September 10, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

                           SAN JUAN LIGHTHOUSE B&W : FINAL VERSION

This week I'd like to continue the discussion I started last week concerning the benefits of putting your work in front of other people to see if their reactions have anything to do with your expectations. I have been experimenting with a photographic alter-ego, a throwback who has never seemed to have taken a color photo, in order to gauge the reactions of other photographers to my work. So for most of this year the people I have met on the website 500 Pixels have commented on my photographs, all of which have been presented in black and white. I have benefited most from two aspects of this project. One is that I almost never can predict what will bring out the most positive reactions from my fellow black and white aficianados. The other, more important thing that I have learned is that I have had so much fun converting a lot of my images into black and white. These range from images that I had thought might work in black and white to those that I thought didn't have a prayer of working without color. As usual, I was often dead wrong. Sometimes I realized to my surprise that an image worked so well in black and white that the original color image was completely superfluous.

The image above of a lighthouse on the Western edge of San Juan Island was taken about four years ago on a wonderful week-long-vacation where I must have taken several hundred images each day. The historical average of "keepers" is only about 1%, so it's not like I anticipate a winner each time I snap the shutter. After all, in order to keep trying, you must convince yourself that it is all in the process, and of course it is. The initial snap is just the beginning, and I caution you to avoid throwing things away unless they are completely useless - I have often found interesting images months, even years after I initially loaded them on my computer. Which is not to say that they don't need some massaging in Lightroom to achieve some goal which you might not have even had when you made the initial capture. Let's look at the stages of this image, which much to my surprise achieved the second highest "score" than any of my images have ever achieved on 500 Pixels. Last week I put in the website, having converted it to black and white, with no feeling that anyone would salute. I think I have sold only one coaster of it's color cousin, so it has never found any traction in the booth.


This is the original image. I was intrigued by the sky, and placed the lonely lighthouse way on the edge of the frame to emphasize its loneliness as well as to avoid some ramshackle structures to the right of the lighthouse. Upon reflection, I felt that I had gone overboard on the out of center placement, and that it was a little too much like a postcard for me. But the public loves lighthouses, so I felt it was worth trying to get something out of this image. In any case, lighthouses are like waterfalls - photographers just cannot resist picking up their cameras.

                             CROP TO A SQUARE  

First things first was to crop the image to a square, both to prepare it for its future as a coaster, and to eliminate most of that loneliness to the left. The Lighthouse still looks plenty lonely, and larger, in the square crop, and its placement in the frame does not seem so arbitrary. I will now show you some of the next stages in a typical workflow, where I try to make the image the best it can be, or at least the best I can make it. Some of these will be fairly subtle, but bear with me.

                            RAISE WHITE POINT

This will only affect the lighter parts of the image - any lighter shades, especially white, will become whiter, without affecting the overall exposure. So the clouds, and especially the lighthouse, will become lighter in relationship to the darker tones.

                            ADD GRADUATED FILTER

Because the sky is often the lightest part of any landscape image, photographers will often add a graduated filter, sort of like a progressive sun glass lens, which will darken the upper part of an image but gradually not affect the rest of the image. We used to do this with glass filters attached to the lens; now my software can do it after the fact. The sky has gotten darker, and the clouds pop out a little better.

                            LIGHTEN SHADOWS

The last thing to do (again, as far as I was concerned) was to lighten the shadow areas, mostly to gain some detail back in the rocks below the lighthouse. This is subtle, and I left the naturally black areas in deep shadow as black. Typical HDR renditions would show all of these details, which makes the photo look unrealistic, because our brains are used to seeing some areas as very dark. 

This is the culmination of my efforts to make more out of the initial snapshot. I've left out some of the usual steps in my workflow since they were either unimportant for this image, or that they would be impossible for you to perceive at this size. The image was correctly exposed, so exposure changes were unimportant. The same went for white balance adjustments, since there was no color casts. Customary corrections like sharpening are not shown because they are not perceptible at this enlargement size, although they would be necessary  if the image was seen at 8" x 8" instead of on your computer. I've succeeded at making the image closer to my original perceptions, balanced the sky and the foreground, increased the "whiteness" of the lighthouse, and brought out some additional details in the sky and the rocks. The most important change, for better or worse, remains the crop, which shows how important the frame is for an image. In order to make any additional changes it is necessary to journey into abstraction so that the image is relieved to some extent from its origins in the natural environment.

