Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

A Magical Black and White from the Ordinary

Congress Avenue Light Streaks

Congress Avenue Light Streaks – Austin, Texas

Magical? Maybe, maybe not. I guess it’s up to you to decide, however, this photograph more than any other so far has convinced me of the merits of black and white photography. I am not going to abandon color for a pure monochrome existence but I’m enjoying the simplicity of this form of photography. The original image was a throwaway. Something I took, experimented with and almost rejected. I took several frames in the same spot and this one was the best, nevertheless, the image in color did not look compelling enough for me. Not good enough to use as my daily post on Flickr. On a whim, I did a black and white conversion. It looked promising. I did some more post-processing tweaks and I came up with something I liked. Feedback from this Flickr post was encouraging — many people also seem to like the image. I know the Flickr community has the nicest people and they tend to say nice things in general but there seemed to be more interest than usual for this image. That got me thinking. Why do I and some others like this photograph so much?

I analyzed the photograph more than usual. Why do I like the black and white version, while I was about to throw away the color image? Take a look at the original below — the same composition and framing, of course. The main problem with it in hindsight is that it is too busy — too colorful. There are white, yellow and red light streaks that dominate the picture. There is the blue sky and the yellow street lights — the bright street light in the top left corner is particularly distracting. Beyond the colors, there are all the details that in buildings, the windows, the parked cars that just seems to add noise and confusion to the frame. Now, take a look at the black and white version, again. With the lack of color, all the confusing lights blend together into a consistent white which greatly simplifies the photograph. The building details are also diminished as well as the other elements on the street. With this simplification, other elements become more noticeable. I particularly enjoy the light reflecting off the street and the street texture that it uncovers. The buildings become somewhat more abstract with varying geometric shapes that act as a background to the white light streaks. The entire character of the photograph has changed from a jumbled image of color to one of light, shadow, texture and geometric shapes. That’s why I think its works better in black and white.

Of course the photograph is far from perfect. I can think of several things that can improve this image. If the photograph was even simpler, it might be even more eye-catching. The branches on the left are distracting. The cars on the street add to the clutter underneath the light streak. And while the building details are diminished, I wonder how it would look if most or all the details were erased. Would having black geometric silhouettes make the image better? It may appear more abstract. Maybe that would be better or maybe just different.

What do you think?

Click on the images to see a larger version.

Congress Avenue Light Streaks (original(

The Original out of the Camera

My Thought Process

I took several photographs from the same area. I moved my camera slightly to try to get the best composition. I wanted the light streaks and the street to act as leading lines that would direct the eye down into the photograph. I waned to highlight the tall building and make sure there was sort of a balance between the buildings and the trees on the left. The tall building called the Austonian is a luxury condominium and is the tallest structure in Austin. It has become the newest landmark and I wanted to prominently showcase it in my photograph.

Long exposure light trails are easy to do with a tripod. I usually use the camera’s self-timer to reduce camera shake even when using a tripod. Just pressing the shutter can introduce some shake. A two second delay with the self-timer ensures a clean shot. The exposure was only 8 seconds long which means I had to time when the traffic would pass through my frame. I wanted to get long light streaks and between the self timer and the speed of the traffic, there is a bit of guessing and re-tries required to get a decent light streak. The shape of the light streak itself is all luck — it all depends on the type of vehicle that passes through. From this low angle, it’s nice to get different size vehicles to create a more elaborate light pattern. The relatively uniform hight of cars makes a pure car based light streak boring. Luckily, in this photograph, a truck passed by which added the thin lines above the primary thick lines.

[Note: Click on the images for a larger version]

Image Details

The photograph was taken in RAW with the Sony NEX-5 with the 16mm kit lens. The photograph was post processed using Aperture 3 and I used built-in black and white conversion adjustment. The sharpness and definition were increased and I added a vignette and slightly increased contrast to add more shadow around the edges.

Image 1 & 2: f16, 8 secs, +1 exposure compensation, ISO 200 at 16mm

4 responses

  1. Great idea on the B&W, I have seen allot of light rail shots, none in B&W though, great idea, looks nice here large on the blog!

    January 30, 2011 at 8:08 am

    • Thanks Mike. The shot is a bit different. Thanks for you visit and comment.

      January 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm

  2. What makes B&W work best for this one in my opinion is that you are shooting headlights and those are going to be blown highlights most of the time. It’s almost impossible not to blow them out and preserve any detail in the rest of the image at night. The pure white is way too distracting in the color image. The light trails blend much more nicer in B&W.

    I see what you mean by the distracting elements in the upper left. In both images the left street light tends to divert my eye. I’ve seen the same thing in my images before and try to compose lights away from corners and sides. It’s not always easy downtown!

    Great writeup as usual!

    January 31, 2011 at 8:53 am

    • Mike, you also make an excellent point. I also agree that the distracting elements are more of a challenge downtown and there are several ways to address them. I could have also cropped it out but I prefer the framing I have for this photograph. Thanks for your comments.

      January 31, 2011 at 9:59 am

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