Color…A Most Curious Thing

Posted on October 8, 2011


Best Laid Plans

Last week I finally completed my Quixotic adventure into the Elwha river valley. On my first trip up the valley, a pre-trip to sort out the route, gear, fishing, and logistics, I had envisioned capturing the trip in gritty B&W. Even though the valley is rich in subtle color and the weather was fine on both trips, internally, this felt like the best approach.  I wanted to counterpoise this beauty with the realities of what was happening to the fisheries in the region as a result of the dam removal, and also perhaps reflect on some of the things going on in my own life.

In the last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the entire process of print creation, from subject, to capture, to development, to printing. I have come to the conclusion that to evoke the artistic visions that certain subject creates in me, I needed to have the ability to change all parts of my process. To the point that for certain subjects I am trying to build cameras that will capture as much of that vision as possible in-camera. As more and more this becomes possible for any artist through digital post-processing, I am more and more driven to learn analog processes to communicate my visions. I have come to believe that for me, the process is part of the art.

I toyed a little with this in Singapore, trying to rescue a shoot where I could not resolve the subject matter with my mood. At any rate I had some success on our first trip, shooting TMAX 3200 ASA, but I wasn’t capturing the grain I wanted.  And then it dawned on me. Sitting on my desk for a very long time is an old Canon EOS I have converted to a pinhole camera by putting a pinhole lens in a body cap.

Der pinhole

I had even gotten a few decent shots with it.

Lily Banfield

And after figuring out that my light meter will actually meter the pinhole shot.

Caroline (Jedi) Coffey

Yet, pinholes take a very long time to expose.  However, combine the 3200ASA film with that camera and I could probably get some nice shots. It was certainly worth the try. Well, lets just say that out on the trail I had some technical difficulties, which is kind of a downer because lugging the second camera, tripod, and light meter probably added 6 lbs of the 55 lb pack.  Not only did I not think it through and practice this enough (the 3200ASA + pinhole was a very late breaking epiphany), somehow the film had issues in development.

Mark Fishing

Big Foot fishing

I love the grain. Otherwise, I gots me some thinking to do. But the grain was the goal, so yeah team.

Oh, Yeah, I Did Say 2nd Camera

I also packed in my DSLR and 3 lenses: 12-24 wide angle zoom, 50mm macro, and 28-200 zoom, just in case. This probably added another 6 pounds to the pack, maybe more.  (If my MF Mamiya hadn’t died an ignoble death, I’d’ve been figuring how to haul that 40lb kit in with me.) One nice thing about pinhole: no lenses to cart around.

I know, I know, I know. I need to stop treating my DSLR like an instamatic. For all the time and effort I take to shoot one shot with the Mamiya, you would think I would learn to get good photos with the Canon. As I’ve mentioned before I realized  a while ago that over-exposing digital shots for post processing is counter productive if you are just going to post them without any changes (under exposed shots look more saturated and work well on the web), so I did bracket most of the shots for the trip. I’m trying.

One thing I quickly found fascinating is that taking a shot with a 55lb pack on is non-trivial. Between the physical strain of holding the camera balanced against the load and the fact my pulse was probably 150ish, all the shots I did at 1/30th of a second came out shaky. Also, my eyes are not what they used to be, so I can’t pick that out from the LCD on the back of the camera.

Combine that with the fact that I was really there to fish and was already doing my set shots with my pinhole, and the overall quality of the color digi shots is perhaps less than I would normally expect. Partly, I think I don’t work on the digital stuff so much because like many people I don’t print it. Somebody is going to spend 5 seconds looking at it on Facebook and move on. Whatever. I don’t even know how to get a print of a digital shot, and printing is what I’m all about!

But That’s Not What I’m Here to Talk About

I did get some interesting images, after all, even though the quality is not perhaps what it could’ve been. As I was sorting and editing them to post on FB, I did use Irfanview to make some crude B&W conversions.  And what I noticed surprised me perhaps just a little.

