Shortly after the opening of my new exhibition Land Within Land, Scott David Gordon recently interviewed me for his podcast Austin Talks. He picked up on many of the ideas I shared during my gallery talks … and ran with them.

As he said, “If you are looking for a technical discussion on Photoshop and cameras to choose this is not the one. We had a fairly philosophical conversation about many subjects including defining a mission in life, being present, nature, spirit of place, creativity, play, and how to find your own way as an artist and a human. I love how thoughtful and specific he is with his words and wisdom. It’s no wonder he is a sought-after lecturer and teacher.”

I hope you enjoy our conversation!

Find out more about Scott David Gordon here.

Listen to more Austin Talks here.


high key


mid key full scale


mid key high contrast


high contrast


low key

Most successful artists define a consistent palette for their life’s work, for periods during their careers, or for individual bodies of work. It’s one of the primary things that creates an easily recognizable signature style. This is as true for black and white photographers as it is color photographers.

You can precisely describe black and white palettes by identifying the overall lightness or key (high – light, medium, low – dark) and the amount of contrast (high, medium, low, none) held in three ranges of tones – shadows (zones 0-3), midtones (zones 4-7), and highlights (zones 8-10). Put more broadly, the dominant range of tone is identified first and then each range of tone can be described as expanded or compressed; a range of tone that does not exist in an image could be described as fully compressed.

Here are a few examples of black and white palettes drawn from the history of photographic practice both past and present.

Ansel Adams helped define the most widely used or classic black and white palette, using pure blacks, with deep shadows containing subtle detail shadows, almost pure whites slightly darker than the substrate carrying the image, with highlights containing subtle detail, and many shades of gray. This full scale palette uses a high degree of contrast in all three ranges of tone – shadows, midtones, and highlights.

The classic black and white palette is often varied slightly; most frequently less shadow detail is preserved. Greg Gorman modifies the classic black and white palette by deliberately eliminating deep shadow detail, creating a slightly more graphic appearance to enhance both the formal and dramatic aspects of his work.

It’s rare for an artist to use pure white, revealing the paper base within the image area. This is particularly problematic when a highlight intersects the image border; if it is pure white the border of the image (typically rectangular) is broken becoming a highly complex shape rather than a simple geometric one. Because it emphasizes the shape of the border, this practice emphasizes the graphic nature of images.

Alfred Stieglitz’s work epitomizes the many soft subtle moods of alternative or historic processes (such as platinum) with soft blacks and whites that compress the entire tonal scale. This medium key palette uses medium shadow contrast, high midtone contrast, and medium highlight contrast.

On occasion Harry Callahan employed a highly graphic black and white palette, using only a few blacks and whites and eliminating all grays. This high contrast palette uses a low degree of contrast in the shadows, no contrast in the midtones, and a low degree of contrast in the highlights.

Matt Mahurin constrains his use of tone to a few midtones and a great many shadows with very little detail, creating a mysterious effect. This very low key palette uses no highlight contrast, medium midtone contrast, and low shadow contrast.

Joyce Tenneson’s ethereal early work was extremely high key, comprised almost entirely of delicate highlight tones, containing almost no midtones and trace amounts of black or near black. This very high key palette uses low shadow contrast, low midtone contrast, and high highlight contrast. Her style has since changed becoming full scale and warm toned.

None of the above palettes addresses the addition of subtle tints (hue and saturation) to images, which can substantially enhance the expressive characteristics of each palette. This is one more set of variables that can further expand expressive possibilities for visual artist’s.

These strategies for structuring tonal relationships can also be applied to working with full color images. The tonal structure (luminosity) of an image often lays the foundations for subsequent hue and saturation choices.

With practice and application comes realization. Given time and thought, you’ll be more able to articulate, to yourself and others, what it is you want to express.

Artist’s visions evolve and change. So do their palettes. It’s highly likely yours will too. Your palette can be varied appropriately and consistently to reflect this.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Learn more in my Black & White Mastery workshop.

Read more about black & white photography here.


May 30, 2012 | Leave a Comment |


The image highlighted is an outlier. While the rest of the images are shot aerially looking down, it’s shot at ground level looking up. It won’t fit with the rest of the images until more images like it are completed to balance the set within the set.

Outliers. They’re the images that don’t fit neatly in a body of work. Outliers test the code of a style or body of work.

Widely divergent outliers, if they’re good but not great, often indicate a failure to move beyond conventional to more personal ways of seeing. If they’re great, they may represent a valuable new area for discovery or even a breakthrough.

Moderately divergent outliers may be just what you need to advance a body of work by providing one or more valuable variations on a theme, adding new energy and content into the mix. This is particularly true if just one thing is changed from the characteristics of the larger set (angle of view, range, duration, etc), as what changes calls attention to itself and questions are asked about how this change expands our understanding of the subject or artist’s intent.

If outliers are included for the wrong reasons (like you can’t put the image aside for now or find another context for it), they often disrupt the tone and continuity of a collection of images. This weakens the overall effect. This is the jack-of-all-trades master of none syndrome.

If outliers are included for the right reasons (they display a different but related theme or way of seeing the same subject and provide new avenues for going deeper with your subject and your relationship to it), they strengthen both other specific images within a set and the group as a whole as well.

On occasion one (rarely more) outlier can work within a body of work, when presented as a prelude (before), turning point (middle) or after thought (end), to suggest other as yet not fully resolved dimensions within a body of work. Use this strategy carefully, as outliers draw a lot of attention to themselves.

Pay attention to outliers. They’re your worst enemies. They’re your best friends.

See more images in this series on Google+.

Read more about Bodies Of Work and Developing Personal Projects here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


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