THE MONTH I GOT MONO
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FIRST DAYS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER occurred just after color film had almost completely supplanted black and white for daily use. Certainly, many snapshots and news images were still shot on b/w, but, as my father was a slide shooter all the way, I cut my teeth on Kodachrome and Ektrachrome and what NBC used to call “living color”. I was also heavily influenced by View-Master travel reels and scenic mags like Arizona Highways, and so, again, not a lot for the mono side of my infant brain to feed upon.
Later on, as I educated myself on the Old Masters, I grew to appreciate grayscale at its finest, but still tended to shoot primarily in color, with the exception of the odd side project. With that in mind, it occurred to me recently that, while I had done several lengthy shooting walkabouts over the years in order to speed up my learning curve with various bits of gear, I had seldom, if ever, done a long stretch purely in black and white. A newly acquired camera seemed the perfect time to give myself mono for a month.
One thing which interested me in expanding my visualization in b&w was that the latest cameras can do so much more than just shoot “without color”. Grayscale can be so much more nuanced than merely the absence of hue, and today’s in-camera settings can allow more attenuation in contrast, sharpness and tone than was ever possible in the past. Another selling point was the ability of most recent full-function cameras to place a complete custom configuration of settings at your fingertips by, essentially “storing” them on a dial-able slot in the mode wheel (U1, U2, U3 modes for Nikon, C1, C2, C3 for Canon, and so forth) This allowed me to quickly shoot with both sides of my brain when needed, dialing between, say, manual mode (in full color), and a U1 mode pre-programmed with every little flavor ingredient I want in a mono shot.
The take-home is just this: the mere increase in ease of operation made me shoot more, and with greater enthusiasm, in black & white than I would typically ever do. With just a little prep, my eye got used to consistently composing for what mono does best, getting me used to thinking primarily in that particular tone palette. And, although I know that many prefer merely to take a master shot in color and convert it to mono later on at their whim, I believe that deliberately conceiving a grayscale shot in-camera is a distinctly different experience, one which is helped greatly with the use of electronic view-finders, which let you see precisely what the sensor sees.
Going forward, I will probably budget more mono shots into my overall output than I ever have before, all through the expedient of using the camera to, well, get out my own way. And, as I frequently assert, reducing the steps and hassle between conception and execution is the true superhighway to better pictures.