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Guest Post: What’s Wrong (Or Right) With This Picture? By Bill Bean

February 3, 2010
All text and images are provided courtesy of Bill Bean and are protected under copyright laws.  I invite you to link to this article but please do not re-post the content without prior approval from Bill.  A huge “thanks” goes out to Bill for writing this article and allowing me to publish it on my blog.

I’m feeling a little like Mark McGuire today: I’m not here to talk about the past. What’s that? He came clean? Oh….guess I will have to delve into the past. So let’s regress.
A lot of geezers like me got their start in photography by learning in Black & White. You read your spotmeter, photographed a pre-constructed scene complete with gray card, processed the film very precisely, then showed the negatives to your instructor. He would give you thumbs up or thumbs down or maybe just give you some pearls of wisdom like “..agitate more” or “…increase your exposure 1/3 stop.” or some such comment. Ultimately you got dialed in to perfect exposure and perfect processing, much like calibrating your digital darkroom today and the result would be a great print.

These days in the digital age pretty much every image is rendered in color. Software like Photoshop or Lightroom have some nice tools to convert those color files to B&W and there are always other options like Nik Silver Effects which gives you an amazing amount of control over conversions. You load the images from your camera to the computer, open a file, press the magic conversion button and Shazaam! You’ve got a great B&W image suitable for printing, right? Not so fast…….

Before going any further we need to set the ground rules for evaluating a B&W image:
Rule number 1 is that THERE ARE NO RULES! If you like the finished product then it’s a good image. Everyone has an opinion and yours is no more or no less valid than anyone else’s. Whether you can sell it to a client or not is quite another matter though. So let’s look a little deeper. There are some components that a fine B&W image should have and these components are found in almost every great print. Remember, this is a blog entry not a novel. With that in mind I’m not going into great detail but I am going to discuss how I evaluate an image in relation to a modified zone system. Briefly, the zone system for exposure made popular by Ansel Adams and others consisted of 10 basic exposure zones ranging from absolute black (no detail) to absolute white (no detail) with 18% medium grey being zone 5. I learned a modified zone system with only 7 zones, 18% grey being zone 4. E-mail me if you have questions on this. But for now, let’s proceed.
In my opinion, every B&W image should have a tonal range that includes a tone in every zone of the zone system. Each tonal zone may be a large part of the image or a very minor part. For example: If you look at a high key portrait of a fair skinned blonde model the only area of absolute black (zone 1) might be the pupils of the model’s eyes. Conversely if you see a very low key shot the only absolute white (zone 7) might be a catchlight in the eye or maybe an area of rim light for a backlit subject. Small areas indeed but they are there. In Photoshop terms you establish these highlights and shadows when you use the Levels or Curves adjustments.
Now let’s look at how these zones relate to the image I’ve supplied.
  • Zone 1-(black with no detail) The shadows at the base of the posts sticking out of the wall.
  • Zone2-(shadows with detail) This is best observed in the deep shadows inside the bell tower.
  • Zone 3-(dark grey) The shadowed part of the wall of the bell tower and the sky in the upper right corner of the image.
  • Zone 4-(18% or middle grey) The shadowed part of the cross.
  • Zone 5-(1 stop brighter than 18% grey. Same reflectance value as Caucasian flesh tone) This would be the sunlit wall and some of the darker undersides of the clouds.
  • Zone 6-(lighter grey) The lighter parts of the clouds.
  • Zone 7-(white with no detail) The sunlit edge of the cross.

William C Bean Photography

This image has a good tonal range. Too much contrast would expand the tonal range causing the detail in Zone 2 and Zone 6 to be lost. Too little contrast would cause the tonal range to be compressed losing Zone 1 and Zone 7 and causing the image to have a flat muddy look.

So there you have it. In the old days of film the saying was “Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” If you are careful about setting your black and white points in post processing, the tonal range of the rest of the image will follow.

But Bill, you say, what about the prints? Well, that’s another story for another time. I’m just about ready for a new printer and will probably be converting my trusty old Epson 1280 to a Black only printer so if any of you have experience with just such a conversion, shoot me an e-mail. I could use some help.
About Bill:

Bill Bean lives in Parker, CO where he spends almost every free moment in the outdoors adding to his extensive stock list.  He remembers when black and white images were made on black and white film, not converted from a color digital file on the computer.  See more of Bill’s work on his website where you can also read more of his entertaining and educational essays.

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