TALKING IMAGES 2 – LEE FROST ON ADDING ‘OOMPH’ TO BLACK AND WHITE IMAGES

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Lee Frost is a photographer based in Northumberland.  He leads photographic tours and workshops, and write books and articles – and one thing I especially like about his articles is that they provide information that is useful, basic and accessible –  his writings really have really helped me get on with photography in what I consider a better way.  The 8 Oct 2011 edition of Amateur Photographer (AP) magazine – which, as always, I wholeheartedly recommend to you – came with a free supplement – Advanced Guide to Black & White – in which Lee wrote this:

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“However, if there’s one fault I see time and again in black & white images it’s a lack of ‘oomph’, for want of a better word – images that lack contrast and impact.  I’m not totally sure why this is the case, but I do think a lot of photographers are afraid of the genre.  Avoiding blocked shadows and blown highlights has been drilled into us so often that it’s left us afraid to let shadows go black or highlights turn white.  In a colour image that’s probably not a bad thing, but in a monochrome image, black and white are crucial ingredients, otherwise all you are left to work with are grey tones – and that is hardly exciting … What you need to do is forget about realism … Throw caution to the wind, let your creative hair down and be brave.  You won’t regret it, and your images will be better for it.”.

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I agree completely with Lee.  Many of the black and white images that I see lack oomph ( = excitement, energy), they can be rather insipid, and in many cases I think they have been produced by photographers who take great care at the point of capture to avoid pure blacks and whites by ensuring that their shots’ histograms don’t touch either end of the chart >>> and then go on to do exactly the same thing when converting their colour images to mono.  Now images that consist entirely of grey tones have their place, I’m not saying that they don’t, but to restrict oneself entirely to this look foregoes that whole other, very striking world where pure blacks and whites make their presence very sharply felt.

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I’m talking here of two distinct points in the digital photographic process – capture and post-capture.  Let’s consider each of these in turn.

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PURE BLACKS AND WHITES AT CAPTURE

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At the point of capture, i.e. when the photo is actually being taken, you should give great attention to your histogram if you are intent in retaining all of the image’s detail – because if you let the histogram touch either end of the chart, you will lose detail in those parts of the image that are pure black or pure white.  This picture detail is lost completely, you won’t be able to retrieve it.

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However, if you’re at one with losing image detail in this way – and restricting your processing options with the image post-capture too – then there is no problem in allowing pure blacks and white at the moment of capture.  And here is someone  who does just this.  Damien Lovegrove is a professional portrait and wedding photographer with great expertise, and in the AP of 5 July 2014 he says:

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“… there can be any number of acceptable exposures, from silhouette to super bright, no lightmeter can make the decision about exposure for me.  This part is art, not science.  As I often have large areas of pure white or black in my images, I avoid consulting the histogram.”.

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PURE BLACKS AND WHITES POST-CAPTURE

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This is the safer route, and I think that this is more what Lee Frost is talking about.  For there is, as mentioned above, the temptation to solely produce black and white images that, in fact don’t have any black or white in them, but which are solely shades of grey.   But here – after you’ve captured the image and can make endless copies of it – here is where you can endlessly experiment with striking black and white (and colour!) compositions ->>> pictures with oomph!

 

And I urge you >>>

  • ALWAYS to experiment and to stay open to possibilities;

  • NEVER refrain from exploring some visual possibility that you think might hold promise for an image just because someone else thinks its not the thing to do! 

  • ALWAYS follow your instincts, your gut feelings!  OK, there will be failures and lessons along the way – oh boy, have I had failures and lessons along the way! >>> and I still do today – but when we follow our instincts we are learning, becoming more experienced, moving forwards – and these are the really worthwhile things.

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Here are two of my photographs that illustrate some of the points discussed above – a colour image with pure black, and a mono image with featureless white.  In both cases, the featureless areas have been created post-capture.  In summary, the point being made here is that such featureless blacks and whites should not be avoided, because they represent technique that is somehow poor quality or “wrong”.  They are as valid as any other tone or colour.  USE THEM!

