Hi NPN, I’m very excited to answer your questions today! My name is Huibo Hou. I am a landscape photographer based in San Diego, California. I grew up in China and moved to the US in 1995 to pursue my graduate degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I then worked for a wireless communication company for 20+ years. Since 2018 I have been a full-time mom and a landscape photographer (whenever I can).
My main passion is black and white photography. I guess we all have our favorite genre and our own favorite way of creating. On the other hand, I don’t photograph exclusively in black and white. I think color and BW each have their own strength. You can see my work on my website https://www.huibohou.com/.
Like many landscape photographers, I am progressing from photographing grand landscapes to also paying attention to smaller scenes and from single best-moment images to using series for better story-telling. These are the areas that I am working on and trying to get better at.
I am open to and looking forward to answering any questions that are related to photography.
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Your black and white images are stunning and they have such beautiful tonality to them. I don’t shoot black and white often and I see I still have much to learn.
My question for you is this: Do you go out photographing with the intent of creating black and white images or do you decide that afterwards when you’re looking at your images on the computer?
And a follow up question if I may… If you go out shooting with the intention of creating black and white images, is there anything specific that you’re on the lookout for – subject matter, light, weather conditions, etc.?
Hi Huibo, thank you for participating in this AMA! Your images are stunning. I’m going to change my original question since someone else already asked it. Where do you draw inspiration from and who are some of your favorite photographers who inspire you? Thank you.
Good morning Gary! Good question. I often look for clouds that have good texture (i.e., not too busy) and use long exposure to create the clouds movement with a ND filter. My favorite ND filter is a 10x big stopper which I always bring with me. If time allows, I often take a few long exposures with different settings with exact the same composition, in order to achieve the best balance of texture , movement. So, sometimes this is not single image but no difference than the normal exposure blending. However, if the clouds texture is still not good enough after using these methods, I will use blur tool in Photoshop to improve the texture further until I like it. I was asked often whether I can completely rely on the blur tool (or any postprocessing in general) to smooth out clouds like that - for me, I never was able to create the effect with postprocessing only, so for me it is important to try to get it right as much as possible in the field. I was often asked how long I do long exposure - it really depends on the clouds texture and how fast they are moving (and if it is windy etc ), so the range is anywhere between tens of seconds to a few minutes. On the other hand I don’t usually expose longer than 4mins. I love doing long exposure. It is very zen. Hope this answers your question
Hi Bob, good morning! I just replied to Gary’s question which I think is very similar as yours. Hope that helps. The technique I described for clouds is also used for water. When I compose bigger scenes that include sky or water, I tend to first think about long exposure which is something I often use and enjoy doing. It often suits the quiet and dreamy mood that I want to create. On the other hand, I often need to be careful not to wash out the texture with the long exposure. So I think achieving the right balance between the softness and the right amount the texture is important. As for editing, as mentioned in the previous answer, my go-to tool is the blur tool in Photoshop if I want to further improve the texture and movement. My favorite blur tool is path blur. Hope this answers your question?
Good morning Tom! Great question. In my earlier days I’d only convert to BW if my color images didn’t look good (for example, flat light, no sunset color, etc). While it could work sometimes, I slowly realized that I can’t get consistent results with this approach. During one workshop with Guy Tal and Michael E. Gordon in Death Valley years ago, I first heard from them that a good BW requires a much earlier thinking process instead of an after-thought. This was like a light bulb went on in my head. I started practicing that approach. It does take time to sink in and takes time to get used to it. But once used to it, it sort of becomes a 2nd nature. Nowadays when I look at a potential composition, I do find myself unconsciously analyze whether it has good BW potential and how it would appear as the final image.
Anything specific that I’m looking for a potential BW image - yes. I usually look for two things: strong geometric patterns and/or if the scene has a particular mood that I think it suits BW. Then, as a personal preference, if these can be combined with simplicity then for me it has very good potential in BW. Hope this answers your question.
Hi Huibo - Thank you for participating in this AMA. You have some really wonderful work and I’m enjoying learning more about your photographic process here. My question is about locations and where you find inspiration for your photography. Do you like going back to the same places over and over again for your photography, or do you like the novelty of going to new places, or a mix?
