the value of values

After the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival ends during the second week of June every year I usually take a little break. I’ve been offline over the last week, spending good time with visiting family. We played, rested, and took the first swim of the year (on the afternoon of the summer solstice!) in water that was a little chilly but crystal clear and irresistibly inviting nonetheless.

It’s also been a great to have some time to get (somewhat) organized, including sorting through many of the photos I’ve taken over the last several months with a donated vintage 1985 or so Minolta Maxxum 7000 and various lenses and filters.

I was very fortunate to inherit this setup from two different independent sources last year and I’ve been enjoying learning how to use them: partly from the manuals that came with the equipment and other reading, but mostly through trial and error and talking to friends who are much more experienced with all of this.

The best lesson I’ve learned so far in this whole process actually takes me right back to 7th grade art class with dour Mrs. Dolan. One of the more humorless teachers I’ve ever encountered, I didn’t really enjoy her teaching style or her personal art work either. She kept many in-progress pieces in the classroom and worked on them while the class was occupied with drawing assignments. She liked to paint large panels of splashy free-form acrylic brushstroke abstraction, leaving generous amounts of white gesso canvas showing through. Not everyone can be Pollock or Motherwell.

But, I did learn about “values” in Mrs. Dolan’s art class: you know, dark and light and the infinite grey scale that lies between the two. It’s a lesson that rings as loud as ever in my memory today in navigating the mysterious, volatile world of black and white film photography. I’ve just begun, taking around 200 shots so far since I started working with this Minolta, many with a momentary thought something like – “Right ON – the composition’s strong, the lighting’s great, I’ve gotten a good pic this time for sure!” – only to discover upon developing the film that even with all of those other things the end photo is boring. Dull, lifeless, completely uninteresting.

The reason why, I think, usually comes down to values: the subjects I’m looking at through the viewfinder when I hit the ‘go’ button are in color, making me see the various elements and their relationship to each other in a completely different way than a black and white experience permits. So I take the photo, and then after the b&w film is developed I realize that the gray of the rocks in the foreground (for example) is exactly the same shade (depth of value) as the blue sea on the horizon, and the overcast sky above. Boring.

This is where photographic considerations of brightness range, tonal center, exposure values (EV) and “noise” (visual surface texture) come into play. Here’s a real example of what I’m talking about: I took this shot at Rockport Harbor, MA on a partly overcast day in early March this year. At the time (late afternoon) I really liked the clearly delineated textures in the three areas: foreground (rough-hewn granite breaker wall), midground (choppy ocean) and cloudy horizon.

But in the photo reality, the rock wall and sea and sky are a bland moosh of gray. In fact the rocks on the right very nearly blend right into the ocean in the next level behind them. Blah. And the horizon line isn’t level and the overall composition isn’t awesome either – so there are many reasons this shot fails, but for now just check out the sameness of the brightness values:

Bad photo: harbor at Rockport, MA

So I learned from this one, and from the many like it I’ve taken recently. I’ve also kept a few of the ones that worked out somewhat better. They’re in the slideshow below. I hope you enjoy them. With a little luck and some well-learned lessons I hope there will be many more (of the better ones) to come.

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Thanks, Mrs. Dolan.

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