Beauty of Black and White HDR Photography Part 3

“Oscar Rejlander’s (1813 -1875) studio was unusual; shaped like a cone, the camera would be in the narrow part, the sitters at the opposite end.

The camera was in shadow so that the sitters were less aware of it. He estimated his exposure by bringing his cat into the studio; if the cat’s eyes were like slits, he would use a fairly short exposure.

If they were a little more open than usual, he would give extra exposure. If the pupils were totally dilated he would admit defeat, put the lens cap on the lens and go out for a walk!”
Robert Leggat, 1999

“Black Power” by © Jörg Dickmann

Cats, much to their delight, are no longer forced to endure conscription for use as light meters. Instead of cat’s eyes, we use other tools to expand the usable range of light. HDR photography is an important tool, as it lets us preserve exquisite fine detail in a scene.

Here, we explore the appeal of black and white HDR, paying special attention to a photographer’s personal and visual awareness. While the first two parts of this article looked at color HDR, this article investigates key qualities behind interesting black and white HDR work, with suggestions for a black and white workflow.

First, we consider why HDR imaging techniques leave the feline method in the dark.

Why black and white HDR?

Think of each black, grey, and white picture tone as a separate instrument in an orchestra. Filling out the tones is like adding extra players to the ensemble. Just as your musical experience listening to the Boston Pops is different from hearing a quartet, so does a wider range of black and white tones in a photograph allow for a greater reach of emotional expression.

Black and white HDR also solves an old problem. When you’re photographing everyday scenes, brilliant whites and deep blacks can result in washed-out highlights, on the one hand, and blocked-up shadows on the other.

HDR bracketing and multiple exposures (as we saw in Parts 1 and 2) help manage this lack of tone control. In Photos 1a and 1b below, compare the HDR multiple exposure at left with one single exposure at right. Shadow details are excellent in the HDR image, and the daylight outdoors is not washed out because of the greater highlight detail captured during the HDR process.

(By the way, there was a cat in the bar, but the room was too dark for me to see its pupils.)

1a. “The Bull, Key West” A six exposure HDR image with 1-stop bracketing, and Tone Mapping in Photomatix Pro 2.4. Highlights show much better detail.

1b. A Single Exposure taken in the middle of the bracketed series. There is loss of both highlight and shadow detail.

What makes black and white HDR interesting?

Tonal Range, Visual Elements, and the Photographer’s Personal Qualities

The alchemy of black and white HDR is to make the unseen visible. One of the implied, unseen elements in photography is the movement of time. In the black and white HDR composition above, revered names of people who were killed in the Holocaust seem to recede without a fixed vanishing point, and so go on indefinitely, conveying a sense of the infinite.

Image 2: For “Holocaust Memorial,” I made three exposures. Combining these frames in Photomatix © brought out the carved names in a deeply-shaded corner of the memorial. © by Jim Austin.

The use of Photomatix© helped expand the range of tones in this image. The enlarged tonal range made the image more graphic and austere.

The deeply detailed blacks gave the photograph a solidity and sense of presence. Together, the tones and their presence created a graphic look to black and white HDR. The perception that abstract and graphic qualities are expressed by the tones of the picture is not new in photography.

It was explored by master photographers like Edward Weston, whose prints had subtle and well-defined transitions from light to dark. black and white HDR draws on this tradition. What makes it of interest now is the way a larger tonal range enlivens black and white’s abstract and graphic beauty.

Image 3: “Chevy Above the Levy”
© Jim Austin.

Image 4: “Eiffel Tower”
© Martin Deak.

Image 5: “Effects of Light and Wind”
© Royce Howland.

Image 6. “Your Childhood Eyes Were So Intense”
© Omar Freitas Junior and Luciana Maria Gerhard

Image 7: “In Loving Memory of Hillsborough”
© Pete Carr.

Visual Elements: Composition and Symbolism

Visual elements of interesting black and white HDR include composition, shape, and symbolism. To use these ingredients in ways that work for your imagery, it may help you to ask, “What attracts me to this scene? Is it the color, or is this a good picture regardless of whether it’s in color or black and white?”

If you can identify the design elements in the scene before you photograph in black and white HDR, you’re on your way to creating a good composition.

When visual elements of design support a photograph, they’ll expand the symbolic components of black and white HDR pictures, as well. For instance, a photograph can act as an analogy. The brilliant photography critic Susan Sontag pointed out, “What makes something interesting is that it can be seen to be like, or analogous to, something else.”

For example, at first glimpse, the fins of the Chevy Bel Air (Image 3) reminded me of a large modern building. Later on, I titled the image because it reminded me of the hit song by Don McLean “American Pie” with its famous line “Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry.” As the image evolved, I had other associations with more symbolism, which enhanced its interest.

Personal Elements: Imagination to Innovation

Two main personal elements within a photographer’s thought process make for interesting HDR imagery.

First, learning to see in black and white is an essential exercise for the photographer’s imagination. Master black and white photographers practice forming mental pictures of color scenes to examine how the scene will look later when it’s printed in black and white.

For example, Royce Howland created a windswept winter scene (Image 5) that was in the photographer’s vision as a black and white image from the beginning–long before he made three exposures and used Photomatix Pro and Photoshop for post-processing. Mr. Howland observed, “The scene’s dynamic range technically was within the capture ability of a single exposure.

However there was a lot of subtle detail and texture across the range of highlights to shadows, and I wanted to preserve as much of that as possible.

I used black and white to emphasize fine-grained detail in the snow and ice, as well as showcasing the graphic nature of the forms.” Seeing the beauty in “Effects of Light and Wind” is like listening to a symphony. The fine highlight detail, resultant shadow detail, graphic shapes carved by wind, and the radiant ambiance of the light all work together harmoniously.

Second, photographers need to understand how innovative black and white HDR truly is. It’s fundamentally different from color, not simply what happens when color is removed. It’s a novel process to the extent that it alters the visual language.

Black and white HDR adds to the emotionally expressive quality of a photograph. It has a graphic sense that color images do not possess. It’s a superb tool for exploring scenes we would usually pass by because of their high contrast.

Why Not Use Color HDR ?

Because color makes us respond emotionally to it, color in a photograph can distract us from the heart of an image, just like a special musical effect can overwhelm the melody of a song. Without color, however, all the dark tones support and direct our attention to the emotions in a picture, like those in the boy’s face.

Black and white HDR allows tones to show character. For portrait photography, black and white HDR frees a photographer to create portraits that center on the individual, as in this image, “Your Childhood Eyes Were So Intense” by Gerhard and Junior (Image 6).

The use of black and white HDR here allows the personality of the subject to stand out, without sacrificing detail in highlights or shadows when there is a lot of contrast in the scene. This is a satisfying aspect for photographers who wish to portray character authentically.

The advantage of black and white was expressed by an anonymous photographer: “If you photograph people in color you show the color of their clothes—if you use black and white, you will show the color of their soul.” The inner soul of the subject is beautifully expressed by Pete Carr, a writer and photographer, with his photograph titled “In Loving Memory of Hillsborough” (Image 7).

Nearly 20 years after the disaster at the Hillsborough Football club where 96 lives were lost, the memorial is still cherished. For his intimate portrait, Mr. Carr chose not to use flash. He used black and white HDR for realism, authenticity, and to recapture highlight details that were lost before HDR processing.

Workflow for Black and White HDR

We’ve seen several advantages to black and white HDR. Now let’s turn to the process itself. My workflow is the following:

1. Take a RAW color image in a digital camera, bracketing by changing shutter speeds to achieve 3 to 9 exposures.

2. Archive the original RAW files.

3. Import the images into Photomatix Pro.

4. Create a 32 bit color image file.

5. Tone Map in Photomatix.

6. Save the image as a 32 bit color .tif file to hard drive.

7. Convert to 16 bits and Photoshop Enhance.

8. Open in Photoshop.

9. Convert to 16 bits; convert to black and white using Photoshop’s channel mixer adjustment layer.

“Lincoln Castle Gate”
Alan Stenson

The Workflow Process:

Using a digital camera, capture the image in color in RAW file format. The first decision depends on your having a tripod. One advantage of using a tripod in your workflow is that a tripod and camera release will make you slow down, and take more time to consider your composition, light and framing.

This concentration will improve your images. If you don’t have a tripod, handhold the camera and take three bracketed exposures. To do this, use a manual camera setting. (Remember: you’ll keep the same aperture and bracket with shutter speeds.)

You can also use auto bracketing. Most cameras allow only three shots in this mode, so take three exposures at -2 below the camera meter, at 0 or at the exposure as metered by the camera, and at +2 over the camera metered exposure.

Keep your camera aperture constant to prevent the depth-of-focus changing between shots. If you have a tripod and cable release, you may want to take up to 9-11 frames.

Once you have a series of frames, save the images and open your HDR software. You can convert to black and white in Photoshop, or use the HDR software tools in Photomatix, FDR tools, Artizen HDR or Adobe Photoshop.

If you choose, you can use the HDR program to convert to black and white by using the saturation control set to pure black and white, but by keeping the HDR as color, the flexibility of Photoshop’s channel mixer and camera raw yields better results.

Whatever your personal choices in software and tone mapping, try not to let the technology overwhelm your picture-taking. Be true to the context and to your own vision for your photograph.

Summary: Vision for Future Black and White HDR

To create interesting black and white HDR, then, photographers must be alert to wondrous contrasts that are present everywhere and be excited to photograph these scenes. Making images with high dynamic range tools lets you see and appreciate detail that was always there, but you weren’t aware of it.

With practice, the black and white HDR process helps you see shading and tonal detail in scenes that you wouldn’t have photographed before, thinking these scenes unremarkable.

Black and white HDR image of "Great Choir" at the Washington National Cathedral by Jim Austin.

“Great Choir” at the Washington National Cathedral. © by Jim Austin.

The culture of black and white HDR imaging offers new adventures for photographers. They can take portraits with character. They can expand their awareness of fine shadow and highlight detail when making photographs where the scene contrast is too great for methods employed before HDR emerged.

Black and white HDR extends the graphic and symbolic traditions of black and white film photography. Finally, the real beauty of black and white HDR will grow with the vision of future imaginative photographers, as they work with this novel tool to expand their perception.

Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2:

For the Love of Light, Part 1 – HDR Visions from Nine Photographersthe remarkable abilities of HDR software to capture light is explored and the unique construction of HDR photographs is briefly explained.

For the Love of Light, Part 2 – HDR Visions from Nine Photographers – a debate about the varieties of HDR photography and their expression of what is true or natural are considered. A key idea was explored: What is it that makes HDR artistic? The answer leads us to the qualities of the photographer. A glossary is included to provide definitions of HDR concepts.

by Jim Austin
All text: © 2014 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.
All photos: © indicated and held by each photo artist. All images of others were used by permission from the photographer.

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