Diving into Black and White

Back in high school when I was the sports editor and shooting primarily sports and yearbook and doing a chunk of the darkroom for the paper black and white was all I did, and Tri-X was my standard film. Unlike a lot of photographers who seem to miss film and spending hours in a dark, smelly, chemical-filled darkroom turning out one or two prints, I do not miss my film days whatsoever. I’m guessing most of the people who are remembering the good old days of film sent their film out to labs to be developed and never lived in a production lab for hours at a time across days in a row…  but I digress.

Despite not missing my days developing and printing black and white film fondly, I have felt for a while that I needed to get serious about black and white conversions as a way to continue to push my photography forward. This has been one of my “I know I have to put some time and effort into this — someday” projects has been to dig in and study monochrome conversions of digital images.

So this weekend I sat myself down at the monitor and started grabbing images out of my collection more or less at random and started doing conversions so I could see what came out. I do not remotely pretend to be an expert at this; I do not pretend to even be good at it. That’s the point, actually: I have to invest some hours in the process to learn how to do this well and do it consistently, and this is the starting line. I’m going to try to do a number of images every couple of weeks, and make black and white conversion of at least some images of new shoots a regular part of the project plan.

Here are the first images to come out of the chute. I’m curious what you think of them. Some of them I like, some of them I honestly don’t know what I think about them yet.

Bridalveil Falls  and Cathedral Rocks after a winter storm

Bridalveil falls, Yosemite. This one I knew I wanted a black and white version of, and I really like it. Like it enough I’m probably going to print this to paper and see how it turns out.

Snowy Egret, Palo Alto Baylands

This is my second favorite of the bunch. Again, I took a relatively “easy” subject, white birds, but there are some subtle tonalities that it took me a while to get the way I liked, especially around the beak and lores.  

Cranes and shorebirds flushed by Peregrine Falcon, Merced National Wildlife Refuge

A pure experiment (the color version is here). I felt it really needed a heavy tint to it to make the white flock of birds pop. I’m not at all sure this is good, but it sure is striking, and I think this would make a really interesting background for a cover of a book or something similar. I’m just not sure it’s good as a photo. It’s very definitely not like my normal work, which makes it really interesting to me.

Morro Bay Harbor Panorama

Here’s another one I really like (the color version is here) — I ramped up contrast to build drama, and this is all about pushing the eye so it sees Morro Rock and trying to make the rock a focal point of an image that it’s not really prominent in. The color version of this left me wishing I’d shot it with a polarizer; this version takes advantage of the fact that I didn’t to really bring the slough waters to prominence.

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

Not a huge shift in this image, since the scene had very muted colors in the original (you can see it here). Probably my least favorite of the group, but I felt it was a stretch given my current skills.

Sandhill Cranes 

And probably the least interesting of the bunch. I think the conversion is successful, but I think moving this image to monochrome took a lot of the life out of it. In the original (here it is) there’s some nice subtle coloring that gets lost in the conversion. I didn’t think this would make a great monochrome image, but that’s one reason why I decided to try it. I think  I was right.

One thing that might be obvious to a careful viewer is that all of the images are tinted at least slightly. That was true of a lot of my darkroom personal work back in the day, where I tended to use papers that brought in some tonal shift off pure monochrome. I find most “pure” monochrome conversions feel sterile to me and I much prefer to give them at least a hint of a tone. Honestly, I think that ties back to both my work printing for the school newspaper and yearbook and my dad’s work with the newspaper where so much of it ended up being the fake handshake artificial smile shaking hands talking heads thing that was so common in the local newspapers back when they actually existed. I’ll have to push myself to avoid the tints at some point, but right now, I much prefer the look with at least some of it in the image, and when I do use it, you’ll see I’m using coffee or sepias most o the time. I’m probably creating a bad habit i’ll have to break at some point, but what the heck. There are worse bad habits in the world…


Posted in Photography

“Rhymes with Crisco” — Really?

Someone dropped me an email and called me to task for using “Rhymes with Crisco” in my note yesterday announcing my new job. The email could be boiled down to “Dude, really?”

They have a point. It’s trite, silly and rather 12 year old. That was, in fact, the point. Let me explain.

First, I’ll admin: guilty as charged. It’s silly, and supposed to be. I get to have a bit of fun here if I want to.

But it also serves a more serious purpose. I used it for the same reason I use “Mama Fruit” when talking about one of my former employers. And I do that not just because it’s silly — and we all take this stuff way too seriously some days, especially when talking about the tech industry — but because it prevents my comments from being easily found in the search engines.

When I write here I write on a personal basis and not as a formal representative of my employer or any organization that I’m writing about. I learned — the hard way — that you can load your stuff with disclaimers all you want, all it takes is one troll with an axe to grind to choose to ignore that to make your life miserable.

