Black-and-white shooting calls for shift in thinking

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When shooting in black and white, how the shots are planned needs to change. Differences in tone become more important than differences in color, for example.

As I walk-ed into the classroom for the Vineyard Photography Class at Walla Walla Community College one of the students asked if we would be taking any digital pictures in black-and-white format.

Every time I hear the words "black and white" I think of photographer Ansel Adams, who was world famous for his black-and-white photographs of the American West.

The student's question was a good one as today with the advent of digital cameras, black-and-white photography is making a huge resurgence.

So I shared with the class that we would devote a portion of one of our vineyard field trips to shooting landscapes and portraits (winemakers and vineyard workers) in the black-and-white mode.

The challenge for the students would be that they would have to change their mental photocomposition, since most of them had only thought of capturing a quick color picture to upload to their social network websites.

The class was aware that with any landscape picture finding something of interest in the foreground helps to set the scene, and I explained that to shoot in black and white, their homework needs to begin well before the shot is taken.

What I was hoping to achieve with the class was teaching that a perfectly composed color photograph does not necessarily make a good black-and-white landscape or portrait photo.

I asked the class to think about landscapes as a series of tones instead of colors.

Like color photography, light is the most important component of a good black-and-white picture. The students would need to look for different areas of brightness in their composition.

For example, looking down the vineyard rows for areas of defined shadows, contrasted with bright highlights, yet not overexposed.

Many times the class will have the opportunity to capture some wonderful rolling vineyards that occasionally will include a sky with scattered clouds. I knew that once we were in the field that the students would quickly realize that a cloudless blue sky would result in a boring picture.

"So how do we set up our digital cameras to take a black-and-white photograph?" asked one of the students.

I explained that for those members with DSLR cameras they should go to the white balance custom shooting menu and look for the Adobe sRGB setting, which will unlock the black-and-white section and permit black-and-white pictures to be viewed on the back of the camera.

Those students with point-and-shoot cameras should access the Record Menu on the back of the camera and navigate to the Color Mode or Film Equivalent setting (check the manual) and click on the black-and-white setting.

Before experimenting with this new mode I advised students to set their cameras' White Balance to RAW or JPEG Fine, and the ISO set as low as possible keeping a careful eye to avoid any noise.

Having given this overview to the students we were now ready to capture "in the camera" the new world of black-and-white photography.

I hastened to point out that today's software programs like Photoshop, Lightroom and Aperture will also convert color pictures to black and white.

Whereas the quality of converting color photographs is good using software programs I have found that the best way to shoot black and white is in the camera.

As we wrapped up this class session, I wanted to leave the class with one final thought regarding the decision as to when to shoot black and white in the camera.

If the landscape or portrait scene has a vibrant mix of texture, lighting and shadows then change the settings on the camera and shoot direct black and white, keeping in mind that this image can also be changed back from black-and-white to color with the same digital software.

Don Fleming will begin teaching the next Vineyard Photography Class at Walla Walla Community College starting Aug. 18 for 10 weeks. This class is limited to 15 students who want to have fun and learn camera basic camera techniques. Don Fleming can be reached at don512@me.com; he is also on Facebook and Twitter.

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