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Color or Monochrome? Or both!

February 8, 2011
From the Heavens, Kootenay Plains

From the Heavens, Kootenay Plains

From the Heavens (Monochrome), Kootenay Plains

From the Heavens (Monochrome), Kootenay Plains

As a photographer, I’m pretty much a product of, and entrenched within, the phenomenon of digital imaging. I didn’t come from a film background; I don’t really count the plinking around I did as a kid with 35mm film cameras, Kodak Instamatics or Polaroids. And though I perhaps share some of what I understand of the mindset of larger format film photographers, I’m unlikely ever to take it up at this point. Digital capture, digital darkroom, digital printing… all digital, all the time, that’s me. 🙂

In the beginning it was fun to just do my thing, learn and move forward. As time has gone by and my appreciation for photography has taken on other dimensions, I’ve spent more time thinking about digital photography work as an outgrowth of what has gone before. Film photography, to be sure, and other visual arts including painting.

In the historical sense, monochrome (a.k.a. black and white) photography was where it was at. Even to the minimal extent color photography was available early on, monochrome was the métier of the masters of the artform. So there you had your black and white film processes, and I could study them now. But guess what… even though digital camera sensors don’t actually record light in color, the image files (in native, internal form) from nearly all digital cameras are color images. Doing digital monochrome work therefore typically involves various kinