In some ways, Saturday's essay "Why Would a Digital Camera Have a B&W-only Sensor?" is one of the worst things I ever wrote. I struggle to try to express ideas clearly, but even as I was writing that one I already knew, in advance—before I had read one word of response—that too many people were going to miss the point. As I said to one commenter, the writer has to take some of the responsibility when readers don't understand. I work hard at trying to make myself understandable, I really do. But sometimes I fall down.
So I thought I'd pick myself up and try once more, from the top.
Try thinking about it in terms of temptations. What I'm saying is that if you're an upcoming digital photographer used to color who wants to really learn to see in black-and-white, color is like...heroin. No, that's too much; like candy—maybe sugar is a better analogy. Rats will prefer sugar-water to food literally until they starve.
Temptation makes you do things you shouldn't. I was in detox with a guy who escaped out a second-floor window in the middle of the night to go get himself some crack. Seriously, he hung out of the window and dropped to the ground and landed in some bushes. Color is not just a distraction, in this sense. It's a vice. A drug. Crack.
Oops, okay, er, sorry (hyperbole is such a temptation)—back to a milder metaphor: not like crack; like...catnip to cats. If color is there, you will gravitate to it. If you know the color file is in the camera, however deep it's buried, you'll see colors. Because we're weak, and color is seductive. (Or, as I once put it too sardonically, "when color became the way all cameras natively see, photographers went from photographing content and meaning to photographing reds and greens.")
And then you won't really learn how to see in B&W.
Or rather, some people won't. This clause is a problem in any web discussion. The Third Law of Writing on the Internet is, "No writer can ever qualify any point adequately."
Writer: X is only true for some people. It might not be true for you.
Person on the Internet: No, your argument is wrong, because X is not true for me.
As a commenter named Chris wrote late last night: "Having transitioned from being a mostly B&W film shooter to shooting digitally in almost all color, I am an example of your point; even setting the camera to process in B&W, I found I just couldn't give up the color subjects around me the way I can with B&W film; I know they'll be there, lurking in the raw file, and so I shoot those anyway, and lose the focus on B&W picture hunting."
As I keep saying, I'm only talking about a small group here, a minority. Some people are happy shooting color and don't want to master B&W. Some people never use crack and some people don't have a sweet tooth. You can include or exclude yourself as you wish. I'll concede that if people don't think they have any trouble with it, then I'm unlikely to convince them that they do. And some photographers, it must be acknowledged (though fewer than you might think, in my opinion), are true colorists. They respond to color; they work with color. Their work would be meaningless without color. Granted. We each define ourselves.
Rules to live by, except when you'd rather not
In many ways, most of my various recommendations about how to learn to be a better photographer could be seen to involve getting rid of "temptations." In quotes, yes—because of course it's not really a moral issue. Here are a few of the things I've advocated over the years for ambitious photographers:
• Settle on one axe. Why? Because then its interface will become second nature to you, and you'll learn intimately what it can and cannot do. You'll get comfortable with it. You'll get good with it. It'll become a friend. You'll know it inside and out. Buying cameras like toys and switching from one to the other all the time is a temptation. Succumbing to it prevents us from getting to know one camera well. (I should know.)
• Have a clear project with defined goals and ideas about the end result. Again, it reduces the temptation to become distracted. If you set out to document how people live in the suburbs, you then know enough not to waste your time with your macro lens in a flower patch you stumble across. If you're documenting the plant life of the Appalachian Trail, then maybe you know you need to document the prevalent flowers and you shouldn't waste your time with meaningless snaps of suburbs on the way to the trailhead. Focusing your intentions helps as much as focusing your camera. Otherwise it's just tourism.
• Settle on as few lenses as possible. Why? Because then you really learn each one. You learn the secrets of how the lens really sees. You learn, gradually, how to organize pictures most effectively with that lens. You'll learn to move, to place yourself, how to control perspective and geometry and backgrounds. And you learn to see how the lens will see even when you're not looking through the lens. To see what the camera will see without looking through the camera helps you see pictures.
• Never crop. Why in the world not? What harm could cropping do? Because imagining that they're going to crop everything later confuses people. Cropping is a crutch—you might have heard that said. If you point your camera at something in the heat of battle and think, "This composition doesn't look quite right, but I'll crop it later," you're fooling yourself. You simply can't see, instantaneously, in advance, whether it works as this or that crop or not; you can't try out all the possible crops in your mind. But if you're used to using the whole frame, then you know you have to get it in or out. You can recognize—visually, instantaneously—when you've gotten it right in the viewfinder. But if you crop all the time, you'll never learn.
Besides—I'm digressing now, a constant temptation to me as a writer—you can only crop one way: in to a smaller area of the frame. You can't crop outward, to things outside of the frame. Remember this snapshot from last weekend?
I didn't think consciously about getting the program and the "Premium Seating" sign and the tag around his neck into the frame. I just do it because I always do. What if I'd shot it this way...
Thinking, "Oh, well, it doesn't look quite right, but I'll crop it later"? Later, I'd think, hmm, mebbe I should have gotten his tag, and the sign, and the program, and his whole left forefinger into the shot. But you can't include more than you shot. Too late now.
Cropping is a temptation that makes you into a worse photographer if you depend on it regularly. Giving in to temptation is a weakness. Cropping is a weakness. Get it right in the viewfinder, each time; you'll find you start to miss fewer and fewer shots.
