8.04.2015

The formative years teach you to like things a certain way. You may change subject matter but the style and approach stays intact.


Everyone gets into the craft and art of photography at a different point in the continuum. The history of photography is like a stream which amateurs and professionals alike enter at different points as it runs through time and technical progress.  People entering the field now are looking at a whole series of references that draw almost exclusively on color photographs and color centric photographers. It just makes sense since there's no premium for color and the displays everywhere are optimized for color reproduction. Working in color is easier than working in black and white because a photographer is transferring the color from the object of his observation to the photograph with very little need for interpretive thought or multi-step cognitive processes. 

Photographers who were raised in the digital age work predominantly in color and see the process of making black and white images as an after-thought process. Something that can be done in addition to post processing the color files and making them ready for online sharing or inkjet printing. The way their consciousness has been formed around the practice of making black and white images is to see the process as very much a post production decision, as in: "this image might look cool in black and white." There is also much momentum for the argument of shooting everything in color even when the initial intention is to produce black and white as
the final artistic expression. The main reason being the ease of changing the tonal characteristics of the image by manipulating color channels to enhance or subdue the tonal relationships. Having a color file to work with makes it easier to emulate the use of traditional contrast filters (which is how tonal characteristics were manipulated in the black and white film age...) to change relative values. In film terms the yellow filter darkens the sky a bit, the orange filter darkens the sky a lot and the red (Wratten 25) filter makes the sky nearly black in photographs created on panchromatic, black and white film.

The digital practitioner slides sliders until an effect he likes emerges and then tries different sliders to see if the effect is enhanced or reduced. It's a process of trial and error rather than intentional, initial creation. The post processing "technician" can have his cake and eat his cake and then reset his cake and try again. There is no risk. No stretch. No need for the pre-visualization of a subject with the idea of creating it as a monotone, finished piece of art. 

Now consider the thought pattern of one who started out making images in black and white. Early experiments would inform the film working, black and white photographer pretty quickly that an unfiltered sky would usually be a bald, white sky in the final prints. That without a green filter leaves and faces would have the same tonal values. That without a red or orange filter glowering skies with puffy, detailed laden clouds would be flat and gray and uninspired. 

But working with the black and white mindset goes beyond the identification of tonal values and encompasses how the selection of subjects and their color relationships to each other affects the final image. How do you successfully capture a dark skinned face set above a white dress or a pale complexion juxtaposed on the top of a dark, formal suit? How will film grain affect the impression of sharpness and how will relative sharpness or acuity impact the appearance of depth?

The idea of the universal color file also ignores the personalities of different films, with their different structures and tonal emphasis. So if you grew up training yourself to recognize all these things it directly affects not only the selection process of which subjects to photograph but also the methodology for making the photographs in such a way that the color relations in the frame are defined by distinct shifts in gray tones. One might approach a portrait of a person framed against a wall differently if they are aware the wall will render in the same tonal area as the person's face. It might be necessary to move to one side or the other to leverage the fall of light and dark on the face in order to separate the face from the wall. 

There is also a mental process that's quite different between black and white shooting and color shooting. In color shooting the contrasts between colors and the emotional resonance of the colors themselves may be enough to make the image pleasing and to separate foregrounds, backgrounds and subjects. The black and white photographer must be able to use the contrast of the light to create tonal  differentiation effectively. Moving to place a darker background behind a lighter face or using the direction of light to carve out lines and implied motion in a subject. It's a more deeply layered understanding of the basic graphics of a shot as opposed to an all purpose file that can be manipulated in many directions. But the point is that the difference in working intentions leads to different preparation, different hunting and different directing. It's about more than just a variance in the media. 

When I started dabbling in photography I was a student and my parents were paying for three kids to go to college at the same time. There was no extra money for cameras or film or paper. And certainly no extra money for the much more expensive color films and processing. I worked in the dining hall at the big dorm on campus and saved up enough money to buy my first camera and then learned from the people who were also hobbyists but had been doing it long enough to know how the rudiments worked. My second major purchase was a bulk film loader. Then I learned that the labs would save reusable, Ilford film canisters if you asked nicely enough. If you were diligent you could roll about 25 rolls of 35mm film from an $18, hundred foot roll of bulk Tri-X. That's roughly seventy-two cents a roll.

I joined a co-op darkroom and learned how to develop film and how to print both contact sheets and regular, 8x10 and 11x14 inch prints. But what I really learned was how different color was from black and white. Early on I might see a girl wearing a bright, magenta sweater with lime green pants. Wow! A perfect shot for a colorist, but a disappointing collage of gray tones for a black and white photographer. That's why we were always on the hunt not only for the right subject but also the right light. Light that would angle across a subject and give us form instead of being able to depend on the energy provided by a battle of colors.  It was easier for us to learn portrait lighting as well because the black and white tones showcased the light's ratios, direction and contrast in a very obvious way. 

When I go out with the intention of shooting black and white now, in the age of digital cameras, I choose to set the camera up with a monochrome profile or preset. If the profile allows it I dial in a green or yellow filter to the mix. If I'm using the Nikon D810 I am delighted to be able to use the clarity slider in the preset in order to further fine tune the contrast of the mid-tones. All of this reinforces the black and white mindset while I am out and around making images. Since all the review images are rendered in monotone it helps my mind stay focused on the formalist task of consistently trying to see in black and white. As I shoot and review the rear screen on the big camera (or the EVFs on the little cameras) gives me feedback about how the tonality and contrast are working for various subjects. 

