Learning to See, Part II

Learning to See, Part II

The Hues and Use of Colour 

Colour is to photography what verbs are to writing. –Daryl Benson

From the day we are born we start to see the world in colour. Just like taxes and death there is no avoiding it, or at least we should hope not.

What has developed over the years by academia is a litany of theorems best described by Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The number and variety of these theories demonstrates that no universally accepted rules apply; the perception of colour depends on individual experience.”

If a respected reference such as Britannica recognized that no universally accepted theory could be adopted, then how can a short blog entry possibly answer the question :What is Colour?” Obviously it can’t. The task, then, is to pique your interest, encourage you to explore other references, and employ photographic technique that has proven over time to work.

Before we delve into colour in a fast and furious way, let us step back and think of the great black and white imagery that captures our attention. By having a grasp of what truly makes a fine black and white print we can better understand what creates a lasting colour photograph.

Once a decision has been made to photograph a scene, the beginning photographer would be well served by attempting to cut through the colour and get to the shades of grey between black and white. Then you can really start to see the image reveal itself and provide evidence of the highlights and shadows that will allow you to discern how to best establish a correct exposure for later manipulation in the digital darkroom.

For the landscape photographer, there is probably no better place to start than with the work of Ansel Adams. Any student of photography should be encouraged to study this incredible body of work available at bookstores, libraries or on the web.

As you review the collection, the tonal range of the prints will no doubt intrigue you. By creating a process which became universally known as “The Zone System” Adams was able to accurately pre-visualize how the final print should appear, and he exposed the negative to maximize the latitude of the medium; the blacks would be black without “blocking up” and the whites would be white without “blowing out.”

Books have been written on the zone system so, again, I would encourage a web search for greater clarification.

We can also use the zone system today with digital photography, and, indeed we should have a working knowledge of the topic. Fortunately for us the matrix metering systems in many cameras use algorithms in the same principal as that which allowed Adams to develop the Zone System, thus ensuring we automatically get a good exposure. Whereas Adams zone system generally worked with a tonal range measuring from zero to ten, the same white and black points in today’s digital photography measure from 0 to 255.

I would love to have the opportunity to view an original Adams negative. I suspect it would be very flat and boring, much like a perfectly exposed “middle zone” colour digital file. The answer behind a beautiful high-contrast black and white photograph, or a colour-dripping-off-the-paper giclee print does not completely lie with the exposure, but with the darkroom manipulation techniques after the capture that was employed to “pop” the contrast.

By learning to see and understand the tonal range of the scene in black and white, the photographer will be developing an intuitive process of pre-visualizing the final image in colour and by consequence decide whether graduated filters or multiple exposures should be made for later merging in editing software. With practise this will become an intuitive process.

As you start your creative vision process don’t let your eyes restrict you by what you see, but allow your mind to direct you by what you can create. Only then will you start to have vision true to yourself and begin developing a personal style.

In the next entry we will look at complimentary colours.

And remember, if you are having fun, you are doing it right!

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Dale Wilson is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner Garry Black.'

Some Older Comments

  • Cliff February 5, 2013 12:29 am

    "I would love to have the opportunity to view an original Adams negative. I suspect it would be very flat and boring"

    Not true, a correctly exposed B&W negative from a zone system photographer is a thing of great beauty. 35mm film photographers may well want to seek out a copy of Zone System for Fine B&W Photography by Schaefer - ISBN, 0-89586-141-0 The methodology of the Zone System is explained in an easily understandable style. Do the calibration tests and your photography will undergo a revolution.

  • Nicholas January 25, 2013 01:48 pm

    Here are two scanned and reversed images from Ansel Adams negatives available in the public domain through their donation to the Library of Congress


    It is a useful exercise to download the high resolution versions, and "perform" the making of a print ready image. Do note that they are rather flat as Dale Wilson expected them to be.

  • Greg Moffatt January 19, 2013 09:31 pm

    Colin - Ansell did have access to colour (color) - in fact he did commission work for Kodak in colour - they weren't interested in his B&W work. However, I understand he did it purely for the money, he didn't like working in colour.

