Tag Archives: photography

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.

Too. Much. Information.

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I remember when I got my first serious 35mm SLR camera. It was a Zenit EM, carved from solid lead, and with an instruction booklet that had maybe 24 pages in total. From the booklet you learned about loading film, about settings, about taking a picture, about winding the film on a frame, and about all the natty accessories you could get to complement your camera.

All so simple. Even the Olympus OM10 instruction booklet was slim and to the point. Let’s face it, analogue photography was a much simpler affair all round.

Not that I don’t like my digital cameras. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love them, but I really enjoy using them to make images. The immediacy of digital, I think, has made me happier to experiment and play.

A downside, though, is modern digital cameras are just so eminently adjustable. Once you get lost in the maze of menus, it is very easy to lose track. This is my problem. I’ve owned my EOS 7D for about 18 months now, and I have it pretty much set the way I like it. I think. I can’t actually remember some of the settings I’ve adjusted, or why I adjusted them. I keep rummaging through the menus, vainly trying to recall whether it was C.FnIII-12 or C.FnI-4 where I set the noise reduction levels or AI Servo 1st/2nd img priority, and why would I want to register an AF point anyway‽

You might say I should read the manual more thoroughly. This is very true, but herein lies another problem. The manufacturer’s manual is great at explaining what Button X does when you press it, and what Custom Function Z does when you set it. It’s not at all great at explaining what Button X and Custom Function Z are actually for! It’s all very well being informed that pressing Button X makes a beep, but why and under what circumstances would I require a beep to be made by pressing the button? Take my beef about registering an AF point, mentioned earlier. Great. I know how to do that, but not why I would want to do that. I’m digressing, as I tend to when I am in full-on rant mode! Back to the theme…

All the while the camera seems to be working as I want I feel comfortable. There is a nagging doubt, though, that there is something I have neglected, or accidentally switched on when it really would be better switched off. So, the time has come for me to reset everything back to the way it was when Canon shipped it out of their factory.

Why am I apprehensive about doing this? I don’t know. Part of me worries, I think, that I might forget to switch back on a feature I use a lot. A larger part figures it is a Good Thing to start afresh occasionally. After all, I’m still discovering new things about the machine, and a reset may well let me learn something else new. 

You couldn’t say that about the Zenit or Olympus. Once you’d mastered the basics, you just got on with things. Digital cameras are a whole new species in comparison.

500px / Photo “English Summer 2012” by Heather Kavanagh

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We’ve had a string of heavy storms across the south-east this afternoon. Once they reach my neck of the woods they get stuck in the Medway valley, where they roll around and around until they run out of steam. About every half an hour or so we get a bout of torrential rain, impressive bolts of lightning and some glorious rumbling thunder. These storms simply don’t seem to be running out of puff.

Breakfast 366 – June – a set on Flickr

Another month of breakfasts under my belt!

The start of July marks the half-way image in my Breakfast 366 Project. June, meanwhile, saw two cooked breakfasts amid the sea of toast and toast-related images. That’s about as exciting as it’ll get for the year, I think.

While I have been stuck in something of a rut, occasional bouts of creativity—such as the toast alphabet, for example—meant I have managed to keep chugging along. I might yet see this thing through.

For those blessed with Flash-free devices, here’s a link to my Flickr set for June 2012.

Avebury – a set on Flickr

A set of photos from my first ever visit to Avebury. I must go back one day. It’s a place that really needs to be lived in or near for a while so you can learn its moods. A couple of hours dodging other tourists is not the best way to understand something so large and so ancient, in my opinion.

What’s Avebury? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avebury

Link to Flickr for those not blighted by Flash.

Metro comes out fighting for photographers’ rights

I love to see papers campaigning on issues of civil liberties and freedom, and I was particularly impressed with the fact that Metro produced a simple layman’s terms explanation of photographers rights in a cut-out-and-keep format.

As the weather begins to improve—it will sometime, I promise—it’s always worth refreshing the memory about the rights and wrongs of being a photographer. Good on the Metro for holding out for our freedoms.

Hat tip to @paullewismoney for the link.