First of all, many thanks to everyone who sent me their conversions of the picture yesterday or this morning. I've gotten about a hundred and fifty as I begin writing this post, so obviously I can't show them all, but, just as obviously, the more the merrier for me. It was fun to see them all, as it was fascinating to read your comments. Thanks very much to one and all.
I'll limit the ones I'll show to a dozen or two—and they won't just be the ones I think are "best." I don't think there's any "this is best" in play here, actually; at no time did I find myself thinking in terms of "best" or "worst." I'm not saying I like everybody's equally (this isn't kindergarten, and I don't) or that you should, but I took the exercise at its face value—people are imposing on the picture how they like to see B&W, or how they like to see this image in B&W. So, okay. We're all essentially talking about our own tastes. Not a contest.
First of all, here's mine:
I'd play it pretty straight; this is definitely informed by my style with film. The key for me is to go up to the cliff's edge but not over it with those tempting clouds. I'd want them to have a nice rich glow in the print but stay gentle.
I should mention, though, that if I were printing an image like this for real—with an inkjet printer or in the darkroom, either one—I would consider this the guide print stage. The next step would be to put the print up on the viewing board for 1–3 days and look at it. Sooner or later, I would know how I felt about it, and then I'd know what I wanted to do with it...whether I wanted to take it further, or dial it back, or change something, or leave it as-is, whatever. Not till that point would I go make the final version.
To me, that interval is a critically important stage of making a fine print. A little time going by does wonders to clarify your mind. Call it eyeball time. The looking is what does the work.
Several readers, like Mark Muse, made conversions that were quite close to mine—maybe differing in detail, but not in overall feel. Walter Glover's was very close to mine but he added a rich sepia color, as he confessed to "a hankering for warm-tone or Chloro-Bromide prints." Others, for instance Mark Steigelman, Carl Root and Jim Bullard, took the same basic vibe but went a little hotter and darker.
Perhaps the closest doppelgänger of mine was sent in by Ricardo Silva Cordeiro, who's a graphic designer by trade. If you look closely—the differences are subtle—you'll notice that he's gone for a little harder sharpness in the land area and a little less in the sky. And note how that choice emphasizes the contrasting corporeality or materiality of the elements in the picture: his tree's a bit more of a solid object and his clouds a little more vaporous. Certainly a defensible choice.
Lynn Burdekin's made me feel like Ricardo and I had gone a little too far and hadn't kept it soft enough. "To me this is a 'Rural Romantic' image," Lynn writes, "so I wanted to bring out a soft, romantic feel—as if I were a painter admiring the scene from an easel, rather than a photographer holding a camera."
Here's one of the several "sepia" treatments—this one is from Steve Lincoln. "This was fun. I used CS5, a B&W adjustment layer with some blue and cyan tweaks, a layer mask to lighten the foreground.... Then I converted to a bronze duo-tone and added a border, which the duo-tone renders in a nice creamy off-white. I often use the bronze duo-tone for this type of landscape—looks great in print."
Steve spotted out the hawk!
One of the first ones to come in, from Animesh Ray, shows a very different approach to tonality, especially in the balance between sky and land. To me it makes it look like much later in the evening. I like the tonality of some of Animesh's film pictures and even featured one on the blog once! But his choice here is much more radical than anything I'd do.
Speaking of tonality, let your eyes go back and forth between Sergey Botvin's restrained, almost plainspoken interpretation and Simon Crofts' more florid "verging-on-IR" take, below:
Those are very different photographs.
Implying no criticism of Simon's choices, I will say I admire Sergey's version. It's got a no-nonsense quality to it, sort of the opposite of some of the most over-the-top versions. Jeff Hohner's was quite close to Sergey's. Neither calls attention to technique, and that can be a plus.
We'll get to some other issues in the next post (Part II), but before I close this one I'll just note that with so many entries, there was naturally a range of the basic tonal choices. Some people made the blacks blacker, some dodged under the tree; some increased the sturm und drang of the clouds and some deemphasized them. I'll leave you with two tonal outliers. Rory O'Toole, in the upper of these last two pictures, has made the clouds light and ethereal, while simultaneously lightening the land and greatly increasing its contrast. Neils Volkmann, in the lower picture, has darkened everything, especially the clouds (although you'll notice he uses less contrast in the field and trees):
We're thoroughly into "technique head" here (i.e., a technical mindset), but see if you can back off from that for a moment and just look at these two pictures in terms of their emotional effect and the overall sense that they'd communicate to you if either were the only version of this picture you'd ever seen. They convey very different "weather reports," and the feeling-tone they convey is greatly divergent as well.
I'm not sure I could support the following convincingly in a debate, but I've heard—and I think I believe—that the best printers tend to be the ones who go beyond "applications of technique" and think mostly about the feel of what they're trying to convey. What sense should this simple picture impart to viewers? Is its fidelity to the actual weather conditions important to you or not? How much is the picture "about" the birds? (They're emphasized in Rory's version, you'll note, and almost unnoticeable in Niels's.) I'm not saying the feel of either of these is wrong or right—they're just artistic choices, that any photographer would be applying to any picture they'd taken themselves. But it runs a considerable gamut, especially in black-and-white.
In the next post, we'll get into the issue of transforming the picture into something entirely separate from the observable scene.
[Note: An early version of this post was lost, and a number of readers responded to my desperate pleas for help by sending me cached copies from their readers so I could reconstruct it. A very big "THANK YOU!" to each and every one of them, especially Carsten Bockermann, whose copy reached me first and was used to reconstruct what you see here.
All I can say is: Whew! —MJ]
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ricardo Cordeiro: I really like Lynn Burdekin's more restrained approach to the image too (it's my favourite of the bunch actually), maybe just a tiny bit more contrast to give some more volume to the scene and I think it would be perfect ;-) . And you're right about the 'eyeball time'; even before reading this post I looked at my version today and I it seemed a bit over-cooked. I have a tendency towards it because much of my B&W conversions at work are for commercial use and require a certain 'punch.'"