Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

San Francisco, Geometric and in Black and White

AirTrain View, SFO - San Francisco, California

AirTrain View, SFO – San Francisco, California

I recently post processed a set of photographs that I took last month in San Francisco. Several of these images were particularly geometric or architectural and I thought would look good in black and white. Each of these four images share strong lines or shapes that look good when reduced to their basic elements by removing the color. I admit that when I took them, I wasn’t thinking, “these would look good in black and white”. I shoot all my photographs in color, and later in post processing, I convert some to back and white. Different scenes attract and beckon me to make a photograph. It might be because of the color or because of the glow and reflections of light. The carnival rides and food stands in my blog post, Rodeo Austin — tradition, variety and visual richness are a good example. The photographs on this post are entirely different. Color and light are not the most important elements. Consider black and white when the shape of an object or the leading lines are the primary attraction. Consider using black and white when the color detracts from the image or does not add value. I like to clarify and simplify the images by removing the dull uninspiring color.

I shot the top image on the AirTrain at the San Francisco International Airport. I was taking the train to the rent-a-car office and just happened to get into the front car. I saw the large picture window and wanted to use it to frame the view looking north. I shot several photos but this one was the best; the window was centered properly and there was less clutter. It also has the wonderful leading lines pointing towards the mountains. There are good reasons to shoot multiple frames of a similar scene. I decided on the concept but shot multiple frames, since the execution of each photograph changed as the train moved. Some frames had branching tracks and more clutter or some did not have the mountains in the distance. Because I shot often, I threw away the undesirable photos. This is the advantage of digital. You shoot extra frames and pick the best. I know some purists insist that you have a vision for an image and you execute that vision by shooting a single frame. I disagree. I have a vision but I let serendipity improve it. I’m not advocating the you take random photos and hope that something good magically appears; it is important to have an idea for a photograph. But once you have a concept, why not tweak it. Move around a bit, take a few extra frames to see if one is better than another. And if I took some more frames of the first image, I might have created a better photograph. There is part of highway sign on the left and some equipment on the right. Without these distracting elements, the image would be even stronger and simpler. Keep in mind that I didn’t have a lot of time to create this. I didn’t open up a tripod, level the camera and align all the lines. I was in a moving train, with other people and had minutes to capture this image. Other times, the opportunity for a good photograph may only last seconds. You can’t always over analyze a situation. Get the concept, shoot quickly and shoot often.

SFMOMA Stairs - San Francisco, California

SFMOMA Stairs – San Francisco, California

I got my car and drove to downtown San Francisco and ended up in the SoMA (South of Market) area. This is the first time I visited SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I’ve seen the exterior many times and I knew it had some neat architecture. I walked into the lobby and noticed the bold stair design at the end of the room; I instantly gravitated towards this feature. I shot many frames but there was a constant flow of people and I could not get a clear, person-less photo. This one turned out to be my favorite. As an architectural image, not having anybody in the frame might be preferable, but I did not have a choice. Having this person on the right does make for an interesting image. She breaks up the symmetry, gives a human element and a sense of scale. Shooting multiple images of the stairs allowed me again to pick the best image.

SFMOMA Skylight - San Francisco, California

SFMOMA Skylight – San Francisco, California

After shooting the stairs, I looked around some more. Nobody seemed to mind so I continued with my photography. I looked up and saw this wondrous skylight and did my best to frame the circle in the middle. I think the positioning of the person on the catwalk could be better and their inclusion in the frame is purely by accident. Perhaps if I took more frames, I could have chosen a better image, with the person positioned in a better location. When post processing, I knew I wanted to increase the shadows, to have a crisp edge where the circle met the dark ceiling. The image was monochromatic except for a pale blue sky. If I could have gotten a rich saturated blue sky, I might have kept the color, however, the pale blue ultimately was not bold enough. By making this black and white, it became all about the circle and the intersecting lines.

Apple at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts - San Francisco, California

Apple at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – San Francisco, California

The last image was taken a couple of blocks from the SFMOMA. I just happened to be in San Francisco the day before the iPad 3 announcement and Apple had rented the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for this event. I was not going to the event but thought it would be neat to take some exterior photographs of the venue. There were several other photographs with the same idea, a news crew from Australia and a photographer from a magazine. Normally, I would have waited for blue hour to get the most spectacular image. I’ve mentioned before that I love taking architecture shots at blue hour since the warm yellow glow from the building’s light contrasts nicely against the deep blue sky. I had a limited time in San Francisco so I didn’t want to wait. This image was taken too early and did not have any color in the sky. I think the white sky works better in a black and white photograph than in a color one. I also think the lines of the building and stairs stands out better in the colorless version.

So there you have it, four black and white images, each with its own shape. The first image is a rectangle, the second with hints of triangles, the third is obviously a circle and the last one is primarily of a cube. I think each one works better in black and white than in color. Perhaps these examples might give you some inspiration to do some black and white conversions of your own.


I took these photographs with my Olympus E-PL1 with the Panasonic Lumix 20mm f1.7. Please make sure to click on a photograph to see a larger image and hover over the photo to see the exposure details.

See more images from San Francisco on mostlyfotos, my one photograph per day photo blog.

9 responses

  1. wherethedaytakesme

    I love them, the black and white just really makes it pop.

    April 29, 2012 at 8:08 am

    • Thank you, wherethedaytakesme.

      April 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm

  2. Love the train window but the staircase shot is brilliant. Beautiful flow and nice range of tones.

    On the amount of frames, you have to do what’s right for you. Because I’m a photo editor in the day jobs, the last thing I want to do for my own stuff is waded through 36 frames of the same thing. Being cheeky here but you know what I mean.

    There is a set of willow trees by a river near here, and what I wanted was blue sky and decent breeze as if the willows were swaying. You would not believe the number of times I went to get those two seemingly simple elements to come together. When it finally did happen, I snapped 3 and got what I wanted. Doesn’t always happen like that, but I’m getting better. Travel is a little different, but lately I tend to walk around a bit without even looking through the camera and assess that way.

    I wanted to get a track shot something like years at the monorail in Seattle a few years back. No matter what I did, I could never manage to snag the seats up front. I solved that problem. I took my friend’s 12 yr old with me and sent him to run interference to get the front seats. Worked well – clear shooting!

    April 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    • Libby, love the Seattle monorail story. I know what you mean about taking a whole lot of image of the same thing. Like everything in life, there is a balance. 1 or 2 shots may not be enough but 36 maybe too many, depending on the topic. I think I took about 5 – 6 frames and picked this one. Swaying stuff like willows are tricky. I imagine a small change in shape can make a big difference.

      April 30, 2012 at 12:32 pm

  3. Tony

    You were really inspired on this trip.

    May 1, 2012 at 12:03 am

    • Thank you, Tony. Sometimes I get lucky.

      May 1, 2012 at 12:09 am

  4. The AIRTRAIN photograph is GREAT!

    May 2, 2012 at 11:25 am

  5. Wonderful eye/vision you have. Well done!

    June 3, 2012 at 10:04 am

    • Thanks Don. And you have some fantastic landscapes. Someday, I would like to go with you and try my hand in the natural. As you know, the vast majority of my images tend to be of man-made variety.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:17 am

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