Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 1

Pigeon

Introduction

In the earliest periods of its history, photography was about black-and-white, or monochrome, images in the form of photographic prints, tintypes, and daguerrotypes. Later, colour films were developed–both colour transparency and colour negative films–and colour and black-and-white film coexisted side by side, as they still do in specialty camera stores. At the time digital photography arrived, most serious film photographers owned at least two camera bodies: one for colour film and one for black and white. Today there’s no longer any need for an extra camera body because beautiful black and white images can be crafted from digital colour images.

Despite the understandable popularity of colour images, black-and-white (B&W) photography still thrives as an art form. B&W photography is a parallel but different medium to colour photography and it offers a different kind of artistic experience. Rather than relying on beautiful and/or striking colours, it relies on strong subjects, interesting contrast and lighting, texture and form, and a silvery essence to set the mood.

Traditionally, B&W images have been crafted in the photographer’s darkroom, with an amber or red safelight and trays filled with developer, stop bath, and fixer. With the advent digital photography, this has been replaced by the digital darkroom: photo editors allow you to recreate the craft of B&W photography in the comfort of a well-lit room with no chemical smells.

What we will do in this series of tutorials on digital B&W photography is explore the craft of creating beautiful monochrome images to post in your online galleries or to hang as finished prints on your wall.

Autumn Melancholy
Tools

The requirements for this tutorial are simple: a digital camera to take photos with, and a good photo editor to turn them into compelling B&W images. The camera can be your cell phone, a compact point-and-shoot, a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera, a DSLR or, maybe if you’re hobbyist, one of each. You don’t need a fancy digital camera to get started.

One thing you do need is a strong photo editor. While there are many easy-to-use, lightweight editors around, like Apple’s Photos for the Mac, and Google’s Picassa, you’ll need to use a more sophisticated editor to get the best results in producing B&W images. Aperture, which Apple has discontinued, is still a good medium-level image editor, as is Adobe’s LightRoom. On the iPad and Android tablets you can do good work in apps such as Snapseed.

For best results, however, you may want to use an editor that allows you to work on layers. These editors range from the top-of-the-line Adobe Photoshop CS, and its remarkably capable yet inexpensive cousin, Photoshop Elements, to the excellent, free, editor, GIMP, available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and BSD. The advantage of Photoshop and Elements is that there are a number of commercial plug-ins for black and white that can be used with these products, like the amazing Silver Effects Pro, from Nik Software (now owned by Google). The advantage of GIMP is not only that it’s free, but that it’s a sophisticated editor offering layers as well as other advanced tools. In this set of tutorials I will be using Photoshop CS for my examples, with references to corresponding features in GIMP.

Your Instructor

My name is Gene Wilburn and I’ve been captivated by photography since the age of 12, which was now over 50 years ago. I grew up developing film and making black-and-white prints and, although I shoot a lot of colour, I’ve always had a special fondness and affection for black and white. When I was growing up I devoured the technical photo books by Ansel Adams and was influenced by the writings of the great photography teacher David Vestal. I am, and have always been, an amateur photographer, delighting in photography for the sheer joy of it.

When I discovered digital photography, in 2002, I was hooked immediately, though I still shot film for several years after. Above all, I fell for Photoshop, for the images it would allow me to craft in both colour and black and white. What I hope to do is pass on some of the techniques and tricks I’ve learned along the way in the hope that you’ll find black and white photography as interesting and fun as I do.

For the most part, the tutorials will not be overly technical. I’m a believer in the KISS (“keep it simple, stupid”) approach to photo editing and will stick to the basics, with a few twists.

If you find these tutorials helpful, or have a question about technique you can’t find the answer to, drop me a note at gene@wilburn.ca or post in the comments section following each tutorial and I’ll do my best to reply.

 

Gene with PEN and Lumix Lens

El Capitan Collateral Damage

el-capitan

“Almost 1 second remaining,” said the progress bar for installing El Capitan aka Mac OS X 10.11, but I should know better. Over ten minutes since I last checked and the cheery but inaccurate message remains on the screen. Finally it changes to the oxymoronic “Almost 0 seconds remaining” before finally getting on with being installed.

