Shades of Grey

The human eye has evolved to see colour. We live in a world where colour is as important to us as movement. Humans use colour to attract and to warn. Colour excites us at a very fundamental level.

Why, then, does black and white photography remain so appealing?

For much of its first century, photography was monochromatic. This was chiefly a function of the chemistry used to capture and recreate an image. Colour capture and rendition—beyond hand-tinting black and white prints—had been the subject of experiments since the beginning of photography. Affordable colour photography only really started in the 1930s, as industrial chemistry advanced to allow the subtle hues of the world around us to be captured reliably on an inexpensive film substrate.

Even so, black and white photography continued to be in the ascendant until the 1960s, by which time the overall costs of colour film production and processing allowed it to become the accepted norm.

Black and white became the exception, rather than the rule, some time in the 1970s. Black and white seemed old fashioned, a throwback. Even movies and television were in colour, so why would anyone use black and white film? Enthusiasts and art photographers continued to use black and white, of course, but colour was king.

Colour imaging remains top of the heap, in our high-definition and almost infinitely accessible digital world. Everyone has access to a digital imaging device, be it a cell phone, compact camera or top-flight SLR. The world is shot in colour, shared in colour. Surely there is no place for monochrome photography any more?

There are fancy “effects” modes on every device that mimic sepia or black and white, but these are meant as playthings. Snap a photo of the kids playing in the garden, convert it to sepia to make it look old-fashioned, and upload it to your social networking site for the world to see. It’s just a gimmick.

Black and white photography, however, simply won’t go away. Perhaps due to the relatively simple processing techniques, professionals and enthusiasts alike have continued to photograph using black and white film. Digital photographers, too, are keen to convert their work to black and white. There are plug-ins and tutorials specifically designed to let you convert your digital images to monochrome and even to add simulated film grain. I’ve been selecting and converting my digital photos into mono versions since I got my first sensible digital stills camera a decade ago.

Type “black and white” into the search bar of Flickr, and the results are interesting.

  • Over 8.5 million images are returned tagged with the search term “black and white” alone.
  • Two groups are listed, between them with almost 175,000 members who have posted over 3.5 million black and white images. There are numerous smaller groups starting all the time. I’ve recently joined a new one, called The Monographer. It started about a week ago, and already has 29 members who have posted 111 mono images between them.

What is the draw? Why does black and white photography still hold a fascination for us in this technicolor world? These are hard questions to answer.

For me, shooting black and white—I have actually set up a custom setting on my DSLR to shoot monochrome in camera, but more on this later—is a way to concentrate on the art of photography. A mono image removes the visual clutter of colour, leaving the viewer to see detail and subject matter more clearly. Losing the element of colour seems to make me work harder at choosing subjects.

Telling a story is part of being a photographer. Removing distractions in your images helps this storytelling process. Landscapes and skyscapes appear more dramatic in monochrome. B&W also works well with graphic elements and abstracts. Perhaps this is why black and white photography is still with us.

Where am I going with this? My initial idea was to try and work out why I have found myself going out with my camera set to monochrome. I want to shoot in black and white so often of late it’s become something of an obsession—and one I seem to share with many other photographers it seems.

Let me fill in some background first. Back in the good old days of 35mm film, I owned two Olympus OM-10 bodies. One would be loaded with a 400 ISO black and white negative film, the other with colour. I would use the mono camera in a documentary style, capturing details, mood and so on. The colour camera just recorded the scene.

As I moved to digital, and I started caring about processing my images in the “digital darkroom”, I would often try a mono version of a colour image. I would also try desaturating, colour toning and all the other gimmicks available. I found I liked a good, contrasty mono image over a colour one. Something about that style of image spoke to me. Darker shadows, slightly blown highlights, some noise that mimicked film grain.

I continued to convert colour images to mono as I progressed with my camera gear. With my first Canon DSLR I switched to shooting RAW quite quickly. The RAW format, as its name suggests, is all the data, warts and all and unprocessed, captured by the sensor at the time of pressing the shutter release. With the right software you can open the RAW image and work with it. You can change colour balance, pull back blown out highlights or underexposed shadows to reveal detail otherwise lost and so on. The possibilities are almost endless, and include making the image monochrome.

Interestingly, you can also work the other way. As I mentioned earlier, most cameras can be set to capture monochrome images. The snag usually is it only works in JPEG format, which means it’s a black and white image as soon as it’s saved to your camera’s card. If you later decide B&W isn’t right, you’re stuffed. It is possible with the Canon—I assume also possible with other brands—to shoot a mono RAW image. Remember, shooting RAW captures all the unprocessed data seen by the sensor. This also includes colour data, even when shooting monochrome. What happens is the camera shows you the black and white JPEG preview, which means you can work in black and white on a shoot without having to try and guess how an image will turn out later in post.

It also means you can restore the colour in post.

I’ll let that sink in for a second or two. Shoot in mono, and still get the colour later? It’s win-win: shoot in black and white, but know you can restore the colour if the image might benefit from it. I love it!

What caught me out at first is the need to tell your favoured processing software to import with the monochrome tag in place. I was a bit surprised to see colour images on first importing my black and white shots!

I am not a great fan of HDR, as previous posts here testify. However, I have seen some stunning HDR black and white work. Yes, the technique does work for mono images, and has the bonus you don’t see the over-saturated colours that are the hallmark of bad HDR.

I fully intend to continue making black and white images directly in my digital camera. I enjoy it, I like the results, and I think it helps to improve my photographer’s eye.

To finish up, here are some comparison images. All were originally shot in mono in camera, with some post processing enhancement. The comparison colour images are from the same original RAW with my usual processing. I’ve cropped them to fit the blog format. I leave it up to you to decide whether the mono or colour image is best. I know which I prefer.

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