Ferrari, 29th and Madison. In town last November to teach a weekend platinum workshop, I had a couple of hours each morning to look around, and made some pictures using a simple trick to keep my mind focused on monochrome picture-making, even though I was using a digital camera which, by definition, makes color photographs.
Words and picture by Carl Weese
Later this month I'll be teaching a workshop in New York City that will have one foot in the 19th Century and one in the 21st: Platinum/palladium prints from digital negatives. As I've been planning the workshop I realized one aspect of what we’ll be doing could interest anyone who wants to do monochrome pictures using digital capture, even if you intend to keep your process all in the current century.
To step back a bit, since 2004 when I got intensely involved in digital capture work (for clients and myself), I've used it almost entirely to make color pictures. That's all the clients wanted, and it was also what I was most interested to explore, as I still do B&W work on long term projects using large-format cameras and film. But also, I found B&W conversions of my digital captures never worked. Before, I saw in color with color film in the camera, and saw in B&W with Tri-X or HP-5. I picked this up as a teenager in the 1960s. But my digital cameras were always loaded with color "film," and something in my subconscious refused to let go of this carefully acquired knowledge from forty years before. The color/B&W switch in my head locked on color, I made color pictures, and if I converted them in post to monochrome, they didn't become good B&W pictures—they were just color shots stripped of their color content.
This is not at all a technical issue. It's entirely a matter of perception. I couldn't put on my B&W shooting "head" with a camera that was incontrovertibly making color photographs.
Then something changed. Traveling through the midwest in September of 2011, on a road trip to continue my long-term project on drive-in movie theaters, for the first time I augmented my large-format B&W film work on the project with additional coverage using digital capture. One evening at a Motel 6, reviewing the day's digital work (the big negatives of course wouldn’t be developed until I returned to home base), I tried converting some of them to B&W. It worked like a charm. I was so used to seeing this subject matter in B&W that when I finished doing an 8x10 or 7x17 of the best viewpoint, or deciding not to, I made lots of other documentation coverage of the facility with digital, and all of it looked just right converted to mono. If I decided the venue didn’t warrent large-format film, the documentation I did with the digital camera still worked fine in monochrome—my head had been tipped to that direction. The visual habit of working with this subject had overcome my mental block about using a color camera for B&W.
Except, none of the "off topic" digital pictures I made on the road trip, and nothing I made after I got back, converted well. They were all color pictures. Without the trigger of the subject matter from the long-term project, my perception went back instantly to color pictures with the color camera.
So here is a trick I'll have my workshop participants use as we begin with an hour or so of shooting digital captures in mid-town Manhattan and the gorgeous daylight studio on the third floor at The Center for Alternative Photography. We'll be trying to make pictures that will end up as good platinum prints.
Set the camera to shoot RAW+JPEG. Then set the JPEG to monochrome. With a mirrorless camera (there may be exceptions) this will make the LCD and the EVF (if it has one) show a monochrome display. A DSLR's finder of course won't be affected, but (exceptions possible again) the LCD, whether used for live view or chimping, will show a monochrome picture.
The effect of this is both obvious and subtle. You can see the picture, on location, in monochrome. But that's not the point. It won't look much like a platinum print. This is a trigger—an input that reminds you that you are trying to make B&W pictures. For me, it helps me think pretty much as I did when I knew that I had Tri-X loaded in my Leica. I'm using Micro 4/3 cameras, so the reminder is constant in the EVF, though as with a Leica, I spend very little time looking through the finder. For DSLR users, you could try working live view, or turning on instant review, to keep that B&W triggering device in front of you.
©2014 by Carl Weese, all rights reserved
Our friend Carl Weese needs no introduction to regular TOP readers. Equally at home in commercial and art photography, he's been teaching alternative process workshops for many years. He has a blog and a website, and more of his writing for TOP can be accessed in his category in the right-hand sidebar.
Question from Dan Khong: "I have this 'burning' question. When I set my P&S (e.g. Lumix LX3) digital to B&W by default, I see only monochrome on my screen, and it records monochrome images. Does the camera go through two steps in capturing images in color first and then auto-converts them into monochrome or does it actually act like a 'Leica monochrome' camera and capture monochrome images directly in a single step?"
Tech. Ed. Ctein replies: Your camera does it in two steps. There is an RGB Bayer array over the pixels, so it can't capture panchromatic monochrome directly.
I'm pretty sure that if you record RAW plus JPEG (assuming that camera allows for that) and compare the RAW files made with the camera in normal mode and monochrome mode you'll find that they look exactly the same for the same development settings. —Ctein
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Featured Comments from:
George K: "For a few second there, I thought this was going to be a discussion about B&W speakers and the lack of coloration they give to older records. Luckily, I love black and white film just as much as I love my record collection. Great article."
Herman Krieger: "In regard to a B&W mindset, when I take black and white photos, I think in terms of lines. With color, I think in terms of areas. I mainly take B&W photos with a film camera, and then scan the negatives for handling with Photoshop."
[Herman, a great "pure" documentarian in the tradition of Milton Rogovin, just published a new project shot in Springfield, Oregon, which Matt Groening recently confirmed was the basis for the fictional "Springfield" of the long-running "The Simpsons" show on Fox TV. He shot with a GF670, Fuji's modern recreation of a historical folding medium-format camera. I always enjoy looking at Herman's plainspoken but insightful reports of the people and places he sees. —Ed.]
Ken Ford: "This is exactly what I've been doing for a few years now—it helps my previsualization tremendously."