Normally I compose a shot for it’s emotional value. I look for shape and texture, flow. Of course, when I’m shooting color, I look for color, but what really surprised me was how much of a component the color was in the shots. Almost none of the shots worked in B&W, even the ones with subtle colorations, where I thought the texture was the important aspect. In fact, the only shot I actually liked in B&W, the shot of the trip for me, was the only one I took where I thought “I wish I had the Mamiya for this shot.” In other words, the only one I wish I could’ve printed.

I’ll let you decide.

Mark in the distance

I almost never consciously take a shot for a given reason. I like it, I set it up and I take it. After, I can look at it critically and tell you why it “works.” In this shot the convergence of all the diagonal lines at the upper right phi point makes it. It draws you into the image. But the rich and subtle blue greens, emphasized by under exposure also work.

(Phi: People talk about the “rule of thirds” which I never consciously use, yet most great art will have something at at least one of the points of phi in the image. Phi works on the Golden Mean and probably deserves a blog in itself, but if you did divide and image into thirds horizontally and then vertically, the intersections of lines would roughly coincide to points of interest. )

Oh, hell. Let’s just try it.


For some reason Snagit is giving me fits. Anyway, look at that. I used a ruler on the screen to draw the lines. A few people have commented that they really like this picture. You have to look closely to even see Mark in the upper right. But, the rocks, the tree, the white water, and the bank do converge in that upper right focal point with nearly mathematical precision. I swear, I randomly picked this picture as the first in the gallery. With that, you would think (I would think) that color has very little to do with this image’s efficacy.  And yet….

Cry me a river

I find this less compelling. (And Mark is practically gone.) Not that there aren’t things I couldn’t do in the dark room to work on this, but I simply wouldn’t bother. It doesn’t move me. (Although on 3rd and 4th views, I might be convinced…I like the trees up top.)
It goes on.
Rock, or mountain range
When I took this, I was drawn buy the abstractness of scale, the texture, and the subtly wild (can I say that)? colors. You would think that with all of that muscular motion in the rock this shot would love B&W, or B&W would love this shot.

Unrequited love

Not only does it not work, it is not nearly as luminous in B&W. I would’ve expected that to translate.

And more of that ilk.

Here is an interesting shot. I took this specifically to show that the fish in the main stem of the Elwha have almost none of the typical green coloration of a rainbow trout. When I converted it to B&W, I at first mixed them up.

(As an aside, compare this to a fish I caught just a few miles away in a tributary, which I later learned was stocked with a separate strain of fish, why I could not tell you:

Lillian 'bow

Although I have gorgeous B&W mushroom shots, some of my favorite shots, none of the ones I took on this trip converted well at all.

I was especially surprised about the staghorn moss which I thought would really convert well. I once did an entire photo shoot of staghorn.

Oh, oh, this one is beginning to grow a little on me too, as I edit the post. That’s good, right?
This shot screamed luminosity to me.

But it fell on deaf ears. This is a great example of the Zone System, had I shot that on film I would carefully have put the high lights on Zone 7, over-exposing by two more stops than the color version and gotten them to look white and not pallid grey.

I did get some interesting conversions of fish shots, but I would consider it compounded errors because I couldn’t find my polarizing filter, and that added to the “oil slick” effect. Still, on film…I might just print that.

And I rotated it. So there.
This was the only one I wished I had on Medium Format

I actually made it my FB avatar, even though it doesn’t quite show what I was aiming for, which was the standing wave behind the rock being about a foot above the water in front.
A sharp eye would notice that these are actually not the same exposure. The same image in B&W, not so good. That is a subtle and power lesson on what can make or break a shot.

So much like the hike, I rambled, perhaps stumbled, through this post.  I did learn that innately I must think differently when I shoot in color.  The effects of luminosity, contrast, texture and other aspects that draw me to a shot I would print are not the same as the digital snapshots I take. It was a revelation.

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