BAD WEATHER IN BLACK AND WHITE

You don t have to give up on taking photos just because it s grey and murky or pouring with rain. There s still plenty of potential on offer, as Duncan Evans explains Weall been in the situation where you arrive at that famous photography spot, landscape feature or destination, and it s raining. You ve travelled a long way, got your camera ready, batteries charged, composition already worked out and the sky is either grey and featureless or looking like the end of the world. It s one of those photographic ironies that the more photogenic somewhere is, the more it s likely to have bad weather. In the UK we re talking about the Lake District, North Wales or the Highlands of Scotland. But, instead of standing there, cursing your luck and shaking a fist at the gloomy sky, turn off your colour perception. Clear blue skies are boring in mono, but stormy clouds are just the ticket. In fact, there are three types of scenery that will look great in black and white, or a single colour tone. There s the big dramatic landscape, ones with an open vista leading to towering mountains. The second is the time-gone-by shot. Here we re talking about fishing harbours and quaint cottages, churches, woodlands, farm houses-anything which suggests an older time period. The third category of subject is the abstract and these work best at the sea shore because beaches and the sea are large expanses. Instead of looking for masses of detail, look for patterns and shapes, using what s on the shoreline to construct the image. Look for images that can be composed so they are symmetrical, that have either minimalist features or just one item of main focus. Then, when you ve shot the images, the fun starts in the digital darkroom with conversion to mono or sepia and adding toning, ageing, borders, grain and distortion. Practical considerations Digital cameras don t like the rain. If you have a waterproof casing for your camera, or one of those all-encompassing plastic bag covers that you can still thumb the controls through, then great. Otherwise, keeping the camera dry is your first concern. This sometimes means shooting from inside the car. Now that s fine if you can park in just the right place. Instead, you ll need to get out and walk to the location. The other issues about shooting in the rain, as opposed to just cloudy and overcast weather, is that the light level falls dramatically which leads us neatly on to this: if it s raining, use a tripod. With low light level you can use whatever aperture you like without fear of camera shake or increasing the ISO rating. It frees up one hand so you can hold an umbrella over the camera to keep it dry. Having mentioned ISO ratings it s worth considering this. In the film world, a high ISO means larger grain and a punchier image. For black and white, this can be very effective. It means you can have the choice between grainy and high contrast images or fine grain and subtle tones. On the digital front it simply means noise. In colour images this is not desirable, but on black and white it just makes them more gritty. The higher the ISO, the more noise and the more salt and pepper-like the image gets. You also need to be aware that if you go to high ISO ratings because you are using the camera handheld, then noise suppression may kick in. That s fine for colour images, but here, where we want sharpness and detail, it s a disaster. It will turn your proto-black and white image into featureless mush. So, if you do use high ISO ratings to keep the shutter speed up, think about turning off the automatic noise suppression until you re back in colour mode again. The other point about keeping things dry is that you need to keep dry yourself, so hats or hooded coats and waterproof outer layers, plus sturdy, water-resistant boots, are all highly recommended. Taking the shot For anything but the abstract style of shot the usual rules of landscape photography apply. You re looking to get sharpness and detail, unless it s a shot of a specific feature or item-like farm equipment, where a shallow depth-of-field isolates and concentrates the view. Otherwise, think rule of thirds so that the landscape horizon is on the bottom third or top third horizontals. Look for paths and angles that lead the eye into the picture from the bottom, not out of it, and take the view up through the image, hopefully to a dramatic sky. For an abstract landscape you can still think in a similar way, but adapt to create more symmetrical compositions. So, still place the horizon on the top third, still have lead-through detail, but balance it and make it into shapes and patterns. Use an aperture of f/8 to f/22. Which one you do use depends on how much depth there is in the scene. In a harbour for example, f/8 is more than enough because a wide angle lens has lots of depth-of-field at every aperture. It s also the sharpest part of the lens and gives more shutter speed when using Aperture Priority mode so you can shoot hand-held-unless it s raining as noted earlier. If the scene is a beach then again, f/8 is the best choice because although there s lots of scenery, it s fairly featureless in the distance so you don t need the