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One Chance Project: Not Seeing the Color in the Sierras

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The One Chance Project is a new ongoing photography project. It’s a challenge to myself and others to nail the exposure, composition, and creative choices during capture because no post-processing is allowed.  What can you do with a JPEG?  Join our Flickr group to show us!

I recently went on a five-day camping trip down US395 in the eastern Sierras, one of my favorite areas to explore. There seem to be infinite views and points of interest on this stretch of highway, and there’s no way I’ll see them all before I pass on to the next world. I better make an effort though.

I want to see the Palisades again!

On one of the days, I wanted to hike up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek to get some amazing views of the Palisades still covered in snow. I had been on the other side of these impressive mountains a few years earlier while hiking the John Muir Trail.

I’ll save you the suspense. The creek was too swollen to cross, and even if I could, a thick sheet of snow and ice covered the first set of steep switchbacks and I didn’t have my crampons or ice axe. Or a buddy. I was wearing my Mountain Rescue Association Technical Rock Rescue shirt and I’d rather die of exposure and never be found than be rescued/recovered wearing that shirt. That makes sense, right?

Still, it was a pretty hike with good views of the mountains and snow for what I could complete.

Recalibrating my eyes

I started on this mid-morning hike taking color photos. I used my Bright Landscape preset that uses the Velvia simulation, but I knocked the color down a bit to avoid the colors getting too much attention. All we had were blues and greens, and the haze & reflections almost made the mountains look too blue, even with a Kelvin white balance tipped towards warmer temperatures.

But I was just bored with the color photos. The views just lacked pizazz, I guess, and it wasn’t too exciting from a photographic standpoint.

What popped out at me more were the shapes, contrast, and textures. I switched over to my Acros (black & white) preset. Voila, it became an entirely new scene.

I also set the red filter for Acros (Acros-R in the camera). A red filter is commonly used in black & white landscape photography. It only allows red light through (making reds brighter) while blocking the opposite of red – blues and greens. This makes the sky darker and helps the clouds pop out, while also making the trees darker, helping them stand out against a bright background. You could do this all in post-processing, but that’s not allowed with this project! You’ve gotta think about that first!

Now seeing in black & white I was able to focus on the shadows of the clouds dancing over the ridges, the curves of the glaciers hanging on to the mountains, and get a better feel for the geology that formed this place.

I favored a slight underexposure in reading the histogram, to avoid making the glaciers glow and also to bring out more texture in the rock.

Overall I was pretty happy with the decision to do this in black & white, and how they came out.

It was a rather unremarkable scene as far as photography is concerned (to be there was something else). I think the decision gave me some keepers, rather than photos that I’d probably never look at again if I had stuck with color.

Changing my attitude towards black & white photography?

This project has been forcing me to reevaluate my two conflicting schools of thought regarding black & white.

My strong feelings have always echoed that of Steve McCurry: my world is in color, that’s how I see, and that’s how I’m going to photograph it.

But on the other hand, I’ve always recognized that if the colors are too distracting, if they take away from the image, or add nothing, then black & white may be a better option. That was precisely the situation here, in my opinion.

The technical decisions

Gear choice

Custom setting

I started off modifying my Bright Landscape preset to take the colors down a notch, but quickly switched to my Acros preset. I modified this to add the Red filter.

  • Film simulation: ACROS-R
  • Auto white balance (auto gets it close enough when shooting in B&W)
  • Highlight tones +1, Shadow tones 0
  • Sharpening & Noise 0 (I’ve since readjusted my noise to -4 for this preset)
  • Grain WEAK
  • Dynamic Range AUTO

The photos

Here’s one of the first photos from the trail, in color. It’s not terrible. But the colors just didn’t do anything for me. The haze became more distracting as the sun moved higher.

south fork big pine creek trail

It just has so much more life now in black & white, at least to me.

south fork big pine creek
aspens big pine creek
Isolated stands of aspen provided the only shade along the trail. High contrast scenes like this are difficult in color but seem to work better in black & white.
hiking palisades
Backpackers make their way up the trail to Willow Lake – a destination I wasn’t willing to try without crampons, an ice axe, and a partner.
south fork big pine
I could watch the shadows of the clouds move over the mountains forever.

Photography is subjective, but what are your opinions on the color versus black & white here?