Black and white of the Paradise Cafe

Black & White Photography–The Journey Continues

Text and Photography by Chuck Place©

I am continuing my quest to learn black and white photography through the process of converting a number of my color images to b&w. If you didn’t see my last post converting landscapes to black and white, jump back there and take a look.

Each photographic subject, whether sand dunes or deep forest, has presented its own unique challenges. I have been especially struck by the amount of burning and dodging that was necessary for images that look quite good in color.

Black and white of oaks in fog

Black and white of oaks in fog

It has also been a challenge deciding how much contrast I want, especially in the details. I like some velvety blacks in my images, but it is easy to go too far with contrast—almost like too much saturation in color images.

Let’s see how black and white conversions work with images of people.

My first portrait conversion was almost monochromatic to start with. While teaching lighting at a design school in China, I used the schools lighting kit—two fluorescent lights with umbrellas—to demo beauty lighting. These were tight head and shoulder portraits and I was going for a clean, graphic look.

Black and white portrait of student in China

Black and white portrait of student in China

I chose a student from the first row as a model and had her position her hands to help frame her face. The images looked pretty good, but I wanted a little more impact so I had her close her eyes.

The twin arcs of her dark eyelashes on her pale cheeks worked well and seemed to be a natural for black and white conversion. Using the HSL slider, I darkened her sweater and lightened her skin. The last step was pushing the Clarity Slider to -15, giving her skin a soft glow. Ridding this portrait of color seems to have created a more dramatic yet serene image.

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Black and white portrait of server in Avila Beach

Tight head and shoulder portraits seemed to convert well, but what about environmental portraits with all their location details? This, I found, was similar to converting a forest scene. Detail contrast was critical and some of the presets in the Develop Module proved useful shortcuts.

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Black and white portrait of a farmer

Subtle vignetting using the Radial Filter helped focus the viewer’s attention but a fair amount of burning and dodging was still necessary, just as it was in the landscapes.

The one thing that changed drastically from the tight portraits was the Clarity Slider. A slight negative Clarity setting smoothed out skin texture, but with less skin and more detail in the environmental portraits, I defaulted to my usual Clarity setting of plus twenty or so.

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

Black and white of hostess in a wine tasting room in Los Olivos

My “street photography” is often busy restaurant interiors, like the image at the top of this post, shot in the venerable Paradise Café.

Converting this image to black & white seems to pump up the energy of the scene, stripping away the soft mood of warm afternoon light and replacing it with pure vibrance and hard-edged light.

Black and white of an Old West town

Black and white of an Old West town

I’m starting to actually see the possibilities in a color image before I convert it. Decisions on the processing steps are getting a little more intuitive and the particular “style” of black & white that I personally prefer is also coming into sharper focus.

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

Black and white of an apple farmer in the Santa Ynez Valley

I’m getting a terrible urge to start printing some of these images, but I know my eye for black & white needs to develop further. A box of archival matte paper is already on my shopping list along with extra black ink cartridges, just in case my willpower fails.

If you are making this exciting journey to black & white along with me, let me know how you are progressing. This is turning out to be quite challenging but also a lot of fun.

For a listing of my tuition-free Spring 2020 Non-Credit classes at Santa Barbara City College, please click here.


Carvings on Mayan Pyramid in Mexico

Travel Photography with Chuck Place

Travel Photography is much more than shooting snapshots of your vacation. Images created during your travels should transport you back to the magic you felt as sunset light washes over an ancient Mayan pyramid or recall the drama of colorful powwow dancers as a late afternoon storm builds behind them in the distant mountains of New Mexico.

Travel Photography Class with Chuck Place

Join professional travel photographer Chuck Place in a new 6-week course in the Brooks at UCSB Program, learning to capture the magic of new places, people, events and flavors. Each 6-hour class will include a 2-3 hour location shoot here in Santa Barbara and then classroom lectures and assignment critiques covering such travel subjects as architecture, landscapes, people, activities and food.

Learn to capture memories and create images with impact. Join Chuck Place this fall and immerse yourself in Travel Photography.


bowl of summer strawberries photographed from above

The 4 Piece Photo Challenge

Text and Images by Chuck Place

It’s raining outside, you can’t go out and play and you’re developing cabin fever. What to do? Assign yourself the 4 Piece Photo Challenge! Sounds silly, I admit, but it’s a great tool for building up your photographic creativity.

