The viewer typically believes the photograph is a realistic depiction of the world seen simply through a camera. In fact, it’s much more complicated than that. The photographer, especially the fine art B&W photographer, has usually done several things before and after “snapping the shutter” which results in an image which is far from realistic. Of course the most obvious change is that the photograph is presented in monochrome tones. The viewer recognizes this immediately and adjusts his/her expectations, but nonetheless believes that the photograph is otherwise a realistic depiction of reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact the fine art B&W photographer determines whether to use a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens, and thus changes the perspective of the image. The photographer determines what is in focus. The photographer adjusts the mix of color information (see The Colors in Black and White), changes overall contrast and brightness, and even removes or alters areas of the image. And perhaps most importantly, the photographer frames the photograph to show only a porrtion of the entire scene. (In fact these manipulations are a necessary element of the photographic art form, but that is the subject of another post.)
Building A Photograph
I rarely go out looking for a particular subject. In fact it feels as if the reverse is true–the subject itself finds me. This happened to me one early September morning at Indigo Lake in the Cuyahoga National Park. It was about 10:00 in the morning when I came upon this scene:
I was standing on a small hillside above the southern shore of the lake, looking down at the wildflowers that edged that portion of the lake. While gazing down at the scene, I was suddenly struck by the nature of the wildflowers. Some of the taller wildflowers were dying off, others were in bright golden bloom. It suddenly dawned on me that the wildflowers were extremely interesting as a subject in themselves. The taller, dying wildflowers looked like miniature trees towering over a tiny bright and delicate woodland. The scene was begging for a photographer, and I was the only one available. So I obliged.
I first realized I had to move closer to the flowers so that they would fill the frame of the photograph. I also had to isolate the flowers so that they didn’t compete with other compositional elements. As I looked down at the scene, I realized that the lake surface itself was an ideal background for the flowers, and would appear to the viewer as if it were the sky. After several minutes of adjusting the viewpoint, I finally set up my tripod.
Removing Clues To Scale
I carefully framed the flowers to minimize clues to their scale, and used the telephoto setting of my lens. I also tried to insure that as much of the scene as possible was in focus. [For those who understand the technical aspects, I used the longest focal length (55mm) setting of my lens, and took the photograph at f/18.]
Essentially, I chose the subject framing and lens settings to play with the scale of the photograph. Back home I converted this image to B&W.
This is what my monochrome image looked like when I opened it within my image editing software of choice (Adobe Lightroom 4). I made some global adjustments to tones (adjusting the highlights, the shadows, the contrast, etc.). I also adjusted the B&W mix of colors. I darkened the edges of the photograph (called vignetting) and added a little grain. Finally, I added a bit of split toning to warm the image up a bit.
The Final Image
The resulting image, I feel, presents a monochrome image to the viewer which is just a bit surprising. (You can click on the image below for a larger view.) Without obvious clues to scale, the viewer thinks that he/she is seeing a normal photograph of a distant scene. The larger, leafless trees look a bit unusual though. And the bushes or smaller trees are covered with something–flowers, or is it frost? The image, aided by the light tones I emphasized, looks like some sort of fantasy forest. With closer inspection of some subtle clues in the image, such as the large unopened flower in the lower right hand corner, the viewer suddenly realizes that his/her initial assumptions were wrong–the photograph is not of large trees, but of something much smaller. And who doesn’t like a little surprise every once in a while?