Thursday, 1 January 2009

Developing a view in monochrome

Kang Yatze, Ladakh, August 2008

Anita Jesse asked in a comment over at Stills how I came to seeing in black and white. The response turned into enough for a whole post, so here it is.

Black and white is actually a relatively recent thing for me, in comparison to how long I've had a camera in hand. i tend to think of my "serious" photography as starting when I first bought an SLR (about 12 years or so ago) but I've certainly being taking pictures for much longer than that. However, it was really with digital that I started with black and white, maybe that last 4 or 5 years. It's been a gradual process and I've learnt a few things along the way so here it is, laid bare.

(All you proper photographer types can look away now, this will all seem rather trivial.)

There have probably been three or four distinct steps to getting where I currently am. In the first instance was that whole "wow, digital allows to to use all these cool effects" step. Black and white was as much an effect as a deliberate act. Don't just treat it as an effect and don't hope the greyscale button will rescue poor images. Amateur mistakes (and photo mag hokum). This, however, didn't last long as I quickly realised that the street photography I was doing (and much other candid stuff) was distracted by the colours. I started quite quickly to treat photography of people as monochrome (I never really did this sort of photography pre-digital).

Some of my landscape worked developed with the vision of black and white. I set out to make monochrome images, spurred, I guess by classic landscape photography (think Group f/64 etc). What I started to realise was that these two threads of black and white work were converging on a single focus (or branching from a common source, take your pick of metaphor) that being the idea of shape or form. Black and white was a way to picture things that were not colour - the behaviour of people, shape of the land etc. Colour was, thus, distinctly about that: colour.

I've been using a lot of black and white film for the past couple of years, driven by camera choice. I find that large and medium format is great for quite a lot of my landscapes and a rangefinder ideal for quick reactions on the street - classic formats for classic subjects. But the same principles are applying to how I use digital, too.

And this is where I come onto the final stage - instinctively seeing subjects in black and white. the key things I've learnt about form and shape are now part of my reaction to those subjects. plenty of practice with black and white film has helped teach me how to see in that way. Bringing these two together lead to an instinctive response regardless of the camera in my hand. i now make black and white shotes in digital without even thinking, the image with this post is such an example. In fact, if I come to process such an image some time after taking, it may not actually make sense to me until I turn it into black and white - I can miss what I was seeing after the event when it's presented to me in colour.

So to Anita's orginal question, how long did this take? Hard to put a time on it. Certainly a few years, but the pace has accelerated. Working specifically in black and white helps. Focussed attention to certain subjects does, too. And finally, having a clear notion of what I was picturing in black and white has been essential.

Hope that helps.


  1. Thanks for this - I think your points about black and white are far from trivial. (Or then they are trivial the same way a mathematics teacher may skip a difficult but essential proof.)

  2. Thank you for this detailed response. What a lovely and enlightening Happy New Year gift.

    One phrase that sticks with me is "I can miss what I was seeing after the event when it's presented to me in colour." It says a great deal about the state of mind and seeing that you have cultivated for shooting and it's fascinating that you are more likely to be distracted from that vision after the fact, than in the field.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Interesting and good read

    kind regards
    Sune / Jonson PL


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