Why Black and White Photography?

As a portrait photographer I always provide a few samples of black and white photographs to my clients as a way for motivate them to think about how they may want to display their photographs. Here are my reasons for why black and whites work in a framed setting.

Needless to say, I love black/white photographs. They’re classic, rich in emotion, with lighting that adds to the dynamism in the photograph, and textures are brought out – all of which lead to really interesting photographs. I love the fact that black/white photographs tend to highlight subjects in relation to the background, their emotions and their relationship to other subjects and their environment. Sometimes, I use black and white photographs as a way to highlight facial features in addition to emphasizing the emotion.

I want to present a few examples where black/white portraits in comparison to their color counterparts tend to stand apart and produce a different visual impact on the audience and can help produce really interesting framed display.

Newborns and Babies
There is a lot of emotion, texture and drama with newborns ūüôā This can be richly captured and enhanced with the right lighting using black and whites.

The texture of the newborn hair on her forehead and the flower on her hair tend to stand out in the black/white version particularly because of the absence of the strong red lines.

The texture of the newborn hair on her forehead and the flower on her hair tend to stand out in the black/white version particularly because of the absence of the strong red lines.

The hair falling on the mother's face is a bit more distracting in the color, as we draw our eyes away from the brown couch / blue shirt area towards the subject.  The black/white tends to allow the user to stay focused on the emotion.

The hair falling on the mother’s face is a bit more distracting in the color, as we draw our eyes away from the brown couch / blue shirt area towards the subject. The black/white tends to allow the user to stay focused on the emotion.

Couples
Be it a wedding photograph or a simple photograph of a couple in love – there is surely a lot of emotion there. Beautiful black and whites can play a critical role of highlighting the emotion and the dynamic between the couple.

An engagement photograph - with the absence of the red colored building background, the eyes are drawn to the shiny object on the girl's finger.  The texture of the tree bark is also a nice contrast element.

An engagement photograph – with the absence of the red colored building background, the eyes are drawn to the shiny object on the girl’s finger. The texture of the tree bark is also a nice contrast element.

A tender and delicate moment when the groom takes the bride's hand to plant the wedding ring - better in black/white, what do you think?

A tender and delicate moment when the groom takes the bride’s hand to plant the wedding ring – better in black/white, what do you think?

Head shots and Environmental portraiture
When it comes to head shots there may be a good reason to go color route, e.g., the color of one’s hair would be nice to show in its true form. However, it is sometimes a really good idea to go black and white. Black and whites draws attention to the eyes and most people deliver emotion through their eyes (at least in a head shot which tends to not reveal much of the body language).

While the colors and the jewels are rich in the photograph on the left, the black/white simply draws attention to the real "jewel" - the brilliant expressive eyes of the subject.

While the colors and the jewels are rich in the photograph on the left, the black/white simply draws attention to the real “jewel” – the brilliant expressive eyes of the subject.

Classic environmental portraiture showing a person in their environment can be transformed into delivering a message about the emotion of the person within their environment.

Wedding photographs MUST draw attention to the couple, right?  The color one tends to highlight the bridesmaid's red dresses.   Problem solved with black and white.

Wedding photographs MUST draw attention to the couple, right? The color one tends to highlight the bridesmaid’s red dresses. Problem solved with black and white.

Tango performers at a restaurant in Buenos Aires - the distraction of the street light is replaced by a focus on the emotion/chemistry between the dancers in the black/white.

Tango performers at a restaurant in Buenos Aires – the distraction of the street light is replaced by a focus on the emotion/chemistry between the dancers in the black/white.

Bottom Line: If you are looking to deliver an emotional experience to your audience with your photographs give black and white a try. And if you are wondering how I shoot mine – I always shoot in full color mode and then use my trusted method of creating black and whites. The method is not a state secret, and as with many it involves a bit of trial and error but generally follows the following guideliens:
1. de-saturate the image,
2. selective modify the hue in the individual color channels and
3. adjust the contrast if necessary.