Good morning Matt! Great to see you here too! Great question. Tonality is such an important thing for BW that I particularly strive for good contrast and good tonal control in my BW photos. Your question made me think - I’d say my first “secret weapon” is not a technical thing. It is that I am usually able to take my time to do the editing. As you may know that I don’t travel that often as a mom, so I am usually not in a hurry to edit my photos - I have time til my next travel. For most of photos I sort of know how I want them to look in the end (some vague, some more clear), so I can take my time to reach there. For serious work, I often edit iteratively. I’d stop once I have a baseline, then would sit on it for sometime and come back to it. I’d review and scrutinize it repeatedly until I like it.
On a more technical aspect, a few things came to mind - I like deep blacks but I also want my blacks have details. I almost never have large areas of pure blacks. I like drama but don’t prefer looking stark. This is just personal preference. How deep that the black should go entirely depends on the subject and mood. Then, to avoid flat looking or too-grayish look, I need to make sure the contrast can effectively take viewer’s eyes to the main subject or the main visual path, so an effective tonal separation is very important - both in the field and during editing.
I like simplicity, I usually do not like too many textures from everywhere in the frame (unless they are harmonious by design). Simplicity starts with composition and tonal control can help me further simplify texture and reduce distraction. Tonal control is a powerful tool to let me emphasize what I want viewers to see and de-emphasize what I don’t want them to focus.
Silver Efex Pro has been working out for me so far. I use it to give me a good starting point from tonality point of view, and I continue working on it back in photoshop. My primary tools in photoshop to work on tonality are curve tool and dodging & burning.
These are the few things that I can think of now. Hope that answered your question
It was a pleasant surprise to see you doing this here, since I first became aware of your work on IG.
I am also fond of black and white imagery, which is why I admire what you do, but I would say my own stylistic preferences tend to lean toward high key/high contrast monchrome… whereas your images utilize darkness and shadow more heavily. When you are envisioning scenes in black and white in the field, do you find yourself thinking of them through a “darker filter,” specifically, or is that just something that develops naturally in the post-processing exploration phase? I ask because I find that it’s one thing to pre-visualize and take note of the strongest tones, lines, patterns, etc. that naturally lend themselves to monochrome, but imagining the overall balance of light and darkness isn’t always something that come as easily to me until later.
Hi Alfredo, great to see you here and thanks for your kind words as always. There are so many great photographers that I draw inspiration from. Speaking of influences, when I started, I learnt a lot from John Shaw’s books and once I took his workshop hosted by the Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop, California, which was a turning point to my photography. . In recent years I always cite Guy Tal, Alex Noriega, and most recently, Bruce Percy, as my main source of influence and inspirations. Their approach, philosophy and their work have pushed me to become more thoughtful and creative. Brooks Jensen is another great influence on me. Lenswork magazine is a big part of why I fell in love with B&W, and I listen to his podcast almost daily. Hope this answers your question
Hi George, thanks for the question! The long exposure I refer to is not about the nightscape so I don’t usually need to consider the earth movement. Clouds movement is important. The goal of long exposure, for me, is to achieve the desired balance between softness and texture - not distracting from the main subject but not washed out either. So it really depends on the existing clouds texture and how fast they are moving, and how much wind it has. For windy situations, obviously I don’t want too much exposure time. If clouds are moving fast, I don’t need to a very long exposure either. To get desired cloud movement texture and to give me enough to work with in case I need it in postprocessing, I usually would do a few exposures with different settings. My range of long exposure time is anywhere between tens of seconds to a few minutes. So, if time, light, and condition permit, experiment. Hope this answers your question
Hi David, thanks for your questions and thanks for your kind words. Postprocessing is an essential part of my workflow. I consider it equally important as capturing the image in the field. Composition and capturing lay the foundation (I believe in garbage in garbage out), then postprocessing is where the initial idea or concept is realized with this solid foundation. Especially for B&W - currently I still shoot in color, then convert color to BW in postprocessing. So, how to map color to different tones and get the desired contrast and tonal separations is dependent on postprocessing. I particularly enjoy playing with tones during postprocessing.
I use Lightroom to convert RAW and do a few basic adjustment in LR, then I do the rest in Photoshop. I usually would edit in color mode until I think it is ready to convert to BW. I then mostly use Silver Efex Pro (integrated in my PS) to do the initial BW conversion (I am not an advanced Silver Efex Pro user as I only use its basic functionalities), then back to use the Photoshop tools to continue the edits with tools like curve, and dodging & burning.
I use Tony Kuyper’s TK Luminosity masks often, but I don’t use many of its advanced features (I should ) . I just use it to help me accurately select the masks based on luminosity or color. Even this basic feature can be quite powerful.