Dodging and burning

A recent post on Lifehacker discussed techniques for successful B&W digital photography. Many commenters argued about the benefits of shooting on overcast days and RAW vs. JPEG, but I tried to point out that the most memorable and interesting B&W images we see (fine art, portraiture, commercial photography, etc.) have had local contrast and density adjustments, known as dodging and burning in the darkroom world.

Ansel Adams once said that a B&W negative is like the musical score of a symphony, and the resulting print is the performance. (Adams was actually a highly trained pianist that could have had a career as a professional musician — seriously!) As in music, the raw material present in the negative (or RAW file) is artistically interpreted by the photographer to make a final print that communicates emotionally with the viewer. Dodging and burning are key tools that Adams, and every B&W photographer of note before or since, have used to achieve that goal.

My own photography took a noticeable leap forward when I learned how to dodge and burn effectively — leading the viewer’s eye around the image, emphasizing key elements and diminishing others. A number of books and websites helped with that learning process (which I believe applies equally to film and digital photography) and I’ve listed a few of them here.

  • Books by the UK photographer Eddie Ephraums. I learned a lot from his mid-1990s text Creative Elements, which takes the viewer from straight proof prints to finished products, showing how he creates interest and drama. I highly recommend this one, especially to 35mm photographers — almost all of the examples in Creative Elements were shot on 35mm Ilford XP2 Super (a chromogenic-process B&W film that anyone can use).
  • Ansel Adams’ Examples, which provides a huge amount of detail on the making of some of his best-known images. The sheer number of individual manipulations he made on some of this work is mind-boggling — Adams definitely had an eye for fine detail.
  • The website of contemporary photographer Rolfe Horn. He provides a number of technical examples in the style of Ephraums and Adams, showing how he aligns his darkroom work with his creative goals. (Check out the galleries, too.)

Any more? Add them in the comments!

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