Photo by Eric Vanden, used with permission. Mamiya C330f, 80mm wide open,
handheld 1/30th sec.
Good Morning to you.
Most photography now is in color, and most black-and-white is poorly done. The tones are wrong and out of balance, or blasted or blocked. (Scanned B&W film sometimes looks wrong to me. It's missing the paper curve.)
But here's a thought. Assuming the tones are done right, black-and-white can be a secret weapon for photographers. If you learn to see values rather than colors—it's not hard to learn—it's easier to get good photographs. B&W essentializes. Elementalizes. (Just made that word up.) Color is another dimension that has to be managed. It's hard to manage.
I'm glad I got to live through the end of the B&W era.
Most photography now is in color, but—it's harder on photographers. It's more difficult to do well. Like it or not, say what you will, but black-and-white is the photographer's friend—a secret advantage, a leg up.
Just a thought. Have a fine day today.
UPDATE: I was so tired when I wrote this at 2:30 in the morning that I literally couldn't force my eyes to stay open. Maybe I'll revisit the topic in a few months when I'm better rested.
The idea comes from an exchange in the voiceover to a Coen Brothers film, which I might have published in these pages before:
Billy-Bob Thornton: “...I always feel that black and white...black and white in a way looks more like real life than color does, even though real life is obviously in color.
One of the brothers: “Yeah, there’s something hyper-real about it.
CB: “Yeah you’re right.
BBT: “Somehow black and white it makes you feel like you’re in the story more, somehow...I don’t know....it creates such a mood.”
CB: “Yeah, who was it, was it Orson Welles? —Who said that black and white was the filmmaker’s friend?”
BBT: “It’s really true.”
—Billy-Bob Thornton and the Coen Brothers in the commentary track to “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
UPDATE #2: We heard from Eric Vanden, the photographer who took the picture illustrating this post: "The photograph was digitized with an Epson v600 flatbed photo scanner and then edited in Photoshop (mainly Levels but—unusually—for this picture, a bit of Curves...used because it was my first time with HC110 developer and the results were really different from my usual developers, D-76 and Xtol.)
"And concerning B&W and color...I just 'see' some images spontaneously in B&W and some others in color. Some images do need B&W; others need color to express the feeling you had at that moment you pressed the shutter. I draw in black-and-white as well and for me B&W is really a way of seeing things and telling stories."
"Morning Coffee" is auto-published weekdays at 3:30 a.m. Central Time today to be in time for morning coffee breaks in the UK and Europe. For those who rise later, it will be there. The feature is a month-long experiment to give people something to check in with while I'm busy moving. This is not permanent.
I'll write about anything. Want to suggest a topic or ask a question? Leave it as a comment.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
V. Roma: "I completely agree with the thought but, try as a might, I can't seem to do digital B&W. Converting a color digital file to B&W feels artificial to me somehow and prevents me from appreciating the photo in B&W. I have even tried to convert the photos to B&W during import but I still know that there is a color file hiding under there.
"It makes no sense, I realize. I have no trouble at all enjoying digital B&W photos from other photographers so it is not like I think there is anything wrong with digital B&W."
Mike replies: I completely sympathize. I overcome it from time to time (cf. the recent "doglegs" picture), but I suffer from exactly the same thing.
The poet Richard Hugo, who I heard lecture at Dartmouth, was talking about his flight to get there, and related a story. As he was getting settled into his seat he said, to the fellow passenger sitting next to him, "I hate flying." And the woman said, "Yes. It's not natural."
I think that's the problem with digital B&W. It's not that it can't be done well, it's that it's not natural to the medium. The way the medium of digital imaging has evolved. For better or for worse.
Joe Holmes: "Re 'Color is another dimension that has to be managed. It's hard to manage.' I know what you mean. I shot B&W—Tri-X 400 which I loaded into canisters from bulk rolls in my dad's darkroom—for my first ten or fifteen years. I would occasionally try shooting color, but I felt like I already had my hands full managing everything that was going on in making a good B&W frame. When everything eventually became more manageable, more internalized, when I spent less time consciously thinking about all those factors, I found I could devote a significant part of my brain to thinking about color, and I was gradually, eventually a convert. But color is an enormous additional factor. It's an awful lot to try to handle when you're first learning. For that reason alone, I recommend that beginners try to start with B&W for as long as they can hold out. (Of course it goes without saying that the right film, shot and printed well, is just plain gorgeous.)"