I might take a photograph of a big building because there's a deep, crystal blue sky filled with those puffy, contextual clouds we were talking about above. I want to make a shot with a dark gray sky contrasting with the detailed, but snappy, white clouds and I want the building to represent a third tone so that it stands out in relief as well. If I look at the review and the sky is flat and gray I know I need to go into the menu and switch the filter emulation to red or orange to get the tonal values better differentiated. I might also increase the clarity of the image if I am able. 

But importantly to me the whole process of finding objects to photograph in black and white, rendering them correctly in the camera and adjusting them in the iterative process of shooting is what defines the mindset of being a black and white photographer for that session. For that day of shooting. 

If the camera is set to color the subconscious capitulates to the lure of the color. The seeing is muddled and the outcome is different, diminished usually, by the interference of color in the thought process. 

You may think that you can plan all of this in advance, shoot and review in color and have somehow, somewhere, stored in the vice grips of your mind exactly what you'll be doing to make the color to black and white conversions in post of the images that present themselves to you now, but I don't believe it. It's too hard. The color, left to its own devices, is too seductive. The process in post is too fraught with choice to honor a focused intentionality in the same way that shooting on a roll of Tri-X forced one to adapt and be mindful of the nature of monochrome. 

Today I am shooting photographs of people and I'm using a D810 set up completely as a monotone camera. Right down to the choice of using only Jpeg Fine instead of hedging my bets and also shooting a color raw file. It may be the way my mind is wired but I have to commit to the format, and the black and white parameters, to make it all work for me. There is a difference in brain training between people who started shooting in black and white who then transitioned to color and then, finally, to digital when compared to those who didn't go through that process. Explaining it in either direction is difficult. But there it is....












8 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting thought provoking theme. I'd be interested for you to develop it more when you have a chance.

Peter Wright said...

I find that for me at least, most subjects look better in black and white than in colour, so I tend to shoot with B&W in mind from the start. I have two approaches; 1. Set my camera to show B&W on the rear screen, and shoot raw + jpeg fine, then do all my selecting using the jpegs and only use the raw files for the final processing. 2. Load a film camera with B&W film.

As I've been doing photography on and off for about fifty years (I can't believe it!) I started with B&W film, developed it myself to save money, got seduced by colour, got seduced by digital, and now at last I'm finally getting a handle on how I really like to operate. Colour and digital have a definite place, it just isn't front and centre.

Gato said...

Very interesting thoughts for me. I generally make the decision about color or black and white before I make the photo. The idea you describe is one I often see with young photographers (perhaps I should say new photographers) and up to now I have found it slightly irritating or offensive. It seems a sort of cheapening of the art/craft of black and white photography. But maybe that is just the way the world is today and I should get over it.

With film I always thought of myself as a black and white photographer. Though I did a lot of color commercial work almost all my personal photography was black and white. It was only after the coming of digital that I realized for me it was all about control -- once the computer gave me the same control of color as I had in the black and white darkroom I became primarily a color photographer. The one exception is portraits. I still prefer to photograph people in black and white.

Probably because of all those years shooting black and white film with optical finders it doesn't bother me at all to see color in the finder and on the LCD knowing I'll be rendering it to black and white. The only time I set the camera to monochrome is to help my subjects or clients visualize what we are doing. I prefer to process in Photoshop from color files so I can use color sliders to control tonality.

It is very rare for me to change my mind about color vs. black and white in processing, and then it is almost always to leave color in a photo I had planned as black and white. Sometimes in a portrait I will realize that colors in clothing, hair, eyes or surroundings really contribute to the image. I can only think of one time in the last few years I have changed an image shot for color to black and white, a photo of industrial equipment against a cloudy sky that just seemed to work better after removing what little blue was showing in the sky.

After your post I'll try to be more tolerant of the new folks. Maybe I'll even live long enough to come around to their view.

Nate said...

Reading this reminded me of the short story by Oliver Sacks "The Case of the Color-Blind Painter," and ones ability to perceive a scene in black and white.

Craig Yuill said...

Interesting topic!

When I started with photography I shot equally in colour and black and white. I generally preferred shooting in colour, but really began to appreciate black and white during a period of four years when I shot on 4x5 large-format sheet film. You are certainly right about using filters when shooting black and white film. Multi-colored foliage tended to come out as a mass of dark-medium grey, unless an appropriate filter was attached to the lens.

At one point I took two shots of each composition I made - one on color-transparency film and one on black-and-white film. The contrast between the two types of photos was interesting. I rarely shoot black-and-white images these days. But I do think my experiences doing so in the past makes me appreciate the importance of shadows and texture in photos.

Paul said...

I find it depends on what I want to emphasise light/patterns etc = b&w. Colour contrast/complimentary colours = colour
It also helps using an OM-D EM-1 with colour wheel that provides endless b&w filters to assess post processing possibilities.

James Pilcher said...

I too started out shooting b&w and processing in my own darkroom, about 40 years ago. To be honest, I was never very good at it, and I migrated to the allure of color. That my young wife liked color much more of course had nothing to do with it. :)

I admire your ability to take your Nikon out and be a b&w photographer for a session or a day. I've tried, and I almost always succumb to the siren song of color. Shooting jpeg-only in b&w probably does help the process a lot because you know there is no falling back to the full-color raw file.

That all being said, put a pure b&w camera into the ยต4/3 mainstream and I'll buy one. The Leica system is just beyond my ability to afford.

Don J Schulte said...

First time I ever felt like a photographer was my first roll of black and white film back in 1983 or so. I like to think I can switch modes (color vs b/w) when I out with my camera but it gets more difficult without a dedicated black and white camera knowing that my images will show up in color in Lightroom before it is converted. Great post as usual.