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Monday, 24 March 2014


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When I was learning how to print back in the 1960's my goal was to make neutral to cool tone B&W images that were "keyed" but also had subtle middle value separation. Ideally they would have a kind of luminous glow in the mid tones while still keeping the punch associated with a clean white and deep black somewhere in the frame.
That is still what I try for and even achieve on rare occasions, very, very rare occasions.
I assumed I had it all figured out until my son came home from school with a pile of Platinum prints and Ziatypes he had done. There wasn't a pure white or black on any of them and the prints were so lovely they made me weak in the knees.
Getting your mind blown at 64, what a gift.
I guess that's what makes B&W so special.

Mike wrote, "Interesting it indeed would be, but we've already done it."

I took a picture once. Then I took another one. And another ...

All photography is a form of abstraction. When we record an image on film or sensor, we delete the third dimension and excluded surround. Whether the image works in color or B&W depends on how dependent its "effect" on the viewer is, based on its color, contrast, tonality, and the other dimensions which affect our response. A very subjective issue. As shown in your Part I, many different interpretations are possible. For me, some images require color, others don't and for some, color is a distraction. Often it is possible to create multiple images from an initial negative/file, each valid, and each different. With digital postprocessing the range of modifications is grealy enlarged. Not many could match the techniques of Uelsmann in a wet darkroom, but many more can exceed his darkroom range in Photoshop or similar. That's the contribution of technology. But the artistic input still belongs to the imagemaker.

Mike wrote: "Whenever any experienced photo-dawg says they like B&W, it has to be tempered with the assumption that what they mean is that they like the 10% of B&W out there that's purposeful, skilled, and deliberate."

I think that to a certain extent, the same can be said about color, but with a major caveat. First off, you have people who just don't consider the issue and look at and shoot color by default. Then I think that *some* of the people who say they like color are really saying the don't like black and white. And finally, you get people who like color, but only like color done well, and that's pretty rare, too.

I think I agree with you that b&w can be more expressive, because it's easier to manipulate; you can control it to generate something that's both different and good. With color, you're much more limited in the degree to which you can control it while still generating output that's good. So you can do more with b&w during/post capture, but with color, you have to see it or control it in front of the lens. When you can do that, it's wonderfully expressive.

Sadly, if I had a dime for everyone who questioned why I converted an image into B&W, I'd be able to afford a Leica Monochrom. There really are a large number of people who don't get and some who actively resent it.

From Mike: "Not much I can add to that, but as an aside, doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is?"

No. And I think Pete Turner, James Nachtwey, Peter Read Miller, Stephen Johnson, Vincent Laforet, John Paul Caponigro, etc, etc, would agree. Imagine if Vermeer only painted in black and white, where would the world be?

I think we can take a page from the images that resonate with us from cinema, since cinema can leave such lasting impressions on our psyche. Manhattan and Seven Samurai were meant to be viewed in black and white, Apocalypse Now, The Black Stallion, and Days of Heaven were meant to be viewed in color.

No question that everyone has to develop their own printing style. But sometimes I become a tad suspicious when that signature "style" also makes it... significantly easier to print. Case in point would be Mr. Sweet's overblown highlights and detail obscuring shadows- you can be "gritty and edgy" and still have well developed prints. Another example would be Boris Mikhailov and his over tinted prints hiding a myriad of printing woes (I know just how hard it is to print those).

Does it work- to a certain extent, yes. But then, I always wonder just how amazing their work would look if "properly" developed...


I am glad you posted that link to the B&W post again. I have found that I have been working on B&W photos more now and I do spend a lot more time with them trying to get the feeling that I want from them. The same is true of the Infrared photos I like to shoot. There is no wrong answer, but it still takes work to capture what you want it to express.