Stephen McCullough: "Re 'But here's a thought. Assuming the tones are done right, black-and-white can be a secret weapon for photographers. If you learn to see values rather than colors—it's not hard to learn—it's easier to get good photographs.' A promising premise. So, if someone wanted to learn, how would you recommend they do so?"
Mike replies: Here you go. (A surprising number of people have actually done what that article recommends, too—I hear from them regularly.) These days I would probably recommend researching a good, reliable lab and using XP2 Super. and go with Digital Silver Imaging for final prints during the year. Wouldn't be a cheap year, unfortunately.
Giovanni Maggiora: "Totally with you on this one, Mike. Color is incredibly difficult to master. When it works, it's amazing, especially when an image is condensed in one or two tonalities at most. Monochromatic color...McCurry knows color. Leiter painted with color. Haas did too. Harvey blinds you with color. But to us poor mortals, color is full of hidden traps. B&W however needs a totally different vision, and I have never understood the digital idea of shooting first and deciding color/B&W treatment later. The decision must happen before, simply beacuse your eye will seek different things in each case. Plus, a portfolio or project is much stronger if it's visually unified: mix and match rarely works...."
Mike replies: Agreed on all points. I should start a list of genuine masters of color photography, as opposed to great photographers who happen to work in color. It would be a short list, but a dazzling one.
Dave: "I sometimes wonder how things would be had colour photography been invented first."
Mike replies: You are witnessing it! Exactly that. With digital, color was (effectively) "invented first." You're seeing exactly how that goes...no need to wonder.
William Flowers: "Could you further clarify what you mean by 'right' and 'wrong' tones in B&W photography? If you mean by 'right' tones those that most closely resemble or represent the tonal values in a scene, then that seems to suggest that even B&W photography must be as literal or representational as possible, that there is something very close to 'right' and 'wrong' tonality that should be strived for in every photograph and by every photographer. Is there room in your view of 'right' and 'wrong' for a more subjective tonal range?"
Mike replies: Oh, absolutely. Lots of room. B&W allows for a far greater range of personal style and interpretation than color. A huge range of possibilities is effective if it fits what's demotically called the "vision" of the photographer.
It's always tough to give negative examples on a blog...it's like pointing to specific people as examples of ugliness. You're talking about a real person and it's insulting. To point to an example and say "this is bad," I would be insulting an actual photographer, and I'm very reluctant to do that, generally.
I do need to do an extensive, researched, well-presented post on this, but...not now. After the move is complete.
Dan Khong: "Black and white is the only way to bring out the soul in the subject. Flowers and birds are a different matter."
Mike replies: True, and actually nature photography was the first chink in the armor of my B&W prejudice, which used to be much deeper than it is now. A friend argued that nature photography needed to be in color because it was essential information, and on reflection I felt forced to agree.
And there was a good reason why an important early color photographer was Eliot Porter, who, when you think of it, did mainly flowers (natural details of all kinds actually) and was an avid bird photographer...I mean, this cannot be a gray gallinule:
Eliot Porter, Purple Gallinule, Everglades National Park, Florida, March 2, 1954
Georg M. Berrisch (partial comment): "I think some photos work in color, some in B&W, and some in both. For me, the advantage of digital is that I can make the choice once I have the shot (although in most instances I know at the time of taking the photo whether it will end up B&W or color). The exception is when I shoot the M Monchrome, which I do more and more often. Interestingly, when using the MM, with the exception of one occasion, I never wished I had the option to shoot color."
Mike replies: I suspect the latter point is because for some of us (not all, I know), we don't see color when shooting with a camera that doesn't see color. For me it's entirely a mental thing, and I have trouble not seeing in color when I know the camera is seeing in color.
It's funny, but my ability to "see how the camera (and lens) sees" used to be pretty clearly an advantage; with digital, though, it might not be, because anything's possible and what's important is what you want, not how the camera sees. So it becomes a matter of willpower—asserting your will on the result—rather than concordance and accommodation to the equipment and materials. I never liked asserting too much control. So my former advantage might be a liability.
(Just sorta thinking out loud here....)