think for a minute. Why? Is there something I'm missing? What is it about the structure that drew my attention in the first place? There is a nice contrail in the middle of some of these beams? What was it that drew me to this in the first place, and I think part of it is just the scale.
This is the big structure out here, it's defining a very large space, and that's cool. Just pointing my camera at it is not necessarily going to capture that. So, what can I do to convey a sense of scale? I need to try and exaggerate things. In theater, you talk about taking ordinary life and blowing it up into drama; photography is the same way. I can't just stand here and point my camera and expect to get what I'm feeling. Sometimes I have to exaggerate things. And I think in this case, one way of exaggerating that is to leave this plane that I've been shooting in.
I have been walking around at eye level shooting everything, and it may be that that's the wrong step. So, I am going to just get down a little bit lower and see what happens. And when I do that, now right off the bat, this rail here becomes more of a subject almost, more of a feature, so I am going to shoot that up. I'm putting the sun back behind that trellis back there. Now, if I look at this scene and think about it in black and white, what I have got actually is pretty close to a black- and-white scene, even in the viewfinder. I have got the black silhouettes, the light rails.
I am going to get down lower. In fact, I am going to just give up on looking at the camera and get my camera right down here on the rail and shoot up a little bit. I am just tilting the camera up and down. Now, I could, if I wanted, put my camera in live view and try and look at it, but all I would end up doing is tilting it up and down and shooting a bunch of pictures, so I am just going to do that without looking. I am being lazy, but I really don't think it's going to matter. So, I am going to see if any of that works. Now, we are getting somewhere. I think this may be the shot.
Looking at the back of my camera, I can't see it in gray, but I can imagine some of these textures in here that are nicely dappled with light, and they have got all this flakey paint on it. Those are really going to pop into a high-contrast situation once I start playing with them in grayscale. Even though I'm feeling confident about this shot though, I'm not going to stop shooting until I am completely out of ideas because one never knows. And this is an interesting texture here. This long row of railroad ties that has stuff on it. So, I am going to try some of these.
You know one of the really great things about digital photography is we can do this kind of haphazard shooting and it doesn't cost us anything. And so it's really nice to be able to take advantage of that. At this point now, getting down low, I have really exaggerated the sense of space, and I'm really just playing with line at this point, and this is really one of the building blocks of black and white photography a lot of times, just line and form a geometry, and that's all I am doing is playing with all those vanishing point lines.
I think that may be it. There's no way to tell though, until I get back into the lab and start processing these images and see what I have got. Before I leave though, I am going to take one look around, really thinking about tone and light and shadow, and have I missed anything, and I don't see anything else. A lot of times your eye goes dead to a scene if you shoot in it too long. I am not feeling it here anymore, so I'm going to get out of here before I get run over by a train.
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