I love black and white. When I was shooting digital only, I had no end of trouble getting the kind of contrast and the silvery tone I'd see in other people's pictures. What DxO Optics and Lightroom give us is a desaturated image, so it is very hard to get the kind of black and white I crave for with these programs. Photoshop Cs does give the option of a "pure" black and white rendition, getting rid of the blue hue DxO and Lightroom cast over black and white conversions -, but it renders a rather dull look.
On the other hand, Nik Silver Efex and DxO Film Pack imitate the look of some films, with different degrees of success, making it easy to achieve good results, but ultimately that's a somewhat frustrating experience.
That said I fully understand your craving for an affordable black and white-only camera. Having seen some pictures taken with the Leica Monochrom on Flickr (here: http://www.flickr.com/search/?q=leica+m+monochrom), I really liked what I saw: lots of sharpness and contrast, a beautiful presentation of textures and great discrimination of volumes. This is digital black and white well done. It's arguably the only way to do digital black and white right, but in my view there's still something intangible missing.
All this debating prompts a question: what makes some people prefer black and white? For some it is merely a trend: it has to do with a penchant for street photographers of the 20th century. If they did black and white, then that's the only way to go. However, there's much more to black and white than that: by using it you show forms, textures, volumes and you have a kind of microcontrast that's absent from colour photographs. Colour photography just can't give this kind of insight into the subjects. Colour can become a distraction, given the way it draws attention to itself: it deviates your senses from the most important graphic elements of photography. Quoting Octavio Paz again (at the risk of sounding like a broken record), "reality looks more real in black and white."
I'm not implying colour photography is inferior. If well done, it can be pleasant and provide as much (if not more) information as black and white. Especially when soft tones are used. And then there's the case of a colour being the main point of interest, as when you shoot a red Ferrari: black and white would be of little use here.

All I can add is that I find B&W photography more difficult to do. Does anyone find it easier than colour?

Richard Newman says, above:

"...some images require color, others don't and for some, color is a distraction. Often it is possible to create multiple images from an initial negative/file, each valid, and each different."

And therein lies the rub. I find that the the stronger the original picture (by which I mean the happier I am with it), the harder it is to determine the "right" treatment: colour, black and white, high key, saturated, washed out... option paralysis can result.

And yet, when looking at the work of other photographers, it is more often than not black and white work that is the most powerful, and it is black and white pictures that got me interested in photography in the first place.

Sneye does indeed exemplary translate into words the process of creating different feels with the photo-processing techniques. But in my opinion this can almost exactly be applied to color.

I said "almost" because there's one slight difference: in color the same principles have to be applied to the three color channels, but the idea is the same. A high-tone low-contrast processing does make a color photograph "dreamy" too (if it is applied at a both luminance and color level).

I got the feel that the comment is a bit biased (and the last phrase contributed a lot to this).

One thing that I never understand is how a lot of people tend to limit the spectrum of what they can appreciate, in photography or other art forms. Like someone who only listens to Classical music that is missing the great work of all the Jazz musicians (let alone all the other genres).

Maybe I'm blessed, but I like to think I can appreciate both color and B&W equally (something that can be confirmed looking at my photography bookshelf).

And Mike, what is your take, and how would you classify duotones,tritones and quadtones?

I don't understand why you need to praise B+W by saying it is better than colour. [I didn't!!! --Mike]

Apart from some deliberate self-assigned apprentice work I have always photographed in colour. Despite that, most of the photographers who inspire me have worked or do work in B+W. Colour inspiration I get more from painting, watercolours and printmakers - which may look like a confirmation of your thesis, were it not for the fact that I express the things I feel I have learned from those media through colour photography.

I think the key with B+W is that it is easy to present the viewer with an object that demands to be taken seriously. It is easier to say "I am being arty now, have a look into the depths". With colour, especially the sort of work that typical photographic colourists tend to produce, it is much harder to impress any expectation onto the viewer other than a highly conventional childlike awe in the face of the sublime.

Does anyone else think that it's actually easier to take 'artistic' pictures in b/w than in color. I find this all the time. Not saying it's a cop-out, although sometimes it is, for sure. But it does make me more impressed when I see a *really* good artistic color photo.

"…doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is?"

Well, I don't take it for granted :-)

But there are nuances to how this question could be construed. Are we talking about whether black and white as a medium is inherently capable of subtler communication than colour? If so, then no medium is static over time. I don't think Ansel Adams' colour photography was as nuanced as his black and white work but the colour images of his that I've seen were all made with early colour film and colour film technology at that time was nowhere near as developed as black and whtie film technology. I think his colour images would have been more nuanced if he had had access to the colour films of the 1990's. Nuances require tools, tools are often in a state of flux, and one tool may hold more possibilities than another at one point in time but that may change over time.

Or are we talking about how many different types of nuance we can find in black and white vs colour photographs? I'd argue that we can find more nuances in English literature immediately after any major author you care to name made their mark than immediately before they did so. Shakespeare found possibilities in English that previous authors hadn't, and so did the likes of Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, and even miniaturists like Emily Dickenson and e.e. cummings. The nuances they discovered were already available in the language but it took a particular individual to discover them and then they became available to others. I think that's true also for photography and black and white photography has a longer history of artistic use than colour photography so we've had more time in which to develop a language of nuances. Would colour photography be any poorer if it had had the same period of development?

