Tag Archives: black and white

More Portraits

JL Tyler PhotographyAs I was building out this next round of portraits, I realized that was a lot of luck involved in capturing most of these. As I read more on portraiture, though, I see there are unifying elements that make a portrait a strong portrait, and some of these elements are caught in the photos below.

Any photography website or tutorial will tell you there are a few key techniques a photographer must consider when creating a portrait. The eyes of your subject, for example, need to be sharp and show life; some detail such as hair or clothing needs to be sharp and clear; the texture of the skin, depending on the look you want to achieve, needs to be smooth and well-lit (flattering modelesqe look) or coarse and gritty (real-life look); and the lighting needs to be flattering and emphasize whatever it is you want the viewer to focus on. If you have control over your subject, you can also use posing techniques, but my level of street photography doesn’t allow this.

JL Tyler PhotographyI’ve got a mixed bag of six portraits included in this post, and each of them relies on one or more of these details to make them appealing. The above two shots, the pepper vendor and the biker, don’t necessarily rely on eyes to make the shot; the pepper vendor is squinting and the biker is wearing shades. I think the critical element in both of them is texture and detail. You can see the texture in the pepper vendor’s forehead as well as in the well-oiled tracks of his hair (he had a cool top-knot in the back). With the biker, the texture of the leather is more dominant than his face, and that seems to underline the “biker” nature of the portrait. The fact that he just looks tres cool, and has a background detail of a manly eighteen-wheeler barreling in from camera left, is a bonus.


The next two photos, Woman with Cat and Two Sisters, both rely on eyes. The highlight of the former is, of course, the beautiful almond shape of her eyes framed by the elegant eyebrows, as well as the finer set of cat’s eyes ready for comparison on the right. There is also a liveliness in the woman’s eyes that seems enhanced by, or as a result of, the hug she is giving the cat.


The Two Sisters on the other hand shows, in the older sister’s eyes and overall expression, pleasant bemusement, perhaps due to the photographer standing outside her window or by the antics of her younger sister playing in shadow. While her younger sister’s eyes are closed, the joyous child’s expression is no less winning. There is also much texture in this shot. The chipped nail polish  on her fingers gripping the window sill are a dainty counterpoint to the roughness of the wood and corrugated tin of the room’s exterior. The slight scratch on the older girl’s nose brings out her character as well, speaking to, perhaps, some rough-housing fun.

DSC_2959_JTHR_NikSFX_borderSanta in Bar and Man with Tuk-Tuk are the final two of this series. I think “detail” is the unifying element of these last two (along with the beards and fantastic, groomed moustaches of each of the men). Santa was actually sitting inside the bar, behind a heavy sheet of plastic to keep out the cold (you can see the warp of the material to the right); it is the detail of the plastic and the way it frames Santa’s face that make this shot interesting.

JL Tyler PhotographyAnd finally the Man with Tuk-Tuk. Arguably there is too much going on in this shot; I might have blurred the background better (either in-camera or in Pshop) to defocus the detail and therefore focus on the man himself, but I really like the tuk-tuk approaching (you see them on any and every street in India), both for its intrinsic character and the receding depth it creates. The detail of the man himself, such as the fine needlepoint flower on his shawl, the wrapped shape of the shawl itself, and his forehead and pompadour hairstyle, all combine to create a solid street portrait of a seemingly interesting soul.

Building a Portfolio

Building out a black and white portfolio isn’t as easy as you might think. Especially when you’ve grown up in colour, shoot in colour every day (Raw, technically), and really, view life through a colour-ful mind’s eye. The solution, I dare say, is less about learning theory and practice, and more about having a vision.


Developing the vision however, for most of us non-geniuses, means getting into the masters, seeing what has gone on before us, and getting a feel for what we ourselves would like to do. Educating myself on the world of B&W is ongoing, and involves not just absorbing the coffee-table collections of everyone from Adams to Stieglitz to Salgado, but also taking as many online tutorials as possible. But here’s the rub: the more I learn, the less I’m sure of. But also the more I’m aware of the “lack” of vision I possess. I’ve found that even when I’m hip-deep in theory or buried under wave after wave of practical advice, I suffer from an acute awareness that, um, I’m just making it up as I go along?

