If you’ve been following my blog for a while then you’ve likely already seen this image. I’m sharing it again today because I recently entered it into a photography contest and it was chosen as the winner. I don’t do what I do to get recognition but it is very encouraging now and then to know my art is appreciated or enjoyed by someone other than myself! It is an honor to have my photograph selected by Photographer’s Adventure Club for their Black and White theme contest.
I chose to submit Craggaunowen Spiral for the Black and White theme because I am pleased with its contrast, range of value, and composition. Since my previous post focused on elements of composition I thought today I’d use this image as a case study to show what things went through my mind as I composed it. First, I want to talk a little about the element of value.
A good “black and white” photograph (as it is commonly referred to) isn’t just about the blacks and whites, but also the many shades of gray in-between… which is why I’ve always preferred the term “monochromatic” over “black and white.” These gray values help create the illusion of depth and form to illustrate the three-dimensionality of the scene. It seems like many beginning photographers desaturate their photographs as an attempt at making them more “artistic” or as an afterthought; a last ditch effort to save a photograph that was poorly exposed or color balanced. I’ve also noticed a trend of really high contrast monochromatic photographs where the shadows and highlights are heavily clipped, reducing the number of shades of gray in-between. The result may be punchy but it also, in my opinion, lacks the subtlety of tonality that helps give a photograph richness and depth. That’s why I often distinguish between the terms “good contrast” and “high contrast” when teaching my high school photography students about value.
Monochromatic photography is a good way to train your eye because you have to learn to see the values that are present in different colors to find this good contrast before you take the photograph, regardless of whether you plan to process the image in color or monochrome. If you only think of desaturating the image after the fact you may get lucky once in a while but more often than not you will find your images lacking visual impact. When you learn to see the tonal value of the colors around you, and understand how much you can realistically push and pull them in the (digital) darkroom it does improve the impact of your images.
Good contrast is needed to help define individual elements of your photograph, such as positive and negative space, which help create order, balance, and direct the viewers eye where you want it to go. In my photograph, for example, the shadows and medium-to-dark grays on the steps contrast with the lighter midtones on the wall. With these two components of the scene clearly separated your eye has an obvious path to follow (down the spiral stairs) rather than wandering aimlessly around the picture. Creating order and making strong visual suggestions are a big part of good composition.
Now for my thought process. The only light I had to work with was the natural light coming through the window shown at the top right. I didn’t really want the window in the shot (more on that later) but that is where the good light was. If you look at the picture you’ll notice that the area where the stairs are most in focus is also where the light was most intense. This was an intentional compositional choice; the light, lines and camera focus are all working together to emphasize the same part of the picture. I’m directing your eye where I want it to go. I wanted the photograph to have graceful movement, for your eyes to flow smoothly from the top right and down through the spiral to the darkest part of the stairs as they disappear around the bend. The window might cause you to make a quick detour but hopefully your eyes return back to the stairs pretty quickly. Ultimately, I wanted your eyes to come to rest in that center spot I’ve emphasized.
I didn’t want to show the window because it was so bright from being in direct sunlight that it would distract your eye from the stairs. Sometimes in photography compromise is unavoidable but I did take additional measures to try and diminish the window’s visual pull and increase the importance of my main subject, the stairs. For example, I cropped out as much of the window as I could without letting the stairs crowd the edges of the frame and then in post production I pulled back the highlights to tame it’s drawing power. With today’s digital technology it would have been possible to completely edit out the window but I prefer not to manipulate my images that heavily because I want my photographs to retain a sense of authenticity and I think that these small details and imperfections can make the moment more believable.
Now for the technical bits. Compositionally speaking the limited light was appreciated because it helped to emphasize the center of the spiral. Technically speaking it was frustrating because my exposure options were very limited and I had a hard time getting enough light to my camera’s sensor. I was already shooting at maximum aperture and I didn’t have a tripod with me. I didn’t want my image to have a lot of noise or motion blur so I split the difference between my ISO and shutter speed and did my best to stablize myself against the wall to avoid camera shake.
There were also a few physical obstacles I was faced with when I approached this shot. Despite the fact that the stairwell looks fairly wide (because I used a wide angle lens) it was actually a claustrophobic’s nightmare; so narrow that I could have placed my hands on my hips and had both elbows touching the wall and center column. The stairs were very steep, and so narrow that I couldn’t even fit one of my size ten Chuck Taylors on one step. This made balancing myself while looking down through my lens a little challenging. It was also hard to show a good amount of the stairwell without including my feet in the frame.
Every photograph we take has its own unique set of problems to solve, whether physical, technical, compositional, or all of the above. That is part of the adventure of photography. The more you practice it the faster you’ll recognize these problems and find a solotion (or compromise). My image isn’t perfect but I know that I approached it with intention and did the best I could do in the moment. I know it is good art, even if there is room for improvement (which there always is!). I hope you have enjoyed this little peak behind the curtain!
5D Mk III with 24-105mm f/4.0L IS USM lens at 24mm. ISO 400, f/4.0, 1/60 sec.