3 tips for low-light photography without a flash

I love taking photographs at dusk, the sun is not too harsh as it is setting, the lighting is just perfect, the hues in the sky are spectacular and the temperature is moderate (of course, depending upon where you are, this is subjective). ¬†However, when the sun gets down a little too much then you move into the dreaded too low for natural light situations. ¬†This of course, does not have to happen just at dusk, you could be photographing inside a building in the middle of the day and have very little light. ¬†If you are shooting in the camera’s Auto Mode (Ahem…) the camera’s on-board flash pops up and you take a photograph that is probably washed out of all detail or does not provide for that quality that you expect your camera is capable of delivering. ¬†Not to mention that in some places (like museums and galleries), flash photography is just strictly a no-no. ¬†If you prevented the camera’s onboard flash from popping up, your camera adjusts the shutter speed and makes it too slow for you to capture your subject with any degree of clarity. ¬†I have a few tricks up my sleeve to help. ¬†While these are techniques (or tricks in some cases), they are not always guaranteed to work and that is precisely why there are good photo lighting gear (like high-quality external flashes) ¬†to help. ¬†But I will discuss flash photography in a different post. ¬†For now, let us talk about taking good photographs under low-light conditions without using a flash.

Tip 0a – Learn your camera
I cannot tell you how many times, I see people who have great cameras and continue to shoot in Auto mode. ¬†Fine, I am an “auto-mode” snob, but in reality working with Auto-mode on a camera like a Nikon D5100 or a Canon Rebel T3 is like buying a really powerful car which offers great driving control and opting to get an automatic transmission.

Tip 0b – Be prepared to try MANY times
The techniques that I am going to provide, are not for the faint-hearted (well… they are actually not that bad) but it is best to realize that as with anything practice makes perfect. ¬†So be willing to try and get a few outtakes before you get the one really awesome shot!

Tip 1 – Use a tripod (if you can)
You may think “Duh! I could have told you that”… but a tripod does not always help. ¬†The tripod is a crutch and it works in stabilizing your camera but it has limitations. ¬†Here are some reasons where I have found a tripod to be impractical:

a. some angles may be impossible to try with a tripod (e.g., ever tried shooting from a few inches off the ground with a tripod)

b. some venues (i think the Palace of Versailles was one of them) where tripods were not allowed unless you get a permit for photographing because you are considered a “professional” and the photographs are for commercial purposes and require purchase of permits.

c. your camera is not the only thing that causes a blur, your subject(s) may be moving as well and then even the most stable tripod may not help.
However, wherever you can, try to use a tripod or a monopod or a GorillaPod. ¬†GorillaPods are really good and can work in almost any settings (you don’t need a flat surface to place your tripod).
Notre Dame cathedral at night shot from near Pont Neuf using a GorillaPod to stabilize.  f/22, 30s exposure.

Notre Dame cathedral at night shot from near Pont Neuf using a GorillaPod to stabilize. f/22, 30s exposure.

Tip 2 – Shoot in different priority modes

A. Aperture Priority Mode with the lowest F-stop (maximum aperture)
By shooting in the aperture priority mode with the lowest F-stop, you are effectively allowing the maximum amount of ambient light that the lens can allow and this would make your programmed shutter-speed (that the camera calculates) to be as high as it can be for the given aperture and for a standard exposure.  Faster shutter speed means less blur.
All of the light in this composition is from the small tea lights in the middle.  f/4.5, 1/10s exposure in Aperture Priority Mode.

All of the light in this composition is from the small oil lamps in the middle. f/4.5, 1/10s exposure in Aperture Priority Mode.

B. Auto-ISO mode
The ISO sensitivity also plays a role in the camera determining the shutter speed under different programmable modes (like Aperture priority).  By allowing Auto-ISO, the camera can use its highest sensitivity to adjust for a faster shutter speed.  This mode may cause excessive noise so be careful. You may be trading off on quality to achieve clarity.
High ISO exposure causing a bit of noise in the upper parts (near the ceiling).

High ISO exposure causing a bit of noise in the upper parts (near the ceiling).

c. Be brave, try manual mode
Shoot in Manual Mode with the lowest F-stop and try increasing the shutter speed by one notch at a time until you feel like you have achieved the right balance between exposure and clarity.  Use a fairly high ISO to help.  Additionally most SLRs come with the ability to adjust your exposure (called the exposure bias) in steps of 1/3.  Take advantage of this feature to get the optimal exposure while insuring clarity.

Tip 3 – Understand the sources and nature of the “blur”
There are two primary things that cause a photo to be blurry assuming that your focus is perfect:

a. Motion blur due to breathing and clicking
The very fact that we breathe and are even clicking the shutter release can cause blur. ¬†To overcome this, practice yoga… and then hold your breath for the duration of the exposure. ¬†This can be tricky if you are shooting a 20 second exposure, but sadly I’ve had blurring even at exposure as low as 1/10 second. ¬†Try and don’t give up, this can really help.
At the Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Cistern/Basilica Cistern) in Istanbul, Turkey.  Motion blur from breathing and minor tremors in the hand... Sigh! If only I had a monopod.

