Poor Light? Try Black and White

Devoke Water, Lake District, UK. Shot with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 | Oly 9-18mm lens | 36 second exposure | f8 | ISO 100

It’s a dilemma isn’t it? You’ve packed up all your camera gear, booked hotels, travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles with hope and excitement running through your veins, your mind overflowing with images of beautiful landscapes bathed in wonderful golden dappled light………and then you arrive and are greeted by leaden skies and dull grey land. So, what to do?

Well, this is the scenario that occurred to David and I on a recent visit to the English Lake District. There were, as usual when the two of us are together, two schools of thought. David favoured the “sitting in the pub taking wide aperture images of pints of beer” approach. But whilst I could certainly see the merits in this I could also see the downside, there are some seriously strong ales in that part of the world after all. Plus, my passion for landscape photography is at least as strong as David’s passion for beer, so we hit a compromise. Photography until sunset (only 4pm after all), then pub!

“But what about the lack of light?”, David enquired. “Surely light is the thing that adds depth and interest to a landscape photograph”. This is indeed correct and an extremely valid point, especially from a man who is used to shooting in the tropics where gorgeous light is the norm. But there are things that one can do when the sun decides not to play ball, a scenario that I am much more used to than my spoilt brother.

When life deals you lemons make lemonade right? Well, when life deals you a lack of colour in a landscape, simply think about removing all the colour. The temptation can be to try and shoot the scene and then bring out more contrast when post processing but whilst this is certainly an option I have never found it to be as satisfying as going down the black and white route. But to get the best out of black and white photography you have to think a little differently right from the moment you arrive at your location. You need to think in black and white and shoot accordingly.

Think Black and White

What do I mean by think black and white? When shooting colour it is very much about the light and the colours but when shooting in black and white I find it better to think about textures and shapes. Strong textures and shapes are the order of the day. Using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 as I do I am lucky that there are some great settings that allow me to visualize the scene through the viewfinder and the screen in black and white, I always make full use of this functionality and it is one of the things that I love about using the micro four thirds format.

Textures

When shooting black and white images I think much more about textures. I look around the scene and identify subjects that have interesting textures and think about how I will bring out those textures when post processing. In the above image the boathouse and rocks have a very defined texture. The sky too has texture to it, albeit a little more subtle. The water too had texture to it as there was a fairly stiff breeze but for me landscape images like this are all about contrast so I wanted to flatten the water out. I did this by using an 11 stop filter to get an exposure time of 36 seconds at f8. To my eye the smoothness of the water draws the eye to the rocks with their bold texture and these in turn lead the eye to the boat house.

Shapes and lines

Strong shapes and lines add to the dynamism of any black and white shot and landscapes are no different. The line of the horizon, the solidity of the boathouse and the triangular shape of the collection of rocks in the foreground all help to create a strong dynamic.

 

The beauty of black and white is that it can remove distractions allowing the mind of the viewer to concentrate on the main elements of the photograph. It’s beauty is in it’s simplicity. Take the distant mountains in the above photograph, even with relatively flat colours (take a look at the video below to see how dull it was) that a dull day displays the eye would still be drawn to these, perhaps more so than on a sunny day as the viewer would be subconsciously searching for some interest. But in black and white, whilst still an important element of the scene as a whole the mountains stand out much less allowing the main elements to become more bold and striking.

So, next time you look out of the window and it is dull and overcast remember, beautiful locations are beautiful locations no matter what the weather, you just need to shoot in a way that brings that beauty out in the best way that the conditions allow.

Dicki

 

OMD

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I am often asked “what camera do you use”. My old blog was pretty much dedicated to wobbling around the world on an old bicycle, and until recently this question had never crossed my befuddled mind. But as time moves on and circumstances change photography has become an increasingly important part of my life, both as an expression of the way I see the world, and as an outlet for the passions of a slightly confused fellow drifting through life in his own slightly off-skew sort of a manner.

