White Sands is an incredibly beautiful place. I don’t go there as often as I should; it’s only about a four-hour drive from my door. Every time I do go, I wonder why it’s been so long since my last trip. Of course, for me the attraction is the photography.
The stark landscape provides the perfect ingredients for great black and white images. Each of these photographs was made on the edge of light. The sun was low above the San Andres Mountains to the west.
Simplicity is the key; images that can be reduced to basic compositional elements are the ones that work best in monochrome. They can stand well on their own without the need for color. Don’t get me wrong I love making color photographs; I will continue to do so, but right now, I am re-discovering the power of the black and white image.
These three started as color versions because they were captured in RAW format. I followed my normal workflow, making global post processing adjustments in Adobe Lightroom and then moved them to Photoshop for the fine tweaks. The last step, the black and white conversions, were done in Silver Efex Pro.
I am pleased with the unexpected turn my photography has taken. As I mentioned in a previous post, I started out as a black and white photographer back in the day of chemicals, enlargers, and safelights. I feel like my work has come full circle.
One of the first things I tell my beginning digital photography students is:“Always have a camera with you!”. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have come across a wonderful scene and, without a camera, could only stand there and appreciate it. Not a bad thing, but as a photographer…!!!
I was driving into town for groceries-a sixty mile drive for me-and this scene unfolded along US Hwy. 550. I stood on the shoulder and waited until traffic cleared so I could make this image. Sometimes the light and the conditions combine to create a scene that may never happen again in exactly the same way. Be ready when that happens.
This image was made in a friend’s driveway. I was visiting him and noticed these leaves lying on the snow. I was drawn by the way they were nestled together and slightly embedded into the snow . I was taking my own advice that day and had a camera with me. The next time I visited him the leaves and the snow were gone.
This last image was made while I was driving from Albuquerque to Los Alamos to teach one of my classes. Just south of Santa Fe, these tracks cross under 1-25. I had gotten off the freeway and driven down the frontage road to the bridge over the tracks. I made several exposures of them from different points of view and was climbing up the bank to where my car was parked when I heard the whistle. The Southwest Chief (Amtrak), on it’s run from Chicago to Albuquerque was rounding the bend through the cut in La Bajada.
The point of these anecdotes is to illustrate the importance of being prepared. If you are in the right place at the right time armed with a camera a whole new world of possibilities opens up. To paraphrase Jack London: “You can’t wait for opportunity, you have to go after it with a club”.
Forty years ago when I purchased my first SLR camera-a Nikkormat FTN that I still have-I immersed myself in the world of black and white photography. Naturally, one of my heroes was, and still is, Ansel Adams. I learned how to develop film and make acceptable black and white prints from the negatives. I was hooked.
Fast forward to the present day: Photography has changed in ways no one could have imagined in that long gone time when a computer was still a large room-sized machine with unknown purpose and potential. Most of my work since switching from film to digital has been color landscapes. The portraits I have made are also (mostly) in color. Why? The answer is twofold: First, I lost that connection and, with it, the ability to visualize the scene and the image in the frame of my viewfinder in black and white. And, I just could not make a black and white print that matched those that slowly emerged from the developer under that red safelight. Granted, some of the shortcoming was due to my lack of expertise, but much of it had to do with the inability of the available technology to make an acceptable conversion
Recently, however, I have been re-connecting with that which I had lost in terms of visualizing my images in monochrome, and, with the ongoing development of new and better software, I find that I can once again produce a black and white or toned print that lives up to my expectations. Once again I can get excited about a black and white image the way I used to.
This image was made on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico. A storm was rapidly approaching from the south and the heavy clouds added to the feeling of desolation in the scene. The arrow-straight road with the mountains in the distance suggests a lack of any creature comforts. Even the rough texture of the road and the dark silhouette of the tree compound the sense of total isolation.
I did not pre-visualize this image as a black and white photograph. I like the way it looks in color, but I decided to experiment with it. I used Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion and I am very happy with the results. I think stripping the color adds even more to the bleakness of the scene. It lays bare the basic elements and structure of the image. Sometimes making a change in your pattern can help you to revitalize your passion and creativity. Even something as simple (or as complicated) as returning to your roots can breathe new life into your work.
This final image was made in the Mesa de Cuba badlands in the San Juan basin of northwestern New Mexico. It is a three image exposure fusion which I then converted to a sepia toned image in Silver Efex Pro. What caught my eye when I first happened upon this scene was the almost visceral appearance of the erosion channels. It had just snowed and the thirsty ground was sucking the moisture from the newly-fallen snow emphasizing the tonal contrast between the channels and the surrounding earth. At first I was concerned that it may be a little over the top in terms of the tonality, but I realized that I was merely presenting the scene as I had interpreted it. In the end, that’s what matters. Be true to your vision and you will evolve as an artist.
Tumbleweeds (Russian Thistle) piled against a barbed wire fence, with a far–off horizon in the background. If it weren’t for that fence, who knows where those damn tumbleweeds would be by now!
There was a time when I would go out of my way to exclude a fence from an image, but fences are a part of the landscape, and sometimes they can evoke emotions. So, I guess in many ways they can be considered works of art.
This image was made on the same day as I made “County Road 5728”. It is a bit further up Hwy. 550 from Lybrook. I struggled with the color version of this for days, but was not satisfied with the results, so I did a B&W conversion, and I like this version much better.
Equipment: Nikon D200, Nikon 17–35mm f2.8 zoom lens, circular polarizer.
Processing: Exposure, contrast, clarity, and vibrance in Lightroom, Curves and B&W conversion in Photoshop.
Islands In The Stream
Another image from White Sands. This is one of very few that I had visualized as a black and white image as I was setting up the shot. As I got ready to release the shutter, my camera displayed an error message. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was; all I knew was the sun was setting fast, and I would be losing the light soon. I grabbed my camera and tripod and ran back to the car to get the manual. As it turned out, my lens aperture wasn’t locked, a simple fix, and I was able to get the shot before the light was gone. I’ll not forget what that error message means any time soon, and I now keep my camera’s manual with me at all times.
County Road 5872
One day I took a drive out Highway 550. As I passed through Lybrook, I saw a road off to my right, and on impulse I turned onto it. The sign read CR 5872, and after about a half mile the road turned to dirt. It had rained earlier, and the road was pretty slick, so I decided not to venture very far.
At the bottom of a small hill, there was a drainage with a culvert and a fence line. There was also a wide spot in the road, so I took the opportunity to turn my car around, and to get out to stretch a bit. Something about the road intrigued me: the way it ran off to the horizon. I grabbed my camera and made three exposures. This is the pick. I made adjustments in Lightroom, but it still wasn’t quite right. If all else fails, do a conversion to black and white. This is the result.