JL Tyler Photography

Downloading a software package is, for me, a practical step. The rules and inherent structure of using a tool, seem to me to be a step in the right direction for learning about what I can do, and what I want to do. But as useful and interesting and absorbing as a package like Nik’s SilverFX is, the number of options are overwhelming; and it doesn’t simplify the creative and editorial responsibilities of pulling off, and pulling together, thematically-linked (perhaps the most basic definition of “vision”) images. Playing around is one thing, but artistic intentions need direction, commitment, choice, and these have to be in place, or in mind, before any photographer can really start to build their B&W vision.

JL Tyler Photography

So suffice to say that this B&W portfolio is a work in progress. Using Nik’s SilverFX has helped me turn out a few images, which I’ve included here in a series. Four images that are united by the shared splendor of each wonderful sky. The set is certainly not visionary; more likely just something nice to look at, and united in theme. That’s a start. A step. For now.



Standup Portraits


For this series of portraits, I’ve divided the group into two; today I’m putting up the vertical images, and in a future post I’ll put up the horizontal images. It’s for consistency’s sake that I do this. I’m sure you’ll agree the consistency is easier to browse (no re-orienting of your monitor required). But there’s another aspect of consistency, and this time a lack of it, that I want to point out. In these four you’re looking at now, two of them are shot from down low (and I really do like the effect), one is shot with a wide-angle lens, and the fourth is shot straight on.


This inconsistency is due to my style, which isn’t studio-based. I grabbed all these shots on the run, as it were, while travelling in India and the US, while drinking with friends in Japan. The series wasn’t conceived as a set; rather, the images were pulled together after the fact. Given my ‘druthers, I would love to act more professionally and create a series from scratch based on a consistent style, but I fear then I’d have to sacrifice the subject matter to achieve the style. Imagine trying to find a cow to stand high for me in a studio as I go low with the camera….


Now this last shot stands out, again for a lack of consistency, but this is something you the viewer can’t see. Let me briefly review what you can see: the subject is of course the first boy with penetrating eyes and a Mona Lisa-smile; then slightly back of him are two friends with serious trepidation written in their brows.

JL Tyler Photography

On the left side are railway tracks leading first to a cross, then to curves heading elsewhere,… these tracks help in leading the viewer’s eyes through and eventually out of the picture. But what you can’t see is the next minute of time after this shot was taken, and this is what I like: the boys break from their trepidation and wonderment and turn into laughing and giggling urchins mugging for the foreigner with a camera as they walk home from school. They are filled with fun and boyish charm, but none of the mystery that you see in the image. There is a complete lack of consistency in their behaviour – that which is captured here, and that which I retain in my mind’s eye.

Perhaps a lack of consistency is a good thing. Sometimes.


A Mountain of Choices

JL Tyler Photography

Fuji-san is an icon, not just here in Japan, but the world over. Representative of symmetry, perfection, peace, it is captured in centuries of art, first brushed, then sketched, and etched, and woven, and developed, and on and on…. Whenever I see Mt. Fuji, I get the same inspiration as countless millions before me: I want to, yet again, take another snapshot. I learned early, though, that it is impossible to capture one perfect view of Fuji-san, and therefore repeated impressions are not just acceptable, but required.

JL Tyler Photography

Selecting the right image for portfolio inclusion is at once easy and difficult. On the one hand, it’s easy because I don’t have that many “worthy” snapshots, so the overall lot I have to cull through is limited. On the other hand, when choosing images for a portfolio, relying on “it’s good enough” is setting the bar too low; finding the best of the best is critical to, first, a personal sense of achievement and, second, appreciation of any kind from your viewers. The four I’ve pulled together here please me, for now. I’ve got two over water, and two over land. Clouds are present, and some foreground baubles.