At the Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Cistern/Basilica Cistern) in Istanbul, Turkey. Motion blur from breathing and minor tremors in the hand… Sigh! If only I had a monopod.

b. Subject moving
If the subject is moving, all bets are off, but maybe you can try to work with the movement to make sure that the blur looks artistic as opposed to distracting.
Motion blur caused by the subject moving  could be artistically captured.

Motion blur caused by the subject moving could be artistically captured.

Shot taken from the ground up without a tripod.  f/22, 3s exposure.

Shot taken from the ground up without a tripod. f/22, 3s exposure.

That’s it – 3 rules and a lot of experimentation to make sure that your technique works for you. And if you are wondering what my standard technique is… it is (a) Manual mode with lowest F-stop, shutter speed no less than 1/10 second, fairly large ISO (400+) and holding my breath. ¬†Let me know what works for you!
One of my favorite low-light photographs.  f/5.6, 1/30s exposure.

One of my favorite low-light photographs. f/5.6, 1/30s exposure.

Photographing works of art

I love visiting museums and galleries which feature works of fine art – be they contemporary or classical. I consider museums and galleries to be an immersive experience, looking at each work of art, getting in touch with my emotions to understand what about that piece that attracts me to it. In fact, I named my photography business Atma (“Soul” in Sanskrit) because I wanted to be able to deliver this kind of a soul-bearing experience to my audience – a tall order for sure, but I am working on it.

Getting back to the works of fine art, over the past couple of decades as I have been taking photographs of these works of art, partly as a learning experience but mostly for posterity. I have formulated a few simple rules and I follow them to take some really good and interesting photographs of these works of art.

Disclaimer: I do not condone copying works of art and as such I want to state upfront that taking photographs with the idea of reproducing such works of art is really a bad idea and ethically questionable if not entirely illegal.

Rule 0: No Flash Photography
Plain and simple and it is rule 0 because this is a MUST DO. A dear family member happens to be a staff person at the Roosevelt Presidential Library and one of her pet peeves is that people don’t usually follow this rule. She further says that each flash hitting the works of art is tantamount to a few days of direct sunlight, which damages them significantly and does injustice to the art.

Rule 1: Look, Emote, Analyze
Silly to say this, but before a photograph is taken, it is essential to look at the work of art. And beyond looking, it is also essential to understand what kind of an emotion in stirs in you and analyze what in the work about this work of art stirs that emotion. This is essential because without knowing this, it would be impossible to present to your audience, your perspective on this piece of art.


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The amazingly beautiful statue of Cupid and Psyche at the Louvre. Notice the love pouring out of Cupid's gaze and Psyche's reaction.

Rule 2: Avoid the temptation to get wide-angled
If Rule 1 is not followed, there will be a temptation to get wide-angled and get the entire piece of art in your frame. While just showing the whole piece of art, may be your true intention, in my opinion, the photograph is more interesting when it presents your unique perspective on the piece.

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Zoomed out view of Winged Victory - photographed with a random tourist to provide perspective.


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Zooming in - reveals details on the wings and the fluttering clothes providing the effect of a bird soaring through the wind.

Rule 3: Zoom in on the details
The corollary of Rule 2 – if you are not wide-angled, then zoom in. This is where the analysis done in Rule 1 makes a difference because it helps establish what you want to zoom in on. It is crucial to realize that artist has used specific composition techniques (colors, lighting, perspectives, etc.) in creating the work of art – so it would be good to pay attention to that to get an interesting photograph.

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The surprised nymph - zoomed in to focus on the eyes, hair and necklace.


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Further zooming in reveals how the eyes were painted in great sharp detail, whereas the hair was painted with broader strokes revealing a soft-focus like effect

Rule 4: Work with the ambient light
Museum displays are created with specific lighting and shadow effects so as to allow the audience to enjoy the work of art as the creator had intended it to be (of course, subject to the curator’s interpretation, but we have to assume that the curator knows about the work of art, in fairly intimate detail). Pay attention to the lights/shadows, the ambient light level and surrounding detail. This will help set your camera’s aperture setting. Typically using a large aperture (low F-stop, the lowest F-stop setting on your camera) would ensure that you get (a) maximum light exposure on the work of art (which means that your chances of taking the photograph without blur is higher as you can set a faster shutter speed) and (b) allow shallow depth of field (which means that the subject of the photograph gets full focus and other details in the background get blurred away). Note that many museums/galleries would not allow you to set up a tripod, so relying on a tripod may not be feasible, but if it is, then go ahead and use it to avoid blur.

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First Funeral statue in the Buenos Aires Museum of Fine Arts photographed with a very shallow depth of field revealing no details in the background.

Rule 5: New angles provide new perspectives
How many times have you looked at a statue lying down on the floor? Not many, I am sure. Partly because it is somewhat silly to do this, but how many times have you gotten down really low to take a photograph? Definitely, more times than lying down on the floor to look at a statue, I am sure. These new angles add interesting perspectives which can help present your take on the photograph assuming that it is what interests you about the piece of work.

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The Kiss - where is the kiss? It is hidden by the arm.

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The same photograph shot from below to reveal the kiss. This almost begs for photographing from various angles.

By using these simple rules as guidelines, you can convert a simple photograph of a work of fine art, into a statement about your perspective on said work of fine art. Happy clicking…

Making lemonade – a photographer’s perspective

Maybe it is my luck or maybe I subconsciously seek to be Murphy’s favorite test subject but in either case I have had to use the cliche “Making lemonade when life offers lemons” one too many times. If you are wondering who Murphy is – he is the father of the famous rule that empirically explains why things fail – because they can.

It was not too surprising that I go with my two hyper kids and a really eager wife to Casa Barbie in the hip Palermo barrio of Buenos Aires only to find that we were dealt with a few lemons*:

Lemon A: Casa Barbie playhouse is not for ni√Īas less than 3 so my daughter cannot play there.
Lemon B: Ken has no place in Casa Barbie so my son cannot play there.

Arrgghhh… What can a photographer do when dealt with these lemons? For starters I ordered a H2Oh Limoneto, a zero calorie lemon flavored agua con gas which was Oh so refreshing. And then I got my kids a blueberry muffin which my daughter went to town on and that gave me about 5 minutes to get some close ups of her.

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Since my daughter is older than 1 and is aware of daddy’s camera, it has become difficult to get close ups of her without a blur.

This lemonade just like the H2Oh was quite rewarding and went a long way towards relieving some of the Casa Barbie blues…

*If you are interested in the full story behind the trip to Casa Barbie, please read my wife’s travel blog.

Evolving Four Generations Over Four Years

Yes, this is a tongue twister of a title but the subject matter is one that is very dear to me. Let me give you a little introduction. I was born in Chennai in 1973, and when I was born, I had one surviving grandparent, my paternal grandmother Seethalakshmi. A gentle, beautiful woman who was full of love for her grandchildren. I felt like I was special to her, but such was her grace that she made every one of us (7 of us in all) feel really special.

When I married my wife, her grandmother (Grandma L) who is very close to all of us, much like my own, was hale and healthy, full of life, vibrant and brilliant. Even then, I thought to myself, she would make a great subject for a photo shoot. I have since had numerous opportunities to photograph her and every time I do that, I am in awe of her brilliance and her ability to show her love through your body language and facial expressions.

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About 4 years ago, when we had our son, we decided to celebrate the fact that we had four generations together. It turned out to be a wonderful – so full of life and love.

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Recently, grandma L has taken ill, having gone through a quadruple by-pass surgery and a stroke that has paralyzed her right side and has slurred her speech a bit. However, her love for us has not diminished one bit and it has only grown after we had our daughter.

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So just before we headed out for Argentina, we decided to celebrate the four generations again and this time we had my sister-in-law with us as well.

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Grandma L is just one of those people who has aged so gracefully in spite of her health setbacks and continues to inspire us all to be loving and giving…

NYC – back after a long break…

Like most bloggers I have a lot of ideas about photography that I would like to write about but unlike most bloggers, I am not disciplined enough to get into a writing rhythm that brings with it a series of thoughtful articles. My wife, who writes a wonderful travel blog, is my muse to, my inspiration to continue with writing my thoughts about photography.

On the eve an important milestone of my life – a trip to Argentina for my 40th birthday, I stand here ready to start writing and to see where this takes me. I look forward to discussions, comments and criticism all of which will serve to shape my thoughts and approach to photography.

