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Saturday, 25 January 2014


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When I take photos in black and white, I think in terms of lines rather than tones. With color, which I rarely use, I think more in terms of areas.

Oddly enough, I prefer looking at and shooting color photography, and Harry Gruyaert is probably my favorite photographer, yet I think I may be a better b&w photographer. Color photography adds another element, and, if the color doesn't add to the scene, it's probably better left to b&w. I'm not sure that I'm good enough to shoot great color work.

Glad to hear that you're feeling better, but as you ease back up to your full crazy blogging level, keep up the reruns. Especially the ones which are now lost on shelves of print periodicals. I liked this one, but I wonder if you have evolved your opinions any. I heard you wavering a bit about the primacy of the print, while hardly going to the extreme of saying "it's all just data." Has your view of the roles of color and B/W become more nuanced after 10+ years of digital photography?


As you know, we have some monochrome sensors now. I still prefer to stick to B&W film for a variety of reasons, but digital is constantly getting better, also in colour. I share your preference for B&W photography, although at times I admire colour work, particularly when it is more abstract - Saul Leiter's "Early Colour" comes to my mind as an example. For the same reason, I tend to prefer impressionist or early modernist paintings to earlier masters, because form and colour in these works have acquired dominance over factual reproduction of reality, and as a result, they foremost transmit emotions, just like black and white works.

I'm curious - Has the D800e Nikon you wrote about purchasing a while back been the "answer" to your dismay in the 2006 article regarding the need to convert color sensor images to black and white? I've never seen an 800e physical print (or any physical print from a B/W only sensor camera), and I'm curious (all things being equal) if the result is noticeably better (or different) from a color to black and white conversion.


oops - I realized looking at older posts that the 800e is not a B/W only sensor, just one without an AA filter. For some reason I thought it was B/W only. So I guess the only B/W only sensor camera is the Leica.



I prefer to shoot and display people pictures in B&W. "Brings out the soul", as some would say.

The Leica Monochrom-M camera does an excellent job shooting in pure B&W producing amazingly rich tones. The price tag is enormous.

One can always preset a camera to record in B&W. I wonder whether the camera does a straight job from subject to pure B&W file or does it in two steps, i.e. first to color and then to B&W seamlessly?

Dan K.

Does Ed. want/need a Leica Monochrome?

I remember that Black an White Photography is where I first met you. At the time, my world was black and white. I have changed. Colour appeals more to my documentary spirit. To me, it feels closer to the integrity of the subject being photographed. But as you say, our mileage varies. Glad you're back. You're a great mentor.

A very satisfying Saturday morning read. I guess I "swing both ways" when it comes to color and black and white, though out out of sheer laziness I produce way more color photos (digitally). A digital black and white only camera would be a good way to get past this. I wish I could send an old camera away for a conversion like you can with IR.

The Grays Camera: Where Mike first(?) mentions the anatomy of a B&W sensor.

Mike, you once posted a link to a website featuring an online test of one's colour perception capabilities; I took the test and scored 100%.

I am mainly a B&W photographer.

I'm probably as confused as you are as to why we are this way, but I bet you could take a stab at writing down a few theories. When you're feeling better, of course.

Someone said "Colour is everything but black and white is more". For me colour is too easily read whereas black and white allows for alternative readings over time. Great old posts and get well soon.


--- Living with B&W and Colour ---

I discussed this colour vs B&W issue with Scottish landscaper Bruce Percy recently.

What he told me was that he loves B&W photography and that Ansel Adams' work was an inspiration but that he shoots almost exclusively in colour because that is how he sees the world. More on this later.

I told him that I love colour work and am hypnotised by B&W. I find that when I have been looking at B&W prints for a while, I find colour shockingly garish and ugly.

However, it's not quite true. What I actually find is that I find "typical" colour shots garish and ugly. There's one kind of colour landscape I find still resonates - colour shots like Bruce Percy's.

What characterises these kind of shots is that the colour is harmonious, almost monochrome colour. His colour work is almost like tinted B&W with the colour hues showing only subtle variations. And I agree - I find colour works when it is not full of bold "popping" colours but is very subtle and becomes an enrichment of otherwise mono tones. When I look through my own colour work that I like best and my favourite work of other photographers, I find this to be true. My favourite is still B&W but the colour I like is monochrome colour.

I think that Bruce and I share this sentiment because we share something else - a preference for minimalism and simplicity in compositions. I find the art of photography is about paring away extraneous distractions from the shot "concentrating the goodness". Monochrome or colour harmony helps with this. (Another trick that Bruce and I have both intuitively hit upon is the use of heavy vignetting to lead the eye).

I do have one exception to this liking for mono colour, almost the opposite in fact. Pete Turner-ish graphical colour abstracts. Super simple compositions consisting of two or three slabs of saturated colour. Keeping the number of colours to two or three seems to avoid garishiness because it is simple, graphic and the colours are the composition.


Although I seem to be claiming simularities between my work and Bruce's, there is one big difference - he's good!

I think that good B&W photographers are more sensitive to colour than the average person (and perhaps photographer). Hence for them, making a good colour photograph is significantly more difficult than making a good B&W picture. Most people only have a vague awareness of colour and hence don't see it as distracting when it is in a picture but not 'controlled' in any artistic way.

Just my 2c of course. Don't rush back too soon, Mike. Take lots of time to listen to jazz and look at (B&W) photography books.

I know that it is possible to convert a digital camera to IR. What would it take to convert it to B&W? I assume you would need both camera modification and a specialized raw converter.

Mike, I am enjoying these excursions into your archival treasury. If it helps you get through this rough patch, I wouldn't mind your taking it easy for a while longer while you publish more of them. Nothing wrong with going on vacation every so often.
As Kurt Vonnegut said, "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different."

I have two 35mm cameras, one with transparency and one with BW. My brain switches how it views scenes based on which camera I am using. I prefer BW. But, I can't convert a color picture to BW, I shot it in color for a reason. When I use my DSLR I am strictly shooting color. When comparisons come up I have my take...Black and white is the book, color is the movie. Those that have read a book and then seen the movie know what I mean.

I'm really enjoying these reruns. I first 'discovered' Mike Johnston back around 2006 when I used to buy Black & White Magazine. I pretty much stopped buying it when you stopped writing for it too.
This particular rerun is interesting for where colour digital photography obviously was back in 2006 (low dynamic range), and how only recently the first (I think) b+w only digital camera has arrived.
I would have kept that particular family snapshot colour though, funnily enough

I have been wondering about this same question for long enough. I don’t know why so often I much prefer the final processed photos for printing to be black-and-white. Recently I have been re-reading a wonderful book by Margaret Livingston (Vision and Art - The Biology of Seeing, 2002 ed), in it she did not use one single (straight) photography piece as an example, which, still, brings insights that photographers might appreciate just as well.

“ … color and luminance are analyzed by different parts of the visual system, each of which is responsible for different aspects of visual perception. The area of our brain that process information about color are located several inches away from the areas that analyze luminance - they are as anatomically distinct as vision is from hearing.”

Maybe I simply prefer using one “sense” (luminance) instead of two (color + luminance) for most of my photos because I am wired that way?

I find that color gives depth and context, even if the image is rendered only in shades of sodium vapor orange. It gives us more information. It gives us clues. It gives us context.

I'd take the color family snap over the black and white version any day. I'd like see the contrast between the peach face of the baby and the pink arms. I'd like to see the color of the stripes on Papa Richard's shirt. I'd rather know that the leaves are green, the roof is grey, Papa's eyes are grey-blue, and grandma's shirt is blue, than lose all that to a sea of lifeless grey.

Glad you're feeling better. Don't rush it.

Perhaps Fujifilm will someday answer with a B&W sensor camera. They seem to be the one camera maker who is willing to try different approaches to sensor design and technology, and offer them at attainable prices. Would love a B&W only version of the X100 camera.

"A digital black and white only camera would be a good way to get past this. I wish I could send an old camera away for a conversion like you can with IR."

I have no experience here, but I did recall seeing something like this before and did a quick web search. It seems there is at least one company doing moncochrome conversions.

If you are OK with links being copied into posts, this is the site I remember finding before:


Otherwise just google maxmax B&W. Again, I have no experience or connection with them, but it sounds interesting.

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