By MICHAEL PERKINS
COLOR PHOTOGRAPHY WAS NOT UNIVERSALLY WELCOMED at its initial introduction, and was even actively avoided for the most part by the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who mistrusted the technology of early color reproduction as garish, unnatural. While the amateur world largely lauded color as more “real”, Ansel & co. countered, between clenched teeth, “that ain’t the point”. Their argument: black and white was an artistic interpretation of reality, not a reproduction of it, whereas color was erroneously assumed by the public to be a more accurate record, even though it also suffered from its own biases and excesses. Some of the early masters never really came to be at peace with color, although they shot in it, and did foresee a time when photographers would choose it over b&w not for novelty’s sake, but because of what a particular project demanded.
I sometimes begin planning a shot in color, only to find that it provides too many choices for the eye. That is to say, all tones will register as distinctly different from each other, and this may make for too much information, blocking the clarity of the photo’s design. The result may be beautiful, but it may also diminish the impact of the final picture. In these cases, it’s worthwhile to at least work up a monochrome vision of my shot to see if it communicates more directly.
In a situation like the above pattern of shades and light shafts, color gives you brilliant blues and off-whites for the darks and lights, and a real hodge-podge of hues in all the crannies of the metal grids. However, rather than de-saturate the color to make b&w, I found it better to shoot the master image in black and white, using a red filter and a polarizer to maximize contrast, forcing all the dark and light shades into two hard-line general values. This forces the design to be the primary attention-getter, eliminating the distraction inherent in a full raft of colors. That is, if the deepening composition of gridwork is the main message of the photo, then it makes sense to get the color out of the way of that story and see if it helps.
In the end, Uncle Ansel had it all psyched out:
When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
Yeah, what he said.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SHOOTING IN BLACK AND WHITE, BEFORE THE DIGITAL ERA, WAS AN ACTIVE, RATHER THAN A PASSIVE CHOICE. You had to decide, before loading your camera, what an entire roll of film would be able to capture in terms of color/no color. There was no way to change your mind until that roll was completed and replaced. As you pre-chose film speed, light sensitivity, or special processing considerations, you also committed, before Frame One, to a single tonal option.
If you are really getting long in the tooth, you can remember when monochrome was the default choice for most of your film shoots. Economy was one factor, and, for certain shooters, including many of the pros, there was a lack of confidence that color films could render nature reliably. Giants like Adams, Edward Weston and others eschewed color throughout most of their careers, since they feared that either garish emulsions or the limits of extant printing processes would betray them in a way that black and white would not. And of course, in a world in which post-processing meant the skillful manipulation of a negative and the mastery of print-making, monochrome was simply an easier beast to tame.
Wow, are we ever in a different place.
Today, we can change our “film speed”, light sensitivity, and every kind of color emphasis frame-by-frame, and for many of us, color is our first choice, with many monochrome images post-processed from shots that were originally multi-hued. Photoshop and countless other programs allow us to have it all, with endless nuanced permutations from a single capture. Black and white is now often an “effect”, an after-thought derived later rather than sooner in our thought process. Oh, look what happens when I push this button. Cool.
Most users’ manuals for today’s cameras, especially DSLRs, actually advise converting color images to b&w in “post” rather than enabling the camera’s picture controls to shoot monochrome in the first place. The prevailing opinion seems to be that results will be better this way, since processing offers finer-tuned controls and choices, but I take issue with that, since I believe that color/no color as a choice is best made ahead of the shutter click, no less than choices about aperture or DOF. You need to be thinking about what black & white can bring to your shot (if anything) as part of your pre-shoot visualization. The tonal story in a picture is simply too important for you not to be planning it beforehand.
The quality of in-camera monochrome modes for both Nikon and Canon are both perfectly adequate to give you a workable image versus converting the shot later with software, and that’s good, because getting the shot right in the moment is better for the result than infinite knob-twiddling after the fact. Monochrome is a tool for telling a story or setting a mood. It makes sense that its use be tied to what you are trying to achieve as you are planning it….not slathering it on later as an oh-this’ll-be-keen novelty. That’s Instagram technique, not photographic technique.
One great habit to retain from the days of film: anticipate your need, and shoot according to that need. Plan ahead. “Fix it in the lab” only works for shots with slight imperfections, frames in which the concept was sound enough to warrant painting away a few flaws. Going to black and white to save an iffy shot is a Hail Mary pass at best.
As as we all know, you don’t always get what you pray for.
That’s the truth. In black and white.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye.