Lessons in Light and Visualization

There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” photographic light. There is just light.
Brooks Jensen, LensWork.

Just last week, while photographer Floris van Bruegel and I walked towards Death Valley National Park’s Ibex Dunes, Floris commented that I used direct light in my photographs more than most photographers. I harbor no shame about this, and believe that I’m at an advantage in being able to visualize photographs in whatever available light is before me. While many nature and landscape photographers would have you believe that we are limited to the Golden Hours or to the twilight found at each end of the day, there simply exists light that best benefits your subject or light that is less than ideal for your subject. If you’ll contend that the light is “bad”, I’ll counter that you’re just looking in the wrong direction.

VoyagerThe photograph at left, Voyager, was made in the extreme southern end of Death Valley (the Valley proper, that is) last Wednesday. The time was 9:30am. I was up at 5:30am that morning. I had already covered a fair bit of ground, and had even cooked and eaten breakfast by the time I found this scene. I would estimate that 99 of 100 photographers would have told me that this was horrible light and no photographs could be made. Were it not for my experience and ability to visualize a scene in the final print (there is no such thing as PREvisualization!), I might have concurred. Fact is, were it not 9:30am and had the sun not been beating harshly on this wet mud, I doubt that I would have ever been able to see this. Before you rule out “bad” light, rule out your preconceptions and make the exposure. For digital photographers, this costs nothing. For film photographers, it costs only a modest amount to expand your seeing and possibilities. What could you possibly have to lose?

Voyager - raw film scan

Voyager - raw film scan

I’m about to do something here that I don’t believe I have ever done online before: share a raw film scan of the original negative (no manipulation). A cursory glance at the raw negative might lead one could suggest that this is “bad” light, but the proof is in the final print. The exposure was calculated to preserve all highlight and shadow details (no bracketing; no guesswork; I teach my film exposure techniques during my film-based workshops). From the moment I found the scene, I visualized not “bad” light or a difficult-to-print negative; I saw a voyaging vessel in a distant galaxy and a luminous final print. When Ansel talked about “visualization”, he was referring to this ability to visualize a final print (not the “capture“). I would venture that this is one of the most difficult if not liberating ways of seeing. If one cannot visualize the final print, one is not seeing the light 😉

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.

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Black and White or Color?

There are now three realms of photography: black and white; color; and “this isn’t working in color; let’s try converting it to black and white”. I say this rather tongue-in-cheek, but it’s become a more prevalent tactic with today’s photographers (especially if one is attuned to some of the online photographer’s forums).

This isn’t something that occurred very often back in the “days of film”, because film costs money and developing it costs even more money and time. With some exceptions (Polaroids were useful for this purpose), the film photographer decided then and there whether they were using color or black and white. Today’s digital tools and software have made it exceptionally easy now to “experiment” by using the built-in and remarkably excellent conversion tools. But has this made us better or just lazier photographers?

Let me first get this off my chest: if your photograph is not very strong when viewed in all its colorful RGB glory, then converting it to black and white will do nothing to improve it. A mediocre color photograph converted to black and white only becomes a mediocre black and white photograph. I’ve said this many times to fellow photographers, friends, and students: strong black and white photography arises from forethought, rarely from afterthought. When Ansel talked about visualization, he was talking about a process that took place before the shutter was fired, not after. In other words, a strong black and white photograph is conceived in the mind (or mind’s eye, as some would have it) while in the field, not during post-processing. What I especially object to is the notion that black and white is ideal when the light sucks or when the image isn’t working in color. These are two lousy notions.


Color or Black and White?

As a photographer who practices both color and black and white photography, what approach do I take? When I’m in the field, I look for and see either in color or in black and white, but rarely can I do both successfully at the same time. Depending upon where I am – let’s say in this colorful southwest Utah setting seen in the photograph at left – I’ve determined that the color of this location is what is drawing my attention, so I begin seeing only in color. And therein lies my Photographic Rule #1,456: if the COLOR of something draws me in, then photographing/printing in color is the obvious choice. If the LIGHT, TONE, or CONTRAST of something draws me in, then black and white is my more obvious choice. The color might do nothing other than add distraction.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website

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R.I.P.: 4×5″ Black and White Quickloads and Readyloads

R.I.P.: Fuji Acros 4x5" Quickloads

R.I.P.: Fuji Acros 4x5

Yep, you’ve read that correctly: there are no longer ANY black and white films available in Quickload (Fuji) or Readyload (Kodak) format, as Fuji has recently announced its discontinuation of Fuji Acros 4×5″ Quickloads (although you won’t find this information on the Fuji website). Kodak killed their Readyloads in 2008. This means that the hiking/backpacking large format black and white photographer is now faced with having to carry multiple film holders, extra sheet film, a changing tent, and an empty box to change out film during hikes and backpacks. What were they thinking?

I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end of the world. Unfortunately for Fuji, this now means that Ilford gets ALL of my black and white business. And before the hell-bent digital camera crusaders blurt out “FILM IS DEAD!”, let me assure you that many emulsions are still available in all formats (with new emulsions still being released). The loss here is specific to those who prefer the convenience and weight-savings of carrying black and white packet film over multiple film holders on long hikes and backcountry saunters.

It would appear that nothing can really be done about this, as many a letter and email (mine included) regarding previous business decisions have fallen on deaf ears over at Fuji. Your choices are to complain (likely without results) or start shopping for a new emulsion. Best of luck either way.

You can read more about this topic over at the Large Format Photography Forum (an excellent resource for large format photographers).

UPDATE, Nov. 16, 2009: reader Doug asks if I have found any alternative to using multiple 4X5 film holders. There used to be more than one alternative, but from an availability perspective, only ONE choice now exists: the Grafmatic sheet film holder. Although they are long out of production, these are readily available on eBay for $50-70 or so. I own one, but have only ever used it for demonstration purposes during my Introduction to Large Format Photography workshops. The operation is just slightly clunky, and I’m not fond of the fine metal shavings that are produced by friction/moving parts within the holder. Fuji made the short-lived Quick Change Holder (which had plastic instead of metal septums), but it is no longer available and I have never seen one on eBay. For me, there are currently no decent alternatives, so I’ll be sticking with multiple film holders for now.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.