Black and white imagery is the root of my photographic passion. Years ago, the darkroom was my second home where I patiently coaxed images from the paper and experimented with different mixtures and chemicals to increase contrast as well bring out hidden tonal values. Every print had a life of its own as it was conceived when the light was captured on a piece of Lucite, born in when the enlarger lit up and nurtured in the chemical baths.
There has long been a saying and I have heard it from numerous people – color is for fashion, while Black and white is for emotion.
In my early years as a photographer, I learned that the keys to black and white photography lay in the contrast within an image. Light areas draw in the eye, while dark areas help frame, pushing the eye towards the subject, all the while building mood. My early photo education was watching movies, the classic black and whites. They said it all without the aid of color! The viewer moved through the scenes under the guidance of light and dark. Contrast in texture, smooth to rough, gives an image depth. Then a contrast in focus isolates the subject and prevents the background from competing for the viewer’s attention. My early film days also gave me a solid foundation in black and white filters. Reds, green, yellow, orange, blue and green-yellow all play a role in helping contrast become more prominent. In my opinion, this is essential for photographers to understand.
For the image above, numerous elements came together to make this shot happen. Photographs require planning and thinking, especially when post processing is limited to cropping and sharpening in the vast majority of my images. Remember as Ansel Adams said, “You do not take a picture, you make a photograph.”
The day that I shot this portrait started early as I was out looking for my daily image (I try to take one successful image per day). I came across some parrots and macaws on perches. I would assume that with the number of people coming through this area, these birds had been photographed before. This added another level of difficulty. How could I make the image different than all of the others? Standing back I assessed the scene. These colorful birds were outside in natural light, but positioned between two small buildings, which bathed them in shade. They were positioned on perches and some were flapping their wings. Today would be my opposite day, I said to myself. I would shoot in black and white. I would make the image look like a studio shot with artificial light. The image would be calm and serene, rather than the action of flapping wings.
Falling back on my black and white education, I surveyed the scene to decide my initial settings. I shot in my early years with Kodak Plus, X rated at ASA125. It was an extremely fine grain film. I turned the ISO on my Nikon D7100 to 125 and picture quality to monochrome. Now, I wanted to achieve the three contrasts in black white. Contrast in focus was achieved with the selection of f2.8 on my Nikon 180mm lens. This blurred the background (due to a narrow depth of field) and the aperture choice helped isolate my subject from any confusing background elements. Had I opted for f16, the wall of the building behind the parrot would have been visible, drawing away some of the viewer’s attention from the parrot. The telephoto lens also provided a bit of compression, bringing the background in close as well as improving the out-of-focus quality of the background. This helped with textural contrast as well. Bird feathers have a defined shape and edge. This contrasts with the blurred smooth feeling of the image background. Lastly I sought out a contrast with the lighting. The parrot was green and the building behind it was brown. This was not quite the contrast I wanted, as both colors are neutral. I pulled a Cokin size P filter from my bag. I chose green because it matched the color of the parrot and it would help with the overall contrast and slight lightening of the bird’s feathers. The test shots were successful, however, the contrast was still not strong enough.
I then decided to add some supplemental light. Pocket reflectors and white balance disks are always in my bag. For this shot I chose a Photoflex 12” White/SunLite LiteDisc. It took some working, but I managed to catch a ray of sunlight and bounce it down onto the bird. He was preoccupied with preening and just seemed to ignore me. I held the small reflector over my head with my left hand bringing the light down onto his shoulder and spilling onto his face. In manual mode I metered the brightest spot on the bird and the stopped down an additional 2/3 of a stop to create a slightly underexposed image. This helped darken the shot slightly and really open up the bright area. The effect was what I call transition light. It occurs when the subject is emerging from the shadows. Once I had my settings, I made a number of exposures to get the overall look I wanted. I then sharpened it in post processing for the final image.
George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com.