A while ago, I wrote an article on low-contrast B&W conversions with Lightroom. After reading through some of the response the article received I was pleasantly surprised that so many of our readers actually prefer low-contrast look over the ever-popular high-contrast conversions. That is not to say high-contrast B&W photography is in some way inferior, not at all. It is merely the more popular, the more easily accepted sort of look, which is exactly the reason why I saw fit to go against the wave and start with the opposite. Now, ever since I wrote that piece, I’ve received several requests for a similar article on a high-contrast conversion. This topic is particularly tricky for me since I rarely do high-contrast B&W, but the requests did remind me of one occasion where I was deliberately working towards such a result from the very start. And so, as always, we begin with a photograph.
A lot of wedding photographers think their work is mostly for the bride, and I can see why. Usually, it’s the bride who spends countless hours looking for the right person to capture the best day of her life, sometimes even years before the actual wedding. I’ve had men contact me more than once, of course, but eight times out of ten, it is the bride’s letter that reaches me. Every little detail has to be perfect, and brides-to-be are more than happy to dive into the planning to make sure it is exactly like that. On the wedding day itself, it is the bride that receives the most attention and most admiration. Not to say the groom is secondary – oh no. His admiration and attention are the most important, he is her knight in shining armour, so to speak. And yet, she is the princess. So if she is happy, he is happy, isn’t that how they say it? Strangely enough, I’ve found that it is not the bride that is hardest to impress with your work. After all, if she’s chosen you, she already knows, more or less, what to expect. And the groom? That is a somewhat different story.
We all have our strengths and weaknesses, as well as ways to deal with the latter. And it is only natural for us to sort of… drift towards our strengths. Hold on to them, practice as often as we can and, by doing so, get even better at them. And so, before I inevitably talk about close-up portraits (which I am not very good at), I thought I’d first discuss much more loosely composed photography (which, though far from having mastered, I dare say I am rather better at).
My word. This is such a relief to write about.
Any photographer will tell you – you do not take portraits in direct sunlight. It’s ugly. It’s much too contrasty. It wreaks havoc on automatic exposure and tests all sorts of other boring technical aspects of a camera to the limit. It’s difficult to pose in, difficult to see in; it creates dark this and blown out that everywhere and one should always, always avoid it. Look for a shade instead. Find yourself an arc, a tree, anything at all under or inside which you can hide your subject and bathe him/her in smooth, soft, brilliant light. You do not shoot portraits in direct sunlight. Nothing good ever comes out of it.
Sorry, I can’t. That’s rubbish.
After my previous, slightly unorthodox article on improving your photography, here comes another one. And, as you may have guessed from the title, I am about to say some nice things about a type of composition many consider to be downright boring. Here is what I say in return: cliché. When used well, I absolutely adore central composition, there’s nothing else quite like it.
Of course, there is a strong reason why so many photographers, when giving advice to beginners, start with the phrase “don’t put your subject in the middle”. So, in order to see central composition for what it really is, perhaps we should first understand why it’s so avoided. And the reason for it is surprisingly simple.
I have a simple question for you. Why do you enjoy photography? When I first asked myself this question, I thought, “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s what I do for a living! I never get tired of picking up my camera and “going to work.” But this doesn’t really answer the question, does it? It just states that I enjoy photography.
There are most likely as many ways to achieve a beautiful B&W look as there are photographers. Maybe I am exaggerating it a little, but then I am in love with B&W. It is not as if I don’t like colour, oh no. It’s just that I like the “classic” look that much. So today, instead of doing some general article on B&W conversion and trying to cover several different looks, I am going to pick out a photograph and just work on it until it is exactly how I pre-visualized it a second before pressing that shutter. First of all, though, we need a photograph. I think I have just the right one.
I get asked very, very often how I process my photographs. And it is no secret – most of the time, I simply use VSCO. It suits me so well, coincides with the way I see and pre-vizualise my work, my style and my taste so accurately, only rarely do I need to dive deep into the post-processing closet to pick something else on my own. And yet despite me saying it, I get asked this one question really rather often – how do I achieve that look? It took me a while to figure out what do most people mean by that look, but I have. It’s not the colour or the light or the composition that a lot of you are so interested in when you ask me that question, it turns out. I also figured out why it’s so hard to describe properly – there really is no term for it (a reader has told me it is called “matte” and while personally I’ve not come across it before, we will see if the term will stick for good). It’s a sort of… vintage-retro-dreamy-low-contrast-film look. Sounds vague? It is. That is why any help on the matter is so difficult to find. And yet I am pretty sure you understand – or at least imagine – what I mean. Basically, a lot of you are wondering how to make the photograph on the left look like the photograph on the right.
You will be glad to know it really is rather simple.
I have a rather peculiar confession to make, something I’ve not spoken of loudly to all that many people before. Here goes: whenever someone asks me what I do in life, what I do for a living, I always cringe slightly. Now, I do not mean Photography Life – I am very proud to work here and enjoy writing interesting articles immensely (whether I manage to write something interesting is a different matter altogether, but I dare say I do every now and then). No. I always cringe before saying I am a wedding photographer. Mind you, I do not actually consider myself a wedding photographer – I am curious about people more than I am about weddings, and that is what I am interested in, people and their being. That is part of the reason why the “get to know me” section on my website is the way it is. But if someone asks me just out of curiosity or politeness, they’d be bored to death if I’d go on and dive into all the philosophical debates about how people photography during weddings and wedding photography are different. The time and place for such debates is on a comfortable couch among friends and with a glass of red wine in your hand… if you have patient friends. And so the easy way to answer is – I am a wedding photographer. You’d think that, after I say that, the question’s answered and it is my time to ask that person what he does. It should be that simple, for as soon as I answer I blush and am instantly overcome by the need to explain. And so I still end up diving into all the philosophical monologues trying to justify and explain my work, and consequently bore everyone to death.
I hate that.
A side note: if you suddenly feel the urge to scroll down to the comments section and tell me how I’m a hypocrite for doing what I hate and lying about it to my clients, hold on for just a second. There’s obviously a little bit more to it and I am afraid you are going to have to read all I have to say to get my meaning.
Talking to Tadas Kazakevičius (in case you are having a hard time spelling that, he’s just as well known as Ted Kozak), a young Lithuanian portraitist, was precisely one of those times when you think you have a million questions to ask. But then you meet him at a restaurant for a glass of cold bread kvass and a pizza only to realize you’ve suddenly forgotten all of them. What do you ask a person who’s work you admire so much, you think he’s one of the future classics of his generation? Where do you start? “Don’t be nervous”, he told me. “Why should you be?” True. Why should I be? But then, whilst talking about his street portraits, he answered his own question: “Even after all the portraits that I took of strangers, each time I attempt to approach a person on the street, I need to bring myself to do it. It’s scary.”