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 asthe 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....