The Photo Challenge works like this.

Pick out 4 objects or sets of objects in your home and use these to create interesting still life images. This is an exercise that I find often results in portfolio-quality photographs.

Let’s walk through the steps of an actual shoot–the strawberries at the top of this post. Item 1 was a basket of fresh strawberries. Item 2 was a bowl of complimentary color from my kitchen. Item 3 is an antique fork, also from my kitchen, and item 4 is a napkin. You can probably guess where I found that. The surface is a piece of slate I found at a stone yard. It was cheap but it weighs a ton. I think the guy discounted the price just to see if I could pick it up.

Photographs from directly above

Photographs from directly above produces a more graphic image

Food photography is one of my main specialties, so I tend to create food still lives with a slightly modern feel. Anything will work for this Challenge however—cut flowers, old glassware, your baseball trading card collection, Pez dispensers—anything. A few support items, in this case a bowl, fork and napkin, and any surface that works with your main subject and you’re in business.

Essentially you are creating a photo set.

For lighting, I like window light. It’s soft, directional and I can manipulate it quite a bit. Pick a window with indirect light flowing through it. There should be no direct sunlight passing through the window. This should give you soft edged shadows and large highlights.

Photographing strawberries at a low angle

Photographing strawberries at a low angle produces an intimate viewpoint

If you want darker shadows, move your set farther from the window or place a black sheet of matt board or foam core board on the room side of your set to block any ambient fill from the room. If you want lighter shadows, move your set closer to the window or add a white board to the room side of the set to provide fill light.

The shooting angle will also have a big impact on the success of your final image.

Placing your camera directly above a set creates a rather graphic look to the image while shooting from a lower angle, say 45 degrees, produces more intimate visual. In either case, make sure you are getting good highlights on reflective surfaces.

Change some props and the surface

Change some props and the surface to create a new set of photographs

If you want to push yourself a little, change a couple props and create a new set of images.

In any case, drop a sheet of white paper in the very first exposure and then remove it for the rest of the shoot.  This gives you a target so you can neutralize the usually cool light from the window in post-production.

These are basically composition exercises, but I always try to imbed a storyline into each still life. The top image has the feel of a warm spring day eating the first strawberries of the season. It’s challenging but also lots of fun. And no matter how my images turn out, I get to eat some of the props. I’ll have to start shooting desserts.


Location photography workshop Spring 2019.

Join A Location Photography Workshop In Spring 2019

Join professional magazine photographer Chuck Place for 5 fun location photo shoots on consecutive Saturday mornings starting March 23 in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country and Santa Barbara area. With input from Chuck, fine tune your photographic skills and develop a personal style while exploring towns, locations and events like Los Olivos, Solvang, La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, Figueroa Mountain and the Summer Solstice Parade or the Santa Barbara Harbor and Seafood Festival. 

Each photo shoot will be at a different location, depending on events and season. Get feedback on your images each week from Chuck and your fellow students and learn how a professional photographer approaches various subjects and lighting environments. Class size will be capped at 10 so that Chuck has plenty of time to spend with each student. See Class and Workshop Recommendations.

Tuition is $300. for all five weeks of the workshop payable at least three weeks in advance.

Cancellations two weeks or more before the start date will receive a full refund. Cancellations between one and two weeks before the start date will receive a 50% refund and there will be no refunds for cancellations the week before the start date. For more details, please e-mail Chuck at chuckplace@cox.net.


A level camera creates parallel arches

Great Photography Tool For Leveling Your Camera

Text and Images by Chuck Place

I love my cameras! There, I’ve said it. Neither my Canon 5D MkII or MkIII has ever quit on me. They give me consistent, predictable results. The quality is great and if an image does not resonate well, I know it is not the camera’s fault.

Fall aspen trunks converge with lens tilted slightly up.

Fall aspen trunks converge with lens tilted slightly up.

And once in a while, I discover a function hidden away in the black hole of the Canon “Menus” that I actually need, like a built-in level. Who knew?

Built in camera level

Simulated camera with built in level at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara. Level camera side to side and raise and lower lens axis until a green line runs all across viewfinder.