You learn to watch what you say. But I’ve also found you can limit the chances of what you say ending up in the hands of random idiots looking for a fight by managing how you say things to stay away from hot button terms. Like using “Mama Fruit” and “Rhymes with Crisco” instead blah and blah. I’m not pretending this is more than it is — it’s like talking quietly at a party about a topic instead of grabbing the mike from the DJ — but it makes it easier to talk about some aspects of some organizations with less risk of those discussions getting hauled into larger discussions  I want to stay out of by someone trolling specific keywords for content to start fights with.

Effectively, it’s a way to make it easier to talk about some things with you all, the people who normally read this blog without a lot of risk of those comments ending up in some troll fight that I’m not interested in getting dragged into. That’s what this blog is primarily about — sharing and interacting with the people interested in what I say and do. This is just one way of managing the audience that sees some of the comments I make and limiting that audience to people who understand the context.

It serves a useful purpose. It’s a tool I’ve adopted in cases where I specifically don’t want to try to attract a large audience and instead talk more quietly to people already involved with me and this site at some level.

So yeah, it’s silly. But to date, it’s worked pretty well…

Posted in About Chuq

Photographers need to learn video…

A really nice piece over on Smogranch called “Master of None“:

One of the interview questions began with a statement about photographers needing to be literate in video as well as still photography. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop right there. Hang on there a minute. Freeze. Now just one goddamn second. Hold your horses. Hang tight. Slow down there partner. Says who?

Now listen, I completely and totally understand why that question was asked and where it came from, but the truth is still photographers DON’T need to know video, or motion or whatever else you want to call it. We are teaching this idea to young and not-so-young people, the old “You need to know all of these things,” scenario because that’s the life we’ve convinced ourselves is “progressive” and “the future.” Still photographers need to know motion and design and illustration and billing and housekeeping and copy editing and how to rebuild a Chevy four-barrel carb. People it’s just not true, and I for one feel so sad for young photographers who are entering the workforce as a master of nothing.

Here’s the problem. We keep trying to talk about photography as a single entity. we’re all photographers, so everything is equally relevant to all of us. Just like, say, a one star Michelin chef and the guy frying eggs in the Waffle Shack are both cooks.

Not true. The fact is, though, that video is an increasingly crucial requirement for photographers….

In specific market segments. Kirk Tuck at Visual Science Lab has discussed this at length for the editorial/commercial style photographers and it’s quite clear that a lack of an ability to do headshots and video interviews for corporate assignments is becoming a live/die decision with companies going with a single firm to do the job instead of two specialty firms. Learn to do at least basic video or you’re going to lose a big chunk (or all) of this market — if you compete in this market.

Ditto weddings, especially mid-range pricing. High end weddings there’s likely to be a video crew TOO, but for more budget-minded clients, bringing the video into the package makes you more competitive.

But does that translate into ALL photographers need to know video or die?


When I was scoping out the refuge project I took a close look at what added tools I wanted in the toolbox. Steve Bumgardner‘s Yosemite Nature Notes, after all, was a strong influence that got me started on the project. I also looked at timelapsing, at aerial drones, at night photography techniques, goPros and BTS footage, at…. well, name your favorite trendy photography hack or toy, I played with it. Doing that kind of research was awesome (and a lot of fun) because it gave me a chance to study a lot of techniques, dabble in a few and decide what made sense for  what I was trying to accomplish. Much better than guessing…

But I ended up realizing that other than doing some audio capture work, what I wanted to do and what I like doing is still photography. Package it up to tell a story? Awesome — figuring that out now, in fact. Start doing video instead? After some experimentation, I realized that I really like creating still more than video, and that as a part timer, video would turn a two year project into a five year project to get the material I want. At that, I can’t be sure the project would be better — different, but better? Unclear, because I’m not Steve, I’m me. The same with timelapses. Huge time investment in what is (in my about to get flamed opinion) a nice B-roll technique. Oh, and the buy-in to do timelapsing that doesn’t suck is a couple of grand of gear and hours and hours of babysitting gear watching the camera go click. Aerial drone imaging is fascinating, and another grand or two investment to get off the ground (without crashing. often). Did I mention I was a part time amateur? Yeah, well…

As a hobby and as an industry we have to get away from making these brash generalities. People who know me know I have a tendency to slap people who start saying things like “to be a real photographer you have to shoot a 50mm lens” because, well, I’m a bird photographer and the only use a bird photographer has for a 50mm lens is when they lose their body dust cap. Before we start telling people what they should be doing or what gear to buy, we really need to stop and ask them what they want to do first.

Some day I want to take away that 50mm lens, hand the street photographers a 400mm F5.6, and tell them to go shoot street for a month and see what happens.  Should be amusing…

So do photographers need video in their toolbox?  Some do. Some don’t. Generalizing either way is false and misleading. It depends on the markets, the goals and the intent of the photographer.

So why do we offer the advice on this stuff before asking those questions?


Posted in Photography