  • Colin Burt January 19, 2013 03:11 pm

    Interesting article on the hues and use of colour - but I can't help feeling that the image chosen for the article is far more appealing - to me anyway - in monochrome. Which most of us over sixty cut our darkroom teeth on and grew up with. With no colour to complicate things the composition and exposure and the choice of subject come into their own. Colour can be a distraction. Wonder how Ansel Adams would have fared if colour had been at his disposal and to his taste.

  • Greg Moffatt January 19, 2013 12:05 am

    Back to the Zone system. Ansell didn't only use the zone system to define the exposure, but remember he was working with sheet film and used it to define the development of each sheet of film to control the contrast range. As you say, with digital we have at least a similar technique available to us, to allow us to process each image to achieve blacks with detail (Expose To The Right?) and non blown highlights.

    Enjoy you articles

  • Larry Mills January 18, 2013 08:21 am

    I'm reading a book titled 'Looking at Ansel Adams' by Andrea G. Stillman. It is not a technical book on the Zone System, but a book resulting from research of various sources where Ansel discussed how he arrived at the exposures he took and what he considered on making the final print. In describing the shooting of various shots he would describe the scene with the Zone system. Quite an interesting read.

  • Dale Wilson January 18, 2013 07:16 am

    Thanks, Chris, for the input.

    Although I am not a black and white artist, I cut my teeth shooting Tri-X for a community newspaper years ago. I learned that by using various filters I could control the tonal range of the negative, and generally the less contrast on the negative the more "freedom" I had in the darkroom when printing. By looking at Adams prints it is clearly evident that we was especially skilled in the darkroom.

    It is this same concept I am suggesting in this article. The photographer should leave sufficient room within the tonal range to create the artwork (final image) in the digital darkroom. The concept is the same, only the process is different.

    Again, thanks.

  • Chris January 18, 2013 07:03 am

    I had the opportunity to see some original Ansel Adams negatives years ago. You are right - most were flat and nothing special. But the man was a wizard in the dark room! If you look at different printings of the same negative, you can clearly see his vision of the image evolving over time.

  • ccting January 14, 2013 12:45 pm

    "o view an original Adams negative. I suspect it would be very flat and boring".

    Conceptually, Adam exposure system has 0-10 scale, and thus your hypothesis may not correct.

  • Dale Wilson January 10, 2013 01:40 pm

    Thanks for your response, Penelope.

    I am developing this sequence of "Learning to See" entries for the beginner in the hope that we can cut right to the chase in as few words as possible, while attempting to encourage the novice to start looking at potential images with a students eye. My hope is that I can encourage you to get out and make more pictures - there really is no substitute.

    Yes, David, I honestly do believe if we are having fun we are doing it right. Having fun is one of the key ingredients to a love of learning, regardless of subject.

  • Jacko January 10, 2013 10:18 am

    Really good photo Dale,

    Hard to decide if it's more dramatic in B/W or color.

  • kelly January 10, 2013 08:18 am

    i love those two pictures they look amazing and i like the colors they look very nice too . but i think lots of people would really like it . maybe they want to learn more about it .

  • Penelope January 10, 2013 12:21 am

    This is something I've been struggling with lately (as a beginner) so I really appreciate this!

  • Scottc January 9, 2013 07:21 am

    I like the idea of using the tones in black and white as a starting point. I've played around between color and B&W in post processing and was often surprised by what I learned about the color versions in the process.


  • David Sargent January 9, 2013 06:07 am

    Very nice. I've always admired black and white photos a little more in that they need life and style in the subject, which can be learned from to create even greater colored images.

    Love the message at the end as well. Always having fun.

  • Dewan Demmer January 9, 2013 05:56 am

    It is also interesting how our perception of hues and how we use colour changes with time, I would be inclined to say that while experience refines our choices it a subjective decision, as so much is in photography.

    For myself I am constantly experimenting and trying to learn what appeals to me first, I suppose if it does not 'pop' for me how can I know if it would 'pop' for anyone else.
    The above example I found I used strong contrasting colours and hues, and even with black and white I first processed the colour/hue and then transitioned to B/W.
    What is a good benchmark for colours or hues, is there even a benchmark or point of reference when it comes to colour?