Learning the “Language of Black and White” photography at a workshop in Santa Fe
I’m just back from a weeklong workshop titled “The Language of Black and White” held at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. Taught by Cira Crowell, the week involved a deep dive into the key aspects of black and white photography — a genre that I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy very much. Cira (@ciracrowell) is a superb black and white photographer who I met last summer in a workshop taught by photographer Christopher Michel (@chris_michel)
Each day of the workshop had a theme: Who, What, Where, Why, How and When. After introductions on Sunday evening, Cira asked us each to share what black and white photography means to us. “I’ve come to appreciate the timeless quality of black and white photography,” was my comment. Others shared insights about the simplicity of black and white, how dropping away the color helps add clarity to a photo, and more.
We began each day with a short reading from a wonderful Georgia O’Keeffe book: “Some Memories of Drawings” to help us set a mood for the day. O’Keeffe comments on many of her early drawings describing what was in her mind as she moved from concept to drawing on the paper.
Cira is a lifelong student of light — and we reviewed the history of photography in the context of the language of light using examples of early photographic gear from her personal collection before moving out into the field to begin capturing our own images. Cira paid a tribute to photographer George DeWolfe — a long-time teacher of earlier versions of this course and himself a master of the editing and post-processing steps used to add depth (what DeWolfe calls “presence”) to a black and white image, leading to an almost 3D-look to the image.
Among techniques that DeWolfe used in his earlier workshops was processing a painting from one of the masters into a black and white image. He tried to show the effect of a default conversion versus what is possible through using a few additional techniques to enhance the presence in the image. An example below illustrates that point using “The Astronomer” from Vermeer. The default conversion is one the left — the enhanced conversion is on the right.
One of our field trips was to O’Keeffe’s White Place (Plaza Blanca) where we worked to photograph both the natural beauty of the rock formations along with two great models who worked with us to add a human dimension to our images of nature. Another field trip took us to a local home where we also worked with several models in a more domestic setting.
Both of these opportunities to work with models provided us with great portraiture opportunities — first attempting to capture our best color images which we converted to black and white in post-processing using both Lightroom and Photoshop. Cira has designed a custom workflow that first develops the best possible color version of the image that ensures good color separation before converting to black and white and making further refinements to tonality and luminance to ensure good separation of the grey tones in the image. A default conversion from color to black and white typically results in a flat, uninteresting image (such as the Vermeer example above), but using this workflow helps bring the black and white to life by adding additional tonality and depth to the image.
Thanks to the superb teaching from Cira and the collaboration among a great group of students, I came away from my week in Santa Fe with a much deeper appreciation for the importance of light and depth in black and white images — how to best capture the original color version of an image, enhance it further in post-processing and then complete the conversion to a powerful black and white image. I’m looking forward to further exercising my skills applying these techniques as I continue my photographic explorations! A few examples of my images from the week follow. You can find more of my work on my Instagram: @sjl
Photographer Scott Loftesness is an InMenlo co-founder.