Of course, what I really subscribe to in practice is the way one of my teachers, Frank DiPerna, once (amusingly) put it: "I absolutely never crop under any circumstances, except when I want to." The same sentiment is probably true of all my other recommendations as well.
But can you see that what I'm talking about is all about training your eye and your mind more than anything?
Some can't help but see what the camera sees
So all I'm saying about a B&W sensor is not that I don't know all the workarounds; I do. I'm not saying that some people don't make successful B&W pictures with normal color digital cameras; some do. If you're convinced you "see" B&W whenever you want to, maybe you do. I'm not even saying that there are no advantages to shooting B&W with a color sensor; there are some.
Well-intended as all of those comments were.
I'm just saying it would be nice if the camera industry with its current choice of 497* different models could spare two or three that shoot monochrome-only, for those who want that. I mean, would it kill Canon or Nikon or Sony to come out with a monochrome variant of one of their popular entry- or mid-level DSLRs? That were really optimized for pictorial B&W output? Would it really cost that much? Is it really technically so difficult? Naturally it wouldn't sell as well as the color version, what with all those catnip-loving cats out there in the GP. My point is not that it would sell well, but that it might be latched on to by significant photographers to create significant photographic work. Surely that's worth something, even to a corporation.
We need some company that's really devoted to the art of photography. Heck, that could be its name—call it the "EOS Fine Art," say. Surely it would have some PR value? Give fifty of 'em away to the world's best B&W photographers.
Create a cult. (There I go again.)
Corporate dedication to the art of photography. If there were a given population of EOS Fine Art fanatics, would it be smaller or larger than the population of, say, large format aficionados? Of Lomographers? Of alt-processors? I'd bet more. Heck, I haven't bought a Canon new since G.H.W. Bush was President and the Orwellian war of the moment was the First Gulf War. If Canon came out with the EOS Fine Art, based on, say, the latest Rebel, I'd buy one tomorrow. (I'd have to, now that I've gone out on a limb like this.) So they'd have one new customer.
We might be a minority, but I'm not the only one who wants this. As reader Peter Klein wrote yesterday, "At a LHSA [Leica Historical Society of America] meeting a few years ago, Stefan Daniel [Division Manager, Product Management at Leica Camera AG] asked how many of us would buy a B&W-only digital M if Leica produced it. A significant number of us raised our hands."
But note also that I'm not writing about this because it's just something I want, necessarily. I'm saying it's something I think the photography community as a whole should have available to it, but doesn't. The photography culture. A small but possibly significant group of photographers would be better served if they could choose a camera or two** that are optimized for native B&W and that don't record catnip—er, color, I mean—at all. No distractions. No temptation. Just as an option for those who can't help seeing what the camera sees and those who prefer to have their tools fit their task. That's all.
Clearer this time? I hope so. I'm tryin' here.
*Made that number up. Does anyone know how many separate camera models there actually are on the world market?
**And thanks to those of you who recommended the Phase One Achromatic+, a scientific camera that records monochromatic luminances both inside and outside the visible spectrum, but you're going to have to buy a hell of a lot more stuff through my little Amazon links before I'd ever be able to afford that. I'm still aghast at myself for wantonly spending $2700 on the Sony A900, the most expensive camera I've ever bought in my life. I probably won't get over that for three years as it is (and it took me three years to work up the nerve to do it). It's in the living room right now hanging from a peg, glowing with heat generated by rapid depreciation; just looking at it I feel poorer with every minute that goes by.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Mark Hespenheide: "I'm not even a black-and-white photographer, never really have been, and I'd probably buy one if it were under $2000. Just to learn for a year, and push myself.
"And Mike—the best way not to feel guilty about that A900 is to get out there and use it. I honestly don't mean that sarcastically; I felt similarly when I bought my A850. It felt like a ludicrous amount of money. But I find that the best way not to obsess about gear or the cost of gear is to go out and photograph. When I'm out photographing, I'm not sucked in to reading forum posts and wondering if I should buy a 4x5" or a 645D...."
Featured Comment by beuler: "You can buy a pink Nikon, but not a B&W one. Who woulda thunk!"
Featured Comment by Richard: "I get what you're saying Mike. For what it's worth my Ricoh GRD 3 has one of those goofy grainy B&W art filters that renders remarkably like Neopan. It also has a setting to give you both the B&W plus color files. When I tried shooting that way it confused my senses badly enough I couldn't see in color or monochrome!"
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Goggin: "With regard to cropping, I find it interesting that I have no difficulty' seeing' in B&W despite the fact that I'm looking at a color image, yet when it comes to formats, I can't visualize anything but exactly what is presented to me by the camera. If Leica offered its digital M's with 4:3 format rangefinders, I would own one, but as it is, I can't bring myself to buy one with the 3:2 format even knowing that I can crop to my preferred 4:3 format during post-processing. It's funny how the mind works, eh?"
Featured Comment by Greg G: "There are no perfect analogies, but the brain knows what the brain knows. Put a 10-inch-wide beam on the ground and you walk it no problem, no matter how much you pretend (or discipline yourself) to believe it's actually 100 feet in the air. Put it 100 feet up and you walk differently. Put it 100 feet up but carry a balance pole, and you walk differently yet again. Put it 100 feet up with a net below and you walk differently still. Practice the 100 foot high walk enough (hopefully with both pole and net) and your brain will learn things about how your body works and about wind shifts that you'll never know staying on the ground.
"Now photography isn't life and death, but the brain still knows what it knows. If your camera only does B&W...."