It would have been better if I hadn’t seen the message at all, at least on Marion’s Macbook Air. Marion, for good reasons that I won’t go into here, uses her Macbook as a Windows computer. She started out to use the Macbook as a Mac, but for complex reasons, it didn’t work out for her, so I set up her Macbook as a Boot Camp dual boot computer.

Every so often, just to keep the Mac side up to date in case she ever needs it, I would boot it up as a Mac and install updates and changes. I’d already installed El Capitan on my Macs and liked it so I upgraded Marion’s Macbook in good faith.

The problem came when we tried to boot back up the Windows half of the computer. Uh oh. It wouldn’t boot Windows. A search through Google revealed that others were starting to report the same problem, in the Apple Support forums. There was no reply from anyone at Apple but users were complaining that El Capitan dinged the Windows partition somehow and there was no fixing it. Moving back a release to Mavericks didn’t help because the damage was already done.

Marion is a heavy computer user and is especially busy right now preparing materials for the annual art show at the Cawthra Seniors Centre so I had to do something to get her back up and running. My first thought was to reinstall Mavericks and create a new, fresh Windows instance using Boot Camp Assistant. To do this I had to make an ISO file of the Windows 7 boot DVD and put it on a stick. Then the installation started. It didn’t get far because when Windows tried to boot, it failed on a critical driver Apple had forgotten to sign: appleSSD.sys. Search as I might, I couldn’t find a working solution. I tried some but they didn’t work for me.

So, going for broke, I created an ISO file for El Capitan and put it on a boot stick. I had to blow away the entire Macbook drive in order to reformat it for El Capitan. Boot Camp Assistant wasn’t able to delete the Windows 7 partition.

I thought perhaps I’d try Boot Camp Assistant under El Capitan, but when I got to the point of trying, it said I needed Windows 8 or higher, otherwise there were some tech files available on how to install Windows 7. By this time I had worked the problem for over 24 hours and was feeling a bit testy, so I looked for an alternate approach.

I installed Parallels for Mac v. 11, then installed Windows 7 into Parallels, then began to restore Marion’s data files, a long job. Fortunately we kept up to date backup but it takes a long time to restore.

So far, Parallels seems to be working, but it hasn’t been put to any hard work yet. Fingers crossed that it works out okay. If it doesn’t, I may have to purchase a copy of Windows 10 to install on the machine, trying Boot Camp again.

All in all, 48 hours of fix and restoration, with minimal sleep. El Capitan is causing some serious collateral damage for some users and the snag hasn’t even hit the news yet. Let’s hope word gets out there and doesn’t trip up more users into an experience like mine. The irony is that, in general, I really like El Capitan. Ah, the joys of computing.

Improving My (lost) Concentration with a Kobo Glo HD

Kobo Glo HD

In my retirement I do a lot of reading: books, magazines, news articles, essays, just about anything I can view on my iPad Mini. Unlike most of my friends, I actually prefer digital to hard copy. I can control the brightness, font size, and line spacing so that my eyes don’t have to strain while reading. The iPad screen is crisp and bright and the size of the Mini is nearly perfect for hand holding. I can also carry around 200 or more books with me.

So, if the iPad is so great, why then did I just purchase an e-ink ereader: a Kobo Glo HD? Because there’s a serpent in the garden. While reading on the iPad I developed a nervous habit of interrupting my reading frequently to check email, Facebook, and Flipboard for new email, postings by friends, and postings I might want to relay into Facebook. Compared to pre-Internet days, my concentration had gone to hell.

The Internet appears to be taking a toll on many of us. Our attention spans have shortened, our concentration has become relaxed, and perhaps we’ve even lost the thread of our own narrative. Well, not quite that drastic, surely, but a rereading of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows on the subject is sobering.

I knew from previous experience with a Kindle ereader that when I read on a dedicated reader, it strips away the ease of popping over to do something else. It’s just a reader, the way a book is just a book. I’d been thinking about the Kobo Glo HD for awhile, but when my friend Jarrett Hather showed me the one he’d bought, I was immediately taken with the hi-res screen, the good contrast with or without lighting, with  the light, easy-to-hold casing, and with the quasi bonus that Kobo is/was a kind of/sort of Canadian product. At least it began life here before being bought out by the Japanese company Rakuten.