I am shooting more architecture lately and keeping the vertical elements in a scene straight up and down and the horizons level is critical. To achieve this, the lens axis and camera body must be perfectly level to avoid convergence, divergence or tilting horizons.

A leveled camera keeps vertical elements parallel to each other.

A leveled camera keeps vertical elements parallel to each other.

I don’t like a grid in my viewfinder. I find it distracting when I am not shooting architecture. I have been using a bubble level that mounts on the camera’s hotshoe. It’s convenient and cheap, but not super accurate.

Viewfinder grid and bubble level

Viewfinder grid and bubble level for leveling a camera.

While watching a video by Scott Hargis on architecture photography, I almost fell out of my chair when he turned on the camera’s built-in level. Where did that come from? A quick replay showed it was hiding in the “Info” button. I normally use the “Info” button to occasionally check an image histogram, but I have never clicked it without viewing an image.

Even a long lens can be leveled for parallel vertical lines.

Even a long lens can be leveled for parallel vertical lines.

“Hiding in plain sight” is a phrase that comes to mind.

If you are tired of shooting slanting horizons or a landscape where all the aspen trees lean into each other, read the manual and see if your camera has a built-in level. If not, the bubble level works OK and there are always corrections in post-production, but you have to love a tool that is built-in, highly accurate, easy to use and essentially free.

I love my Canon 5D MkIII. Even more now!


Traditional Native American dancers sidelit by the setting sun

Magic Hour Photography: Get Creative And Capture The Drama

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Few photographers can resist shooting a beautiful sunset. Clouds build up, color starts to develop, you have a perfect ocean or lake surface for great reflections or you found some fascinating trees or buildings to silhouette against the colorful sky. It’s impossible to resist, isn’t it?

More often than not, however, at this time of day, I find myself turning my back on the sun as it goes down and watching for what it lights up instead.

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit

Mesa Verde ruins sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

That warm color of the low sun skimming across a landscape or buildings is pure magic. The soft, low-contrast sunlight at the end of the day is perfect for lifestyle images or dramatic portraits. It creates an ambiance to which everyone can relate. It’s the time of day we associate with relaxing and gathering with friends, enjoying a meal with others or just sipping a glass of wine. There is something truly magical about photographs created during the golden hour at the end of the day when the fleeting warm light mixes with cool-toned shadows to heighten drama and mystery in an image.

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Native American Fancy Dancers sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

There is more to producing photos with impact at magic hour than just turning your back on the sun, of course.

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun

Death Valley sand dunes sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

If you are shooting in JPEG format, make sure you turn off Auto White Balance and set your camera white balance to Daylight or Overcast. Auto White Balance, or AWB, works great in a lot of lighting environments because it neutralizes color in an image, but it will also neutralize all that warm light at sunset. There goes all your atmosphere and saturated color. The Daylight or Overcast setting will capture the warm color balance that you typically see at sunset.

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Woman practicing yoga is backlit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Even better, shoot in RAW format if your camera has that feature. The RAW format ignores the camera’s white balance setting while capturing the maximum amount of image data. This extra data makes it possible to correct or change your image to a much larger degree, giving you more creative freedom than can be achieved with a smaller JPEG file.

One of my favorite techniques is using warm sunlight to side light my subjects, creating an exaggerated sense of volume and contrast. Side lighting also separates the warm, lit side of your subject with the cool, shadow side, producing a more dramatic image.

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun

Mission San Xavier del Bac sidelit by the setting sun at Magic Hour

Front lighting at magic hour produces rather flat lighting, but can be effective if the warmly lit subject is contrasted against a cool blue sky. Quarter back lighting is also effective at this time of day, especially for lifestyle and portrait photography. The soft, even lighting on the shadow side of your subject can be quite beautiful as long as the subject is not underexposed. Flair can be a bit of a problem when the sun is out in front of the lens, but flair can also create a strong ambience if it is controlled properly.

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit at Magic Hour

Aerial of the Alabama Hills front lit with sunset light at Magic Hour

Next time you are out shooting late in the day, break the sunset habit and turn your back on the sun. You may be surprised by the images you can create using sunset light, rather than photographing the actual sunset. It’s a magic time, after all.