And if it takes time and artists to discover the possibilities of nuance available in a medium then fashion, which strongly influences how many artists use a particular medium and how they use it, will play a part in how nuanced we think a medium is. Emily Dickenson's poems only became known decades after they were written so people weren't aware of the nuances she discovered. The same could be said for a photographer like Vivian Maier who is now influencing photographers decades after she made her images, and showing them nuances they were unaware of until her work became publicly accessible. Perhaps we don't really know just what degree of nuance is currently available in black and white or in colour photography at this moment because the really interesting, expressive, and ultimately influential work that is now being done is not currently available to us.

We make judgements at points in time, on the basis of the evidence at that point in time. If black and white photography is currently more nuanced or expressive than colour photography, it's not clear that the reason for that is that black and white is a superior medium in absolute terms, or that the position will not be reversed in a decade or century.

No, I don't take your assessment for granted even though I would have to say that I'm starting to do more black and white conversions in my own photography than I did a couple of years ago. That certainly says something but whether I'm doing more because I'm a little better at it than I was, because it offers me more possibilities than colour for what I do, because I'm taking different photographs now than I was a couple of years ago, any combination of those possibilities, or even something else is not at all clear to me.

[Some very good points you make, certainly. The history of today is volatile and chaotic and hasn't even begin to be processed into any sort of accepted coherence. Doubtless this will happen over time, and it will be very interesting to see how it does. We might someday have a very different view of now than we do now, if you take my meaning. [s] --Mike]

Actually all cameras have always shot in colour...it's only when the processing starts that it becomes black and white. Film is just a way to process the light with many of the decisions taken by the choice of film or even the engineers that formulated the film and then there are the chemical choices and the papers...

"The view I expressed and that you quoted was simply the prevailing view throughout the history of photography up until at least the 1990s. It was taken for granted. Color was considered vulgar, commercial, decorative, literal, workmanlike, and unartistic, the poor stepchild of "real" photography."

(I'll preface this by saying I've only read a little on B&W photography history, so I'm not very knowledgeable.) This is a real surprise to me. I always figured that the attitude you state was only the attitude of B&W photographers. I wouldn't have thought it was the attitude or thinking of the art community, or even the photography community, as a whole.

I have always, naively I suppose, thought that B&W photography was more accepted because it was easier to make prints, and therefore became associated with fine art more than color did. I would not have thought there was any general assumption of its superiority. I always thought it was just different, with a different mindset and set of important features, than color. I never viewed it as better.

"Doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is?"

Well, no. I recently submitted a set of B&W prints for a review. First question: "why B&W?" The superiority of B&W was not only not taken for granted; for this skilled and experienced photography reviewer, color was by far the default choice with B&W requiring some particular justification.

Occasionally I will convert a color image to BW. Usually to find out if the strength of the image improves without the color. The range of contrast has to be adjusted to add impact as a straight desaturation never works. Given the number a variations in the article: does the variation of monitors used plus the variation of eyeball capabilities, make a great impact on the final results? I would think it does, just as the emotions we feel at any given moment we photographers work develope an image. This series from you on BW is interesting.

You know our perception of black and white is different from colour, right. That is physical as well.

None of this colour or mono vision exist in the physical world except our perception. They got wavelengths in the real world but we got 3 groups of mix wavelengths (the cones) vs one group of more pure wavelength (the rods). That is not a reduction and just different world.

More important because it is perception, it is always perception. What is the time when we invoked rods -- deep in the night, ourselves or if we were lucky our close companion. It is very isolated, or at most two; very emotional. It is peripheral vision as well so you do not concentrate on looking ... Or, it is the star, very one vs the Universal feel (when I am in the astro mode).

Should I continue -- just say this -- black and white is NOT a reduction of colour.


My downtime book today was Sakiko Nomura's Night Flight. Nomura is known for her black and white photography. It's supposed to be emotional or something. I've never found it to be anything except tedious.

But Night Flight is a breathtaking work of beauty and artistry. Emotional. Enigmatic. Evocative. Exceptional (sorry, I'm running out of E-words). And it's entirely in color.