I bought a Kobo, charged it up, cabled its USB port to my Macbook Air, and transferred over my library of over 200 ePub-format ebooks from the Mac to the Kobo. I was ready to begin. My first test: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. There’s nothing like a fine 19th-Century novel to test your concentration.

It worked. Although I was twitchy at times, I calmed down about checking email and social media, and just read. In three days of intermittent reading I’d finished the novel which I’d been reading at a leisurely pace simply to enjoy the rich period language.

Now I’m finishing Sophie’s World, a delightful novelized Philosophy 101 course. Spinning off from Sophie’s World, last night I downloaded Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and started reading. Elevated intellectual writing with no training wheels. But, I’m keeping my concentration, even though I don’t expect to read the entire work.

Kobo Glo HD, I’m hooked.

 

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Linux on a Mac (I’m Back)

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Here it is, almost fall, and I find myself missing the chance to jot some notes and observances into Silver Bullets. So, I’m back, and to start off with I’ll tell you what I did this summer.

My main tech project was to set up a new Linux server for testing some web pages Marion and I have been working on. We wanted to test out various options of setting up a WordPress site, including experimenting with different WordPress themes, without doing so in a live environment.

My friend, Mark Dornfeld, mentioned that he’d had good luck with Oracle’s VirtualBox on his Mac in terms of hosting Windows, so I thought I’d look into VB as a Linux host on my Mac Mini, primarily because the Mac Mini has 16GB of RAM and plenty of disk space.

So, installing VirtualBox was easy. I planned to install the desktop version of Ubuntu Linux and work up the server elements: Apache, MySQL, PHP, and WordPress. Unfortunately I hit a glitch with screen resolution. The instance of Linux sensed a 1024 screen but only gave me a 640×480 window to view it in. I couldn’t even scroll to the buttons of the graphical interface.

So, I came in the back door. I blew away the desktop installation and installed Ubuntu Linux Server in its place, turning into a LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) server with only a character console. I then added back the graphical interface with

$ sudo apt-get ubuntu-desktop

Voila! A nice 1024 screen with everything working. It fits nicely on the Mac Mini’s new 27″ Dell monitor.

Next, getting WordPress installed and tested. That proved straightforward. We’re now testing out a new website for Marion’s art and genealogy.

Other than that, it’s been a quiet summer packed with a lot of reading and a touch of writing, but very little photography. Oh, and I turned 70. That was a bit sobering.

(Probably) My Last Blog Entry

Untitled

It’s been a good run–well over 200 posts–but I think it’s time to hang up my spurs as a blogger. The truth is, as I age I’m less interested in writing blog posts and fewer people are interested in reading them. At one time blogging, as much of the Internet, was new and fresh, but today blogging seems a bit stale, with the exception of those who write specialty blogs. The generalist has been left behind in the way small towns have been forgotten in the migration to cities.

I would very much like to thank those of you who took the time to read my musings. Your comments and feedback have helped me along the way. If you’re interested in staying in touch, you’ll find me on Facebook.

In fact, Facebook has become my new equivalent of blogging. On Facebook I can post and repost interesting articles, thoughts, and humour, and it reaches more people than Silver Bullets ever could.

Although I have a Twitter account, I don’t tweet much. I don’t find myself simpatico with the service as a communication tool, though I like it as a newsfeed for various publications.

My activity on Flickr will pick up now that winter is finishing and it’s comfortable to get out with my cameras again. I also keep a modest set of scientific and engineering images in Pinterest.

Reading and music occupy much of my time these days, especially guitar playing. A new MacKenzie and Marr parlour guitar (Opeongo model) is my latest acquisition.

So, in all probability, this is my last post. I leave the door slightly ajar because … who knows? Thanks again for taking the time to read my posts.

May good light follow you always.

