White in Black and White

“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” Eliott Erwitt

We're back in Pandemic Mode, assuming we ever left it. The how of that is simple enough: ignorance, stubbornness, and stupidity. That's a little beside the point of this article, but my efforts to occasionally NOT be ignorant, stubborn, and stupid are keeping me close to home again (still), which makes the kinds of photography I like to do more challenging than before Covid-19. It's not entirely about disease, and efforts to remain free of it. It's also about places I like to photograph, and places I've not photographed but want to, being overrun by people. Every public place, every event, every venue, has seen record crowds during the spring and summer of 2021. But wait, there's more!

Soon after I came to Montana, a new acquaintance explained that the state has three seasons: Winter, Spring, and Wildfire. It didn't take long to see first hand what that means. In the nearly two decades I've lived in Montana I've seen some lovely summer and autumn seasons. I've also seen too many that have been very hot, very dry, and very smoky. This summer of 2021 will surely find a place in the records of dense, eye-burning, throat-scratching smoke. Much of this comes from massive fires in California, augmented by fires in Oregon and Washington. Summer air currents, and the near-permanent “ridge” of high pressure that builds on top of us in summer pull the smoke from farther west and keep it here for days, sometimes weeks, without a break. It's oppressive, unhealthy, and generally just sucks for lots of things, including photography. My photo gear has spent all summer stored away in the backpack. Maybe we'll have some clearer days in the fall, maybe not. It's common for the big fires burn until snow puts them out, but early snow, and lots of it, aren't as common as in past autumns. We can only wait to see if this fall will be cool and wet.

Pandemic, overcrowding, smoke-choked landscape. But otherwise it's been a terrific summer.

The drive to create things hasn't diminished. I've had some fun “inventing” various mechanical and electronic tools and toys, little things that solve little problems. Pat and I are having a new house built, and that alone is a time-consuming, if not always creative project. Clearly I've plenty to do, but the drive to make something nice with the camera is strong, and I've got ideas for pictures, including some I can do without leaving home.

Flowers, Flowers Everywhere

Prairie smoke in black-and-white

The photo that launched my 'project,' prairie smoke in black-and-white.

The first spring and summer I lived here in western Montana the diversity and numbers of wildflowers blew me away. I crawled around photographing every colorful plant that sprang from the ground, even many I later learned are noxious/invasive weeds.While I don't have true macro equipment, I'd get in close, try to keep things sharp, and I had fun doing it. I also burned out pretty quickly for several reasons. It seems everyone's doing it; there are zillions of flower photos, most better than mine made by people who clearly know how. If you're going to make a large print of a flower close-up (or of most things in nature) your subject must be nearly perfect: no blemishes, wilted leaves or petals, broken stems, or signs of munching bugs. If you photograph such things in their natural settings (outdoors), and you want tack-sharp details, wind is your enemy. I could go on, but the bottom line is, getting great photos of these subjects outdoors is hard, messy, and the yield of good stuff is quite low (well, for me, anyway). And, since everybody's doing it, creating something different, unique, is very challenging. After a few seasons I moved on to other things, while admiring the work of others and enjoying the annual display of the flowers themselves.

In May a friend complimented a photo I'd made years ago, a black-and-white rendering of prairie smoke (aka “old man of the prairie”). That led to an idea which, while certainly not unique, is less common than the typical flower photo. I decided to photograph white flowers and process the raw files into black&white pictures. Because I'm a bit of a contrast junkie, I thought I'd push the contrast to near extremes when processing the images in Photoshop. Getting five or six really nice pictures seemed like a fun project I could do without really going anywhere.

Just below my deck is a thicket of chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), some branches approaching 20 feet (6m) tall. The thicket surrounds the trunk of a large Ponderosa pine. It's a lovely scene, heavy with creamy-white blossoms in June, resulting it lots of fruit favored by birds and black bears (one of which has, just this week, pretty much destroyed the thicket). Since my deck is raised quite high, I could photograph from above the thicket for an interesting perspective. I also worked up close at ground level, and had a couple of photos I liked by the time the blossoms faded.

1 / 4
Blossoms in a chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) thicket.
2 / 4
mariposa lily (Calochortus subalpinus).
3 / 4
Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
4 / 4
Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor).

Next I worked on a mariposa lily, a lovely little white flower common in the pine understory here. The challenges posed by this was due to the flowers being close to the ground, requiring laying down flat and resting the lens on a beanbag. The flower stems are very thin for their length (six inches/15cm) and the slightest whisper of a breeze sends the flowers careening out of view with the camera just a few inches away. For the keeper photo I used some cardboard to make baffles to block the breeze. Still, it took several days to get a sharp photo with the morning light as I wanted it. I think this is the best in the series of B&W flower photos I made.

Common yarrow is, uh, common here, and one of my favorites. They can be a couple of feet tall (say, 60cm) and the large flowerhead are like sails in the breeze. The height does, however, make setting up the tripod much easier.

The last I've got from this season is the sweet-smelling blossoms of ocean spray. These large shrubs have stiff, woody branches that tower over my head, and are loaded with flowers from the ground up. But the local examples grow on a steep hillside, making it very difficult to set up (or even just to stand) to get the photo. Perseverance pays, or something. After repeated attempts over about a week, I got a decent photo.

Because I shot very close to these flowers, and because I wanted sufficient depth of focus to render an entire blossom or cluster sharply, I photographed for focus stacking. For each photo, I made a number of exposures, often 20 or more, each focused slightly “deeper” than the last. This is why the subjects had to be perfectly still—any subject movement between exposures would make for a failed focus stack. After capturing all the frames, I “assembled” them in Photoshop, which stacks the sharpest parts of each frame into a final picture. This works well if the captures are all nearly perfect, with the proper focus for each “slice”, no subject motion, and using manual exposure and a fixed white balance in the camera.

I enjoyed doing this, and while not all of the results are outstanding, I'm happy with the pictures. If and when I find more white flowers in the coming seasons I'll work to add a few more to the collection.

August, 2021

All products and brand names mentioned are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.