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cor_344EXTREMEX
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And in the beginning was the cat 2a
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About Adrian Lewis
Photographer working in monochrome, colour and combinations of the two - with a great liking for all sorts of images, including Minimalism, landscapes, abstracts, soft colour, people, movement, nature - I like to be adventurous in my photography, trying new ideas and working in many genres. And I'm fond of Full English Breakfasts and Duvel golden ale, though not necessarily together.

25 Responses to TALKING IMAGES 2 – LEE FROST ON ADDING ‘OOMPH’ TO BLACK AND WHITE IMAGES

  1. Great writing Adrian, and oh so true. I recognise your photography in what you write.

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  2. LensScaper says:

    Here! Here! Absolutely right, Adrian. Well written. That’s what I love about B&W and I’ve loved the ‘soot and whitewash’ style, as it has been termed, since the late 1970s. You can manipulate B&W images in ways you can never manipulate colour. Contrast is a wonderful tool. The huge advantage of the digital era is that we don’t have to shoot in B&W – we can choose back home which images to convert and during the processing adjust the tones of the greys using the filters available in the convert to B&W option.

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      I love “soot and whitewash”, Andy >>> and you’ve hit the nail right on the head with what you’ve said here – thanks for your thoughts, man! I’ve got naughty inklings about manipulating colour too tho, but where that’ll go I don’t know – but buy a pair of sunglasses just in case! Oh yes >>> and do let me know if you get any further with identifying that bird of prey. Adrian

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  3. Thanks for this, it will maybe give me the courage to experiment! very useful perspective (excuse the pun).

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Please do experiment, I can’t urge this too strongly. And there are two stages here, aren’t there?

      The first requires no courage at all. Simply make a copy of a photo that you like or think may have further potential, and play around with it with your image processing software. Do unthinkable things, “What if I change that? What if I change this? What if I severely crop it?”. And if in the (bitter?) end you are looking at a total mess, then delete it, make another copy, and try again. Digital photography makes such experimentation ridiculously easy.

      The second stage does require courage – putting an experiment out onto your blog, out onto the Net. But what is the worst that can happen? People can only say its dreadful, its not the end of the world – and you can try again. Experiments often come out on my blog – and even if they’re liked, I quite often look back on them as the months roll by and think OMG! One thing to do is to say in your post that the image is an experiment – and particularly request opinions and feedback. Adrian

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  4. Patti Kuche says:

    A well stated piece Adrian and great links!

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  5. You’ve expressed this to me – about contrast when required. I am looking more closely. Observing more intensely. It doesn’t come natural. I have to work at it, but…practice practice practice. These photos rock. ❤️

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  6. andybeel says:

    Hi Adrian an excellent post with which I fully agree. Colour photographers coming to B&W are generally far to timid in their approach to a different medium. Thanks Andy

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Yes, I think you’ve hit it – colour photographers coming to mono – and of course, with the advent of digital, mono has never been so accessible, so more and more colour photographers are branching out into it. Thanks for your thoughts, Andy! Adrian

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  7. poppytump says:

    Many thanks Adrian ! A brilliant blog post and I remember these pictures of yours …
    It’s liberating to experiment – just needs a bit of confidence I feel to go with what it all at times 🙂
    Much appreciate your link to Lee Frost – have had a look at his work … wow .. He’s been generous enough to share downloads too of a great many of his past magazine articles .

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    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Poppy, I’m really glad that you’ve found this post helpful – good! And I hadn’t realised that Lee has some of his articles online – I don’t know about the other mag, but try some of the Black and White Photography ones, I used to subscribe to that mag too and always liked Lee’s stuff. Good to hear from you! Adrian

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sue Vincent says:

    Good advice, Adrian. With painting it is the same thing.. we are afraid of the shadows, but never achieve either realism or depth without them.

    Mind, you could say the same about life too.

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