Discussions about the differences between black and white and color photography interest me because I'm both a photographer and a painter, and like most painters was taught grisaille painting (monochrome in shades of grey) as a beginner. Value is, of course, the most important thing in painting, so important that there's a saying "value does the work, color gets the credit." I forget who said it, but it always come to mind when I read photographers writing about black and white v color. It reminds me that in the most important sense all color photographs are grounded in black and white and shades of grey.

No need to apologise, your writing is nice today.

Try asking a non-photographer to name a famous B&W photographer; the answer will be Ansel Adams most of the time. Ask them to name a colour photographer; in my experience, they can't (if you pardon my grammar).

I find all this controversy amusing and somewhat annoying, although I respect everyone's right to their opinion. But having done photography for well over 50 years, and studied photographers over the entire time of its existence, I believe photographers used whatever was available to them to capture pictures of what they saw. Those developing photographic technology worked to develop better materials to enhance what could be captured by a camera, allowing shorter exposures or photos in low light and eventually color images. As the materials advanced photographers took advantage of this in their images. With the digital age, the capability of image capture has advanced so much so fast that we have reached a point where more megapixels or higher ISO capavility, etc. are reaching the point of diminishing returns. Like most of consumer society, we have way too many choices- do I take this image in color, matching some long-lost color film, hypersaturate the color or HDR the image? Or convert it to B&W and match Plus-X or Tri-X or Royal-X Pan with grain the size of golf balls? Take a D800 image and convert to B&W with the resolution of a 4x5 negative?
Sure, why not? We can take photos of a Civil War reinactment and process in sepia to get a vintage look, but compare them to photos by Matthew Brady and his crew and try to get the washed out look of his crude plates - you would never accept such a look!
So why did I say I get annoyed? We are talking photography as an art and it is subjective, not onjective*. There is no right and wrong, we all see it differently and need to understand and respect other's right to opinions. We now have hardware that is capable of capturing images that have never before been possible and software that allows manipulationg those captured images with unprecedented variety, so just enjoy it and produce images that suit your subjective views!

*Personally, I do not understand the infatuation with many photographers work, nor do I like a lot of other art either, but I truly enjoy looking at all of it, just maybe not for too long!

Recently, following a suggestion on your blog, I set my camera to record a color and another B&W of each image I took while my camera's LCD displayed a B&W image. Interestingly that has really enhance my color images.

Is it just that B&W only requires your brain to interpret shades or tones of grey while colour overloads your brain because it has to interpret the entire gamut of colour - shades of all the primary colours? Does this overload with colour then lead to some coarsening of the brains' visualisation of the colour tones? Simple data overload in other words - possibly to different degrees in different individuals.

"... doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is?"


Is a solo violin "far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive" music than a string quartet or a symphony orchestra? It's certainly different, and the messages it communicates well are not the same ones communicated best by the quartet or orchestra, but it's not monotonically better.

To my mind, B&W now is like ornately written prose: it's beloved of a certain audience that is most interested in the writing as a object (some of whom believe themselves to be the arbiters of taste.) The rest of the audience doesn't notice the difference, finds the emphasis on style an interesting (and occasionally fascinating) change of pace, or is annoyed by the way that the style actively obscures the more important messages of the piece.

My default preference is for photography (and prose) that gets out of my way; when it calls attention to itself, it has usually failed. (Exceptions for the exceptional allowed, of course.)

I suspect I'm in the minority here. 8-)

Okay. Showing off by teaching well is one thing, showing off by displaying the amazing community you've built up is another, but showing off by referencing a rabbit hole to fall down from 2 years back? Excessive:) I still have yet to find a happy digital B/W solution that I can replicate - not enough time and too much playing with too many cameras, in truth. But I have found that tricking my head by carrying a film body alongside a digital body helps in 'seeing' better. Printing... I can get a good-to-me B/W wet print, but everything else I send 3-5 versions off and see what works.
And as an aside, 'the late David Vestal' was a sad thing to read in your responses. His books and teachings are why I can even participate in this discussion.

but as an aside, doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is?



This may sound silly, but I'm sitting here listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and I've gone from Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow and Oh My Lord to Breathless. It made me think of B&W photographs, and the range of feeling, emotion or mood (or whatever you want to call it) possible.

For reference:

I wish I could write something eloquent and deeply thoughtful, but I'm not much of a word person, I'm more of a picture person. I do truly love black and white, and have been seriously shooting it for the past 25 years, my work speaks for itself.

Great idea: post a link to a downloadable RAW file of a similar landscape scene in color. Readers then submit their black and white interpretations. You and Ctein then pick out the best three. What fun.

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