Attempting Fine Art in Black and White

February 07, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Moonrise over the West Spanish Peak

80mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100 (Sony a6500 with Zeiss 16-80 mm lens)
HDR bracketed exposure, processed in Photoshop with the B&W Artisan Pro X Panel

I'm not quite sure who bestows or authorizes use of the title of "Fine Art Photographer", but I'm trying to find out so I can get mine. I hesitate to even use the term “fine art” when describing one of my images partly because no one really knows what it means and partly because it is cliche. Just search the internet for “fine art photography” and you will find no limit to the number of fine art photographers whose work is anything but. In this case, I am referring specifically to this high contrast style of black and white photography that makes heavy use of tonal values at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Sometimes the images are very dark, like my moonrise image, but they can also be very white as well. Some examples of photographers who (sometimes) work in this style are Cole Thompson, Clyde Butcher, and Joel Tjintjelaar. Another key aspect of many of the photographs of this type is the separation from reality that many times goes beyond just the conversion to black and white. Sometimes it is the removal of certain elements from the scene to simplify the composition, sometimes it is the use of long exposure, sometimes it is minimalism-but whatever it is, I really like it.

For this particular image, I initially processed the photo in Lightroom (the next image below) and was really happy with the first edit. This photo has the essence of the surreal and is certainly unique enough. But the more I looked at the image, I realized that the Lightroom image was not the image I could see in my mind. It was not dark enough, it did not have enough contrast, and it just looked too realistic. I made several additional attempts in Lightroom using many of the different approaches that I’ve learned, but I ran into several issues and came to the conclusion that I just couldn’t execute my vision for this photograph in Lightroom.

80mm, 1/80 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100
HDR bracketed exposure, processed in Lightroom (no Photoshop!)

At this point I turned to Photoshop and, after a couple of failed attempts, created an image that was closer to my vision, but unfortunately was completely unacceptable technically. The problem was that my adjustments in Photoshop were not subtle enough, and if anything is needed to turn a bright sky black, it is subtlety. My final image looked OK in Photoshop, but when exported, the compression in the image made it look terrible and amateur.

So I decided to try a completely different (and new to me) approach using the B&W Artisan Pro X panel created by Joel Tjintjelaar. I was familiar with Joel’s work and his editing panel, but he is primarily known for his architectural photography so I was hesitant to attempt to apply his techniques to landscape images. But he recently released a series of in-depth workshops using his panel on his YouTube channel and demonstrated his techniques on some landscapes images. Joel’s workflow is centered around gradually building up contrast through the use of many (ten to hundreds) subtle adjustments. I was convinced that his approach would give me the tools needed to create the image I had been envisioning. But making effective use of a new set of tools is another is another thing entirely.

In this post, I want to share the process I used to create this image and how I made use of the various tools in Joel’s panel to create various adjustments in the image. The first step is something I have never done before although I’ve seen several great photographers (including Joel) teach it, and that was to create an image map showing the changes I wanted to make in the image. This actually is a useful exercise-it forced to think about the specific adjustments I wanted to make and made me aware of some problems I would have to deal with that I had not recognized before.

Rollei Infrared 400

 

The first step in Photoshop was to create the masks that would be needed to separate the Figure (the mountain) from the Ground (sky and foreground). Creating selections has never been something I’m particularly good at, but once again, Joel’s excellent tutorials were very helpful. I created selections for the sky, foreground, mountain, and moon.

With the selections created and saved, it was time to start editing. From Lightroom, I opened the raw image as a Smart Object in Photoshop so that I could make any revisions using the original raw image. Here’s a screenshot of my Photoshop layer stack. Joel’s workflow using the B&W Artisan Pro panel applies minute adjustments directly to the image rather than using adjustment layers. Some might not consider this to be a “non-destructive” workflow, but I found that retaining key intermediate layers at various stages allowed me to go back if needed to an earlier point in the workflow. Joel recommends working on the image in sections and saving the edits for each section as a separate file containing more of the intermediate edits. I didn’t really find that necessary for this image. You can see from the layer stack that my complete edit sequence for this image comprised about ten major steps from start to finish. I probably generated four to five times that many layers in total for the entire edit.

In the following sections, I’ve written a short paragraph describing each major step in the edit followed by an image showing the state of the photograph after that stage of editing.

1. Raw Image

The raw image is an HDR composite of three exposures with the Enhance Details feature applied before merging. I found that Enhance Details reduced the halo along the mountain when the image was converted to black and white in Lightroom. I used HDR to reduce noise and retain detail in the moon. I wrote a separate post discussing these issues here.