During those years of drifting along my interest in photography has grown immensely. I originally began photographing my journeys because one of my closest friends, who happens to be a professional photographer, convinced me to do so. “You go to interesting places and do interesting things” he told me, “photograph it!” Well, there seemed little arguing with this logic, and so I followed his instructions, and as time passed I began to get an insight into what photography is about, and as this insight developed so did my interest, and with the developing interest seemed to come a development in ability and understanding of what I was doing. A new awareness of light and life began to emerge. And so did my photography, I think in the direction of travel photography which perhaps explains the question regarding the camera.

Two or three years back in an attempt to lighten my load I tried moving away from my cumbersome Canon DSLR camera and its two lenses to a compact camera. The compact was a great camera for its design brief; a point and shoot camera for the mass market; people who want a camera to make all the decisions beyond composition for them. But for the photographer who wants to take control and tell the camera what to do it was very limited.

Fortunately for me a great new system had just emerged, micro 4/3. Designed jointly by Panasonic and Olympus these cameras have a sensor half the size of a full frame DSLR but around 9 times bigger that a run-of-the-mill compact. IE, it has a sensor big enough to fulfil the needs of pretty much everyone. Micro 4/3 cameras offer full manual control and have a wide array of high quality interchangeable lenses that freely swap between M4/3 brands.

For several years I used Panasonic’s wonderful little GF1, a camera that had, and possibly still has, an almost cult following. Back then the only lens I used was a tiny but perfectly formed Lumix 20mm f1.7 lens. With the sensor being half size this equated to a focal length in 35mm film terms of 40mm. Loitering twixt the classic focal lengths of 35mm and 50mm this was the perfect lens for street photography and travel. For those of you wondering, the lens has an organic zoom system, called legs.

Times move on though and micro 4/3 developed a new darling, the Olympus OM-D EM5. This may not be the catchiest moniker on the market but the camera does, to my mind at least, have the most wonderful styling. Harking back to the Olympus OM range that began life in 1972 the OM-D could easily be misjudged by anyone other than a very keen observer as a relic of an era gone by. This in itself is, to my mind, a bonus for street photography. There is something disarming about odd eccentrics travelling the world by bicycle and using ageing film cameras. People from developing countries cannot quite grasp why a fellow from the land of milk and honey is travelling in the manner of the poor and using technology from the dark ages, and so the luddite traveller is treated with caution and kind concern from a discrete distance. The thing with the OM-D EM5 though is that beneath its ageing exterior lies one of the most advanced cameras ever built for the mass market. Even that stylish exterior is an advanced weather sealed magnesium body, a step beyond all but the most exclusive of Canon DSLR cameras.

And it is a Canon full frame DSR that I have just been comparing my old EM-5 with. For those interested in the technical ins and outs of the OM-D EM5 there has been much written about it over the past couple of years, a good start for real world use would be Robin Wong’s informative review, and for a more technical review look.here.

Time though moves on, and even though the EM5 is very often the camera I grab to take out of an evening when I am fortunate enough to have both cameras with me, it is it’s successor, the outstanding Olympus OMD-EM1 that now travels everywhere with me. But more of that, and the way I travel the world, a little later.

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OM-D WITH 14MM LUMIX LENS NEXT TO CANON’S SEMI PRO 5D WITH 24-105 ZOOMS LENS. LUMIX LENS USES ORGANIC ZOOM

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CANON’S FANTASTIC L SERIES 24-105MM LENS WEIGHS IN AT 690 GRAMS. THE OM-D CAMERA AND 2OMM LENS COMBINED WEIGH 566 GRAMS. ADD THE 45 MM AND 14MM LENSES AND THE TOTAL WEIGHT COMES TO 762 GRAMS.

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BOTH CAMERAS IN IDEAL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY MODE. THE OLYMPUS SPORTS A 20MM f1.7 (40mm equivalent) THE CANON WEARS A 50MM f1.8 (50mm equivalent). CANON = 1050 grams. OLYMPUS = 566grams

All images on this post were shot using a Panasonic Lumix GF1 (360 grams) combined with a Lumix/Leica 25mm f1.4 lens, a M4/3 heavyweight at 232 grams

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