It is not coincidental that I restart at where I started a long time ago, back at the city where I grew up, New York, NY. Spending two days there without kids, gave me the opportunity to focus more on one of my earlier passions, photographing the city itself and by that I mean the architecture, the landscape, the people, the heart and the soul of this vibrant city.

I focused on two areas of note, the 9/11 Memorial and Central Park. This was my first visit to the evolving 9/11 Memorial and perhaps my umpteenth visit to Central Park. These two places evoked very different emotions in me – the serene sombre mood of the 9/11 Memorial and the joyous beauty of the colorful flora in full fall bloom in Central Park.

9/11 Memorial

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I often have a very difficult time bringing myself to photograph places which evoke intense emotion, the time I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, the site of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre near Amritsar in India, come to mind. The 9/11 Memorial was no different, choking up as I approached the South Pond, seeing the names of the first responders who had made the ultimate sacrifice in an effort to help others – etched in the stone.

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I felt like a good way to convey my sincerely deep-felt emotional state was to photograph in black/white and allow for the emotion to come through in the photograph to the best extent I can.

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One of the most touching moments was when I saw a single white rose planted at the name of one of the people who had perished in the North Tower.

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Central Park in Fall
Finishing the visit, I headed North, knowing very well that the next experience would be very different from the last one and one where I would be at ease with framing the scene and capturing it with my SLR – Central Park in Fall.

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I did not have to venture in very far into the park to realize that I would be overwhelmed with the colors (and perhaps get repetitive), so I decided to just take a few interesting ones, with perhaps a juxtaposition of interesting colors and textures, animate and inanimate, etc.

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Of course, I could not help but feel like taking photographs of people against this wonderful fall background, my wife graciously agreed to be my subject.

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After an emotional roller coaster of a day, I headed back home ready to take on the sights of Buenos Aires… I look forward to bringing you more in the near future.

Composing really good holiday photographs…

Holidays are a great time to photograph the people we love and create lasting memories that we can cherish. Be it Christmas or Hanukkah or Diwali – the holidays offer us an opportunity to celebrate and there is potential for some excellent photographs. Indeed a lot a great photographers and photography blogs discuss how to get memorable holiday photographs. I particularly like the 10 tips from BetterPhoto.com. Really informative.

But I, like many of you, have found it stressful to get really good holiday photographs especially if you have younger children (or older children or any class of non-cooperative participants in this activity) and there are several variables here including yourself, your skill as a photographer, the children, the tree, the lights, etc. Somehow all these elements have to magically blend together to create memorable photographs and that is a complex activity. After some thought, I came up with 3 simple rules which when incorporated can make for a really good holiday photograph.

#1 – Keep all the subjects within the frame of the photograph

Weird as it sounds, parents of young children (and even doggie parents) will resonate with this scenario. You have set up the shot, you have turned on the self-timer and clicked it on and are running to join the other subjects in the photograph, when you child or dog (or both) decide that they don’t want to be there! This rule is so easily broken that I had to include it as #1. What this also means is that when you are composing the shot, make sure to give yourself enough margins around the subjects by setting your zoom right for any (minor) inadvertent movement.

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#2 – Make sure that the subjects are in a natural state, i.e., not in a dead-pan stiff state

The holy grail for portrait photographers is to get all the subjects in the composition looking natural and at the camera – thereby connecting with the camera and ultimately the audience. Not always possible, which is why it is the holy grail. So what I try to do is to make sure that the subjects are engaged in an natural activity. For example, kids sharing a toy, reading a book, riding a pony, etc, parents looking lovingly at their kids, etc.

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#3 – Make sure to include a holiday theme as part of the photograph

This may also seem trivial, but consider this… your family 4 people + a dog all dressed in color coordination (including the dog) and you have applied rule #1 and #2, does your composition include a holiday element? Does it include a Christmas tree or the Menorah or the festive little tea-lights? If it does not, you have to recompose the shot to make sure that at least *some* of the holiday theme is represented. I am not suggesting that you have to zoom out so far as to get the full 7′ Christmas tree, but keep it balanced. The subjects are the important parts of your photographs but more often than not, the background becomes an interesting part of the photograph, thereby creating a dynamic composition.

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Finally take as many photographs as you need (subject to the attention-span that allows for #1 and #2) and then select the few that you think are your holiday favorites. Now that I have given you my 3 rule secret sauce, does this mean that other tips are not useful? Of course not, but let’s start with making sure that these simple rules are followed and then make the photograph technically better using other tips.