JL Tyler Photography

While the beauty of Fuji-san’s shape and symmetry never vary, and using them make it easy to pull off a color snapshot at sunrise or sunset, since engaging on this B&W journey, I’ve had to begin to appreciate different aspects of a “quality” Mt. Fuji image.  The soft reds of the sun, combined with that iconic shape, are enough to create a memorable image, but you’re relying a lot on the colour and resulting mood. Black and white is nothing if not mood, but you can’t use colours to create it; instead, I find I’m focusing on clouds, and foreground, and contrast (of course!). I’m not saying anything new to someone already skilled in B&W, but for the student of photography, like me, this is new and important stuff.JL Tyler Photography

This last shot, with the split rocks (they’re actually tied together by a barely-visible rope, related to the Shinto religion) and the crashing waves in the foreground is somewhat disappointing due to the muted nature of Fuji-san herself. In the colour version, the sky is a deep, rich blue which permeates the air; converting this blue to monochrome, however, results in a dim, muted background. You can see that the whites of Fuji-san’s cap are much less white than the crashing wave; my first reaction was to amp the whites of that snow to give the same charged feel of the waves, but the effect didn’t work.  It’s background, and needs to feel like background to the viewer. Hmm…. More struggles with what I think is good, and what is good.



A Graveyard for Boats

JL Tyler Photography

Japan is an island, and water is a large part of the culture. I’ve gone on many trips in-country, and was never far from the oceans and rivers and the people that live and thrive nearby. Fisherman are a recurring image in my photos, but the fish themselves are fewer and further between; they tend to show up frozen on a dock, with a gaggle of bidding buyers flailing above. Boats are represented as well, but are usually moored, their character somehow subdued.

JL Tyler Photography

I came upon this boat graveyard in western Hokkaido. Sunk in a field of grass, in an out-of-the-way section of pier, lay a score of abandoned fishing boats. As I walked through the field and noticed the detail of broken mast, punctured hull, twisted netting and bows asunder, I realized these workhorses of the fishing trade had not lost their glory or their bearing. They were not subdued; in fact, they were very much full of expression.

JL Tyler Photography

The smooth slope of hull is as graceful on land as it would have been at sea; you just feel it’s misplaced. The mooring posts still appear strong, as if they are wanting that corded rope to wrap itself around them again. The lines and characters of the names painted on each hull are smudged, faded, but they still feel as if they are providing identity. And the tilt of each boat is no less dignified for it occuring midst the waving grasses. There is still grace and beauty in this field. There is still voice.




To travel to Shikoku and Kyushu, the southern-most islands of Japan’s main archipelago, is to never be far from water. Whether you take the train, fly or drive, water is beside, under and around you. Outside of the urban, concrete corridors of Tokyo, past the monumental and majestic Mt. Fuji, and just beyond the ancient, wooded expanses of worship in Kyoto, you travel across land but you are thoroughly within this world of water.

Some time after returning from a recent trip, I read an article in B&W Photography entitled “How to Shoot Water.” Unfortunately, they don’t have a website of their own (!) nor a link to the article, but the photographer, Lee Frost, does. His suggestions ranged from “work in overcast light” and “use a ND filter,” to “use a wide angle lens to fill the foreground with reflections” and “use long exposures to turn water to milk.”


I can’t say that I followed all the technical advice, since I was more interested in subject matter than technique: what I was after — and found — was images of wide open spaces and singular individuals. These two visual aspects are rare in densely-populated Japan, but they exist; you just have to travel to find them. On the ferry from Honshu to Shikoku, a crane sat  in the water like a rigid but fluid, well, crane. In the backroads of Shikoku, a solitary fisherwoman found foothold in a moving stream. From a bridge in Kyushu, I spotted kayakers navigating the dimpled waters like leaves in a creek.


The beauty of the water, in the backyard of Japan, is undeniable. The quiet expressiveness of the scenes you will meet on this type of trip are thoroughly enjoyable. Sitting and gazing is not unknown in Japan; admiring the beauty of a rock garden or a sumi ink painting is a still pleasure many foreigners have heard about even if they haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it themselves. But to be able to do so in the not-so-vast outdoors of Japan is a treat you should not put off. Come on in, the water’s fine.