narrower apertures. The time when you do is generally in places where there is detail from the start that goes on into the distance and it s a large scale landscape. Here you want as much in sharp focus as possible, so now look to go through to f/11, f/16 and f/22. Bear in mind, at f/22 the aperture is very narrow so it will let in a small amount of light. On a gloomy day you won t have a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake without increasing the ISO or using a tripod. Looking up At this point we need to talk about the sky. Rain tends to look like a mass of cloud descending onto the scene. Unless you have a fast shutter speed it won t register, especially if you are zooming in or focusing on the scene some distance away. If the composition includes everything close by then there s every chance of picking up water splashes on the floor, which all adds to the drama. A stormy, cloudy sky is best because this is the most dramatic and will look the most impressive in black and white. The worse kind of sky is the all-white one that produces completely flat lighting and also has no discernable features. It s also the one likely to cause most problems with metering. To avoid losing highlights it can be advisable to use a little negative exposure compensation in zone metering mode. Something like-0.3EV will keep the shot safe. Now you might think that here s an opportunity for a multiple-shot HDR image. In most cases though, it isn t. Without sunlight, the tonal range can easily be captured by a digital camera in one shot so taking multiple shots and recombining them is a waste of time. The exception to this is that white sky day. There will be some detail in the sky, you just can t see it. Here it can be worth taking multiple shots, and specifically underexposing them, so get as much detail to appear in the sky as possible. Then combine them again in your favourite HDR program or do it in Photoshop. However, this also brings us on to tone mapping, which is not HDR as such, but shifting the tones around in an image for dramatic effect. It isn t just gimmicky though, there are some handy programs that can do this for you with just a single image and these can be very useful at creating light and dark elements in cloudy skies to make them look more defined and dramatic. However, in general terms, if the sky isn t doom-laden, it may offer metering issues so it s always easier to brighten the shadows than rescue highlights, so weight your exposures towards capturing the tones in the sky. One quick way of doing this is to use zone metering so it s looking at the entire scene, but put the focus point on the sky, half-press the shutter for a meter reading and then press the exposure lock button. You can do this on most DSLRs so just find out which button it is, or assign it to one. Then, recompose the actual shot you want, focus and shoot. The camera will refocus but not re-meter and you ll get a scene that captures the detail in the sky. For really dull days you can get away with JPEGs, although the firmware may over-brighten the image anyway. So, it s a better option to shoot RAW and, when importing, check the highlights. If the day was misty with white clouds, look to pull back the overall brightness boost and recover those highlights. PHOTO PROCESSINGPHOTO PROCESSING Once the shooting is over and you have the images on your computer, they are, of course, in colour. Well, a very drab kind of colour. There are umpteen ways of turning them into mono in Photoshop or similar programs, some being better than others. Also, it now depends on what you are intending to do as well. If you are going to run the image through a tone-mapping/HDR app then getting a fairly even spread of tones in the original is a good thing so something simple like a mono Gradient Map is an ideal and fast option. If you want to be more precise because the original perhaps has some troublesome areas, then the Black and White filter in Photoshop is a better idea. This has largely replaced the Channel Mixer for mono conversion. Avoid the Desaturate option as well because that gives very bland results. So, here s the steps taken with one of the images in this feature as an example. 1 Adjust exposure The initial RAW image has been loaded into Photoshop. The default settings lose all detail in the sky and overexpose the image. The Brightness needs to be reduced and then the Recovery slider moved to the right to bring detail back. 2 Increase clarity This has brought detail back into the white sky and recovered highlights, but there s still plenty of haze around. The next step is to increase the Clarity to define the horizon more, then go into Photoshop for mono conversion. 3 Going black and white Go to lmage> Adjustments> Black and White. The idea is to use the separate channels to put more definition into areas where they are indistinct and to create a more punchy black and white conversion. 4 Extra refinements Now a Curves adjustment layer gives the image more contrast, then go to Filter> Sharpen> Smart Sharpen to add a little more bite to the image. You can also add borders to bring out the dark tones.

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