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Exercises in Black & White in Joshua Tree National Park

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I’ve really felt like I haven’t given myself a lot of photography assignments this year. Between everything going on, cancellation of international work, and pumping out my online courses, I just really haven’t gone out on a mission to do one thing. But giving yourself photography assignments is an important creative exercise.

So I went on a little day trip to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. I’ve never been there before and had time for hiking one short trail and driving the scenic road.

I knew before going in that I probably wanted to experiment with black & white – something that I don’t normally do. But again, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something different is a great creative exercise.

When Do You Choose Black & White Instead of Color?

Some photographers use black & white exclusively, which is cool. I love looking at their work.

But my world is in color and that’s how I usually photograph it. Except for a few certain times, and my intuition of this outing to Joshua Tree was confirmed when we got there.

A lot of really smart people have said various things about how you decide to photograph in black & white versus color if you’re stuck on the choice. One of my favorite ways of looking at it is asking what color does for the photo.

Is color adding to the photo? Is color an essential element? Is it helping tell the story?

Or are the colors actually distracting from the photo? Are they taking away from the visual impact? Or do they just do nothing at all for the photo?

If you strip away the color, you’re left with shapes, contrast, shadows, lines, etc. And those are some interesting elements found in Joshua Tree National Park.

The colors, however, took away from those. Especially during our hike to the Fortynine Palms oasis. This lush area in the middle of the desert is against a tall north-facing hill, leaving the oasis in the shade for the better part of the day during winter.

The colors were just…blah. Black & white it is. I would make this my assignment for the entire day, concentrating on shapes & shadows.

If I only photographed in color, I wouldn’t even have taken my camera out on this hike.
A rather uninteresting photo in color. But when shot in black & white, the shapes pop out a lot more.

Styling Black & White In-Camera

I also really wanted to concentrate on nailing the JPGs in the camera, freeing me from having to process all the RAW files when I got home. Using a Fujifilm, this is all the more possible.

I do have a Landscape Black & White preset which I’ve come to love, despite not using it a lot. When I do use it, I hardly have to make any real-time modifications to the recipe.

It’s a preset I developed using the method I outline in an online course I just released, and the method certainly works for this black & white film recipe also.

I like a little more contrast and deep shadows, so that’s what I created here. I use the ACROS film simulation with the Red filter to increase the contrast, especially in blue skies with the occasional clouds, as you’ll see below.

Landscape Black & White Film Recipe

  • Film Simulation: ACROS+R
  • White Balance: AUTO
  • Dynamic Range: 100 (off)
  • Tone Curve: H+1.5 S+3
  • Sharpness: +2
  • High ISO NR: -2
  • Clarity: +4
  • All other settings not mentioned are set to 0 or Off

Walking around the park, especially with the skies we had, I was just surrounded by shapes, shadows, silhouettes, textures, and lines. I’ll definitely go back to spend some more time working on this.

But for today, this was a fun self-assignment, one I was happy with.

joshua tree fortynine palms
joshua tree fortynine palms
joshua tree fortynine palms
joshua tree cap rock
joshua tree cap rock
joshua tree cap rock
joshua tree cap rock
joshua tree hidden valley
joshua tree cap rock
joshua tree cap rock
joshua tree cap rock

You can view all photos in this gallery.

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Friday 1st of January 2021

Thankyou John. I have been playing around with my B&W settings and getting some interesting results. Your suggestions have now become my C2 setting and I’m looking forward to seeing what I get now. B&W is such a great genre and I’ll be asking myself now; what does colour add? Lots sometimes but not always. Happy New Year, and stay safe ????????????

John Peltier

Friday 1st of January 2021

It can certainly be a lot of fun, especially if you normally don't do a lot of black & white :) Cheers, and happy new year.

Tom Gibson

Wednesday 30th of December 2020

For B&W images to really pop or standout you need number one very good contrast. The desert, depending on the time of day really does lend to B&W images.

John Peltier

Wednesday 30th of December 2020

Agreed...almost more so than color, unless you're in the desert during golden hour, in which case the sky can be amazing!

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