 

2. Black and White Conversion

The image was converted to black and white using the Neutral Conversion preset in the B&W Artisan Pro panel. The neutral conversion maintains the luminance values of the color image without making any adjustments to the luminance values based on color. This approach is recommended by Joel, but is completely opposite of what many photographers teach for black and white conversion. I decided to use the neutral conversion since I was trying out Joel’s workflow on my image, but I have to admit I didn’t like doing it this way. All of my previous edits of this image made use of black and white conversions that emphasized and enhanced the sunlight hitting the top of the mountain, and the neutral conversion somewhat diminishes the contrast of light and shadow on the mountain. However, I have to admit that I had no problem enhancing the light on the peak later on in editing, so maybe Joel is correct.

I’d like to point out at this stage just how prominent the foreground is in this image. Even though it is dark, it also contains all of the contrast in the image. The mountain and moon just kind of blend in to the incredibly bland sky.

 

3. Darken the Sky

The first adjustment was to darken the sky using multiple applications of the local contrast (Smart Linear with mask) and Creating Depth tools to gradually turn the sky black. These were applied with the only the sky selected. The image below also shows the effect of applying the Low Key preset as recommended by Joel to remove contrast and darken the foreground. However, I later decided to start over with the foreground from the neutral conversion because too much contrast had been removed. Notice how the focus has shifted to the mountain which has become the dominant subject in the image, but no adjustments have been applied to the mountain up to this point.

 

4. Lighten the Mountain

Next I focused on the mountain to lighten the sunlit peak and emphasize the transition to shadow, again using the local contrast (Smart Linear-Strict) and Creating Depth tools with the mountain selected. Further adjustments were made to the mountain at a later step. 

 

5. The Moon

For the moon, I broke away from Joel’s workflow and used the Texture and Clarity sliders in Adobe Camera Raw to bring back detail in the moon. Since the raw file was imported as a Smart Object, I was able to make a new copy and edit the raw file directly, then apply the Neutral Conversion. The moon was isolated through a layer mask. 

 

6. Foreground Adjustments

The image below shows the revised foreground. Rather than using the Low Key preset, I started over with the foreground using the Smart Linear local contrast adjustments to darken, then I used the Micro Zone adjustments applied through local selections within the foreground to essentially dodge and burn. I think that this approach allows the foreground to blend seamlessly with the sky and mountain whereas the effects of the Low Key preset were far more obvious. 

 

7. Fine-tuning the Mountain

At this point, the image was mostly finished, but after reviewing the image a few hours later, I felt like the mountain still needed some fine-tuning. I once again turned to the Micro Zone Adjustments tools to selectively add contrast to the mountain, especially the sunlit peak. I also realized at this point that the sky surrounding the top of the mountain and the moon was too dark.

 

8. Final Contrast and Add Noise

I used the Special FX tool to bring back some light in the sky around the mountain and moon. This is another example of an adjustment that I had been unable to make without the B&W Artisan Pro panel. At this step, I added a couple of Curves adjustment layers to add some final contrast. I used one layer for contrast to apply a very subtle S-curve (only about plus or minus three points above and below the line) and a second layer to set the white and black points for the final image. The image also had some very subtle banding visible in the sky, even when viewed at 100% in Photoshop, so I added some slight grain to the sky using the Add Noise filter set to about 1.1% (another tip from Joel’s webinar).

 

9. Split Toning

The final step was the addition of split toning using the Sound of Silence preset in the panel. Joel has created several presets for complementary split toning applied through luminosity masks. The effect is exquisitely subtle.

I knew from previous work with the image that the final version would be cropped to a 4:5 aspect ratio, but all of the Photoshop work was performed on the uncropped image so that I would have the ability to export other versions (like a 16:9 for my computer wallpaper). The final cropped image appears as the title image for this post.

So what do you think-did I earn the fine art title for this image? Leave a comment and let me know. As for me, I’ve ordered a print to hang in my office.

Update: I shared this image on the BWVision forum and received the following response from Joel Tjintjelaar. I am humbled by his words, but also feel that maybe I can now legitimately call myself a “fine art photographer.”

”I have to say that this is very, very impressive. I'm not looking at it from a technical point of view, just from an artistic point of view, and when that happens you've done a great job: the techniques applied are non-obtrusive and natural. And I'm very impressed. The moon rising directly over the summit is a great coincidence but that's what I like so much about photography: the unexpected element. This is like an Ansel Adams photograph that Adams has never shot.”


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