                            STRAIGHT DESATURATION

The easiest way to predict what your image would look like in black and white is to just desaturate all of the colors, removing all of the color information in the file. Beware that this will almost always leave you with a dull, washed-out sea of grey that would cause you to reject the process. More importantly, as we will see, removing the color information will not allow you to use the original color differences to change the black and white rendition of those colors. In the real world, a lot of our perceived contrast is based on color contrast - which is lost if we uniformly desaturate the colors without keeping this information. Thus the red roof of the lighthouse might end up as the same grey as the blue sky and contrast would be lost. So a far better black and white conversion utilizes the software algorithm to render each of the colors a little differently; while the first rendition might no be a revelation, we will then be able to change the luminosity, the shade of grey, of different parts of the image based on the colors we can no longer see. 

                            ALGORITHM BLACK AND WHITE CONVERSION

Okay, in this case, not that different. The red roof is lighter; the green tower roof is a little darker. You could be excused if you don't care. Wait.


                          MOVE BLACK POINT     

My initial effort to increase the apparent contrast by only adjusting the darker portions of the image; in this case not much happens because most of the image is actually pretty light. Only the rocks, the shadow side of the lighthouse, and those roofs are affected. You see that the struggle for contrast is answered in different ways for different images. We move from "global" changes which affect the entire image progressively to more and more specific changes which affect tiny parts of the image. The problem is how to restrict those changes, either by original luminosity, original color, or just painting them in to specific areas. "Painting" is always available, but has to be really subtle so as not to be noticeable by the viewer. Remember, if the viewer is aware of the changes beyond shear appreciation of the image, you've lost the battle. That is why I usually head first for the graduated tools, designed either as a line across the image or as a circular spotlight of a certain size. The important thing is that these are gradual, moving in power from 100% to 0%, so they are more subtle. There is no "right" way to do something, although there are certainly more efficient ways to accomplish the same goals. I want to make the lighthouse stand out more from its surroundings. It is already about as white as it can be - any more would make it glow. The solution seems to be to darken the surroundings without affecting the lighthouse. I could do this with a series of graduated filters all around the lighthouse, but why don't we go back to the color information, since most of the original photograph was blue?

                            LOWER THE BLUE TONES

Well, will you look at that. All of the blue tones - the sky, the sea - in other words, most of the image - have been darkened without affecting the rocks, the clouds, and most importantly, the lighthouse. I've made the lighthouse "whiter" by rendering everything else darker. The clouds also stand out more, but the most fun for me, and this is subtle, is that for the first time you are aware of the reflection of the lighthouse in the water in the foreground. Oh, the places you will go!

This is pretty much the final black and white version. At larger sizes you would notice sharpening; also you would notice subtle differences in lowering of the purple and aqua tones to create a smoother "curve" of color tones which tend to reduce artifacts which might result from drastic shifts in only one color.

I hope you can see and appreciate the vast differences I've made in this image. That doesn't mean that you have to agree. You might think that I've gone too far, that you can see my brain's gears moving. Or you might wonder why I haven't lightened the rocks a little more, or removed the "distractions" that remain, like those highlights on the waves, which might strike you as sensor dust, or those two seagulls in the water on the left, which will only resolve as birds at larger enlargements. Some  photographers would also "turn on" the lighthouse light, which is going a little too far in my opinion. I know people who would introduce a nice too large full moon in the upper left corner to "balance" the image - to each his own. I might agree that the leaning tower of clothesline on right is not adding anything to the image. Sometimes you've just got to call it a day.

The important thing, at least for me, is that the image is now all about the original subject, the lighthouse. And I think that most would agree that the abstraction of black and white allows for more manipulation than a color rendition because we accept those changes as realistic even though we know the sky is not really black. An equivalent deep blue sky would just look a little silly.

So that is the story of one image. The very positive reception on 500 Pixels will probably lead me to print the black and white in lieu of the color version in the future. It struck a chord, with more than half of the "likes" coming from people who had never "liked" any of my images before.  While I know people like lighthouses,I don't think that accounts for most of it. The Instagram response was not as overwhelming, but the black and white version did get a more positive response than the original color version had a year before - this is very unusual on Instagram. So I would encourage those out there with the means to do it to try processing your own work, and to pursue different versions of the same image. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised at how only a few minutes on the computer will transform your image beyond what you might enjoy at first glance. Remember that your image has been interpreted in the past, either by a JPEG algorithm in your camera, or even worse by a disinterested one-hour photo guy wondering about lunch and proud that he has at least not cut into your negative again. I swear that you can do better, even if you do not know what you are doing. Lightroom is non-destructive - you are not touching the original file - and like most software, is available for a free trial. Try it, you might like to be more in control of the your image's final destiny.