Exit Banjo

Ome Banjo Tuning Peg Detail

If you’re a folkie or country music musician, you inevitably go through a banjo phase. It may start with a love of bluegrass music, or it may be sparked by listening to the earthy, folksy playing of the late, lamented, Pete Seeger, but it gets into your musical soul and nothing will do but getting a banjo and learning to play. Even Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, once said, via Charlie Brown:

And I conclude my report by offering this suggestion,
As soon as a child is born, he or she should be issued a dog and a banjo,
Ma’am that’s right … a family of eight … eight dogs and eight banjos,
Yes Ma’am, we’re talking happiness here!

The banjo is, overall, the happiest instrument in the band, though it can also evoke sadness and loneliness via mountain minor tunings.

Which brings me to my banjo, an Ome Jubilee. Lovely instrument and I tried to learn it with piddling success. I actually used it on a song that the trio I was in, Olde Spyce, performed at the Forever Young Folk Festival in Oakville. With luck, no music critics were present that day.

I got started on banjo when I went to the Woods Camp of Dance and Music one summer week and signed up for beginner’s banjo with Arnie Naiman, a wonderful old-timey banjo player and instructor. He made it fun, once we students got the hang of the basic clawhammer rhythm. For a guitar player it was like turning the strumming upside down and I noticed that camp staff gave our beginner’s group a wide berth when they walked by. Until the end of the week we sounded pretty dreadful, but the magic started to happen and we all started to get it.

That was then, and this, as they say, is now. I bought the Ome banjo directly from Arnie and worked at it with more enthusiasm than musicianship and it finally dawned on me that I was never going to be a good banjoist. My instrument is, and has always been, the guitar. The banjo got played less and less until it became a forgotten fixture in my closet.

I suspect my story, or a variant of it, has happened to many a budding banjoist. Those who really get the instrument take to it and go on to perform lovely music. The rest of us merely taste what might have been, had we the musical talent.

And so, as I downsize my life into late retirement, I decided to let the banjo go. Not without regret, but with all the weight of reason behind the decision. It’s not as bleak a parting as it may sound, however, because the cash I get from selling the banjo is going toward a new guitar.

And so I say, adieu friend. May you find a home with a talented musician who, along with a dog, will bring you the happiness you deserve.

Ome Banjo Front View

Yaroo, Flavia!

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

If you don’t know Flavia, and you like mystery fiction, you’re in for a treat. Her full name is Flavia de Luce and she’s an 11-year-old prodigy with a deep love of chemistry. Her specialty, she admits, are the poisons she dreams of concocting to get sweet revenge on those who cross her, like her sisters, or adults who treat her like a kid. In addition, she has a knack or propensity for finding bodies that have died in mysterious circumstances.

The first time we encounter Flavia is in Alan Bradley‘s novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, where she has been hogtied and thrust into a locked closet by her older sisters Feeley (Ophelia), 17, and Daffy (Daphne), 13. Flavia, being very resourceful, works out of her bonds and uses a coat hanger to pick the lock of the closet door, then goes to her chemical laboratory to plot a sweet revenge. Flavia, who lives in a deteriorating but large English manor house, Buckshaw, with her father and sisters (their mother died in a climbing accident in the Himalayas), is mad about chemistry and one of her immediate ancestors left her a beautifully appointed laboratory in the east wing of the house.

Flavia, as mentioned, has a knack for discovering dead bodies in and around the village of Bishop’s Lacey as well as Buckshaw. The Flavia de Luce novels are mysteries set mainly in England with an 11-year-old sleuth, but I would hesitate to label them YA (Young Adult) fiction. They appeal more to adults.

The order in which to read the Flavia novels, if you want to read them in the order they were written, is as follows:

The latest in the series, Chimney Sweepers, was just released and here at the Wilburn household we devoured the novel in two or three sittings. In this one, she attends Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, as part of a special preparation that Flavia herself isn’t entirely sure about.

Rumour has it that a TV series of Flavia is in the works. Honestly, I don’t know whether to cheer or drown my sorrow in a Guinness. I have such a well-formed mental picture of Flavia and Buckshaw, I’m reluctant to be subjected to the whims of a director. Fingers crossed that it’ll be at least palatable, and, maybe, somewhat as good as the novels.

Oh, and “Yaroo!” is what Flavia often cries when she’s excited and riding her bike, Gladys, into Bishop’s Lacy to help the local constabulary who are not particularly eager to hear her insights.

A New Home for Silver Bullets

January 1, 2015.

I moved my blog, Silver Bullets, to my main website to help consolidate my sites.

The consolidation was inspired by my changes to Northern Journey Online, and my increasing comfortableness with creating WordPress web sites.

My main New Year’s resolution is to write posts more frequently than I did in 2014.

If you’re one of my previous readers, welcome back! If you’re new to my site, welcome, and I hope you enjoy some of my posts.

Gene

Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf

By Gene Wilburn

For those who grew up with television, it’s hard to fathom the grip that radio once had on the imagination. In the small blue-collar town of Rock Falls, Illinois, in 1951, I was six years old and radio captivated me; I listened each week to episodes of The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Red Ryder, and, my favorite, The Adventures of Superman.

Our radio was a floor-standing Zenith in a deep-brown wood cabinet. Behind its wheat-colored grill was a twelve-inch speaker that filled the living room with the deep, sonorous voice of authority. The Zenith logo was formed with an oversized Z made of lightning bolts that trailed under the enith with a flourish. It looked modern, futuristic. I imagined the round tuning dial with its little lamp that shone on the station markings as a cockpit instrument. Sometimes, when I was alone in the house, I would spin it around and listen to the stations click by. I never imagined that this wonderful instrument would lead to trouble.

Like much trouble, its beginnings were innocent. My mom and step-dad wanted to go out to dinner or a movie or something and asked if I was okay being on my own. I didn’t mind and they promised to be back as soon as possible. It was common to leave responsible youngsters on their own back then. They headed out in their gray 1951 Ford sedan, under an overcast, wintry sky that smelled of snow and I settled in for an evening of comic books and radio shows.

As it grew dark outside, I switched on the radio for the special children’s hour programming and was delighted to hear it was going to be a presentation of “Peter and the Wolf,” music by Prokofiev, narration by Boris Karloff. I owned the Disney book of Peter and the Wolf and knew the story well, though I always found it a little scary.

The show opened with Karloff’s rich, cultured voice introducing the instruments that represented the characters in the story: the bird, the duck, Peter, his grandfather, and the wolf. When the three horns representing the wolf played, the hair rose on the back of my neck and I began to feel uneasy.

As the story progressed, the music began to spook me. Never had “Peter and the Wolf” been this scary. I got up and closed all the doors leading into the living room. I couldn’t abide the darkness on the other side. Even that was not enough. My nerves were on edge. I closed all the drapes on the windows and, as an added measure, locked the front and side doors, something we rarely did back in the early 50s. Finally it got too tense for me and I switched off the radio and turned on all the lights and snuggled under the cover on the couch where I listened to the snow hitting the side of the house until I fell asleep.

The weather had turned into a nasty snowstorm with blizzardy winds. My mom and step-dad tried to drive home in it but could only get within two blocks of the house because the snow plow hadn’t yet been through. The drifts were three or four feet high and they abandoned the car on the side of the road and trudged their way through the wind and drifts to get to the house.

When they got there, the house was locked and they had no key. This too was typical of the 50s. Houses only got locked when the last person went to bed. Looking in the window through a crack in the drapes they could see me sleeping on the couch. They pounded on the door and the window and shouted at me, but it didn’t wake me. Getting colder and more desperate to get inside, my step-dad finally broke a window and entered that way, opening the door for my mom. That didn’t wake me either. My fright over “Peter and the Wolf” had carried me to a deep, safe place in my slumber.

When they shook me awake I was at first glad to see them, but was confused by the scowls on their faces. My step-dad was so livid with anger he could scarcely talk. I think he might have wanted to shake some sense into my head, but mom intervened more gently, though she was angry as well. I was scolded sternly about locking them out on the night of a blizzard.

I felt embarrassed and sorry that I had let them down, but I also felt a rebellious sense of injustice. All I did was keep out the wolves, and I knew that, if it came to it again, I’d do the same thing. My fear of wolves was stronger than my fear of being scolded and chastised.

They later told the story as a joke to their friends, always featuring me as the butt of the joke, but I noticed that, from that time onward, they carried a house key.

–30-