Adding A Sense Of Luminosity To An Image


A statue emerges from the darkness, into the light, in Bali, Indonesia.


The word luminosity has been most famously used by the great Ansel Adams to describe a particular quality within certain photographic prints. Back in the days of film a transparency or slide would commonly be viewed, by projected light, on or through a light box.

These days computer monitors allow us to view our digital files the same way. But a print, whether traditional or digital, is viewed by reflected light. When we look at a print some of the light is scattered as it reflects from the paper surface back towards the eye. This phenomena is particularly evident in papers with non-gloss surfaces.

What Ansel Adams was referring to by luminosity was the apparent presence of light emitting outwards from the print. This is, of course, an illusion as prints are viewed by reflected rather than transmitted light. Nevertheless, a beautifully produced print does seem to display this mysterious luminous quality.

Producing a Luminous Black and White Darkroom Print

Back in the day the search for a luminous print would involve the following:

  1. Good lighting, the key to all great photographs
  2. Careful exposure and processing of the film
  3. Optimal exposure of the print to ensure highlights print correctly
  4. Selective dodging and burning to lighten and darken specific areas within the print
  5. Correct processing of the paper to achieve optimal results
  6. Local bleaching to chemically lighten certain areas of the print. I used to love this step as I found it produced more of a luminous look than reducing the amount of light hitting the print via dodging
  7. Chemical toning to increase print longevity and intensify blacks. As a consequence of making the blacks appear deeper, the lightest areas of the print would appear more luminous
  8. Archival washing of the paper to remove all chemical residue

Appreciating Luminosity in a Black and White Print

These days software applications, like Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop, can be used to simulate the effect of luminosity in a print. But you can't hope to achieve the effect unless you know what it is I'm taking about. Could I suggest that, over time, you do all you can to visit photography galleries in major cities and actually view prints made by luminaries such as Ansel Adams, Minor White, Paul Caponigro and John Sexton. It's okay to do some initial research on the web, but that will only provide you with a virtual experience. To my mind the viewing of great black and white prints is akin to a spiritual experience and, therefore, well worth the effort to do some in person.   

Making Dancing in the Light

The above image was made in a temple complex in Bali, Indonesia. The fact that the almost colorless stone statue was illuminated against a much darker background made it a great candidate for rendering into black and white. I used Adobe Lightroom for initial processing and conversion into black and white. Adobe Photoshop was employed for some local burning (it still does a better job at that than Lightroom) to push any remaining details in the background into black.

By significantly darkening the background I've effectively removed some distracting elements and given the impression that the statue is coming forwards out of the blackness that surrounds it. The final touch was the addition of color through a serious of subtle warm tones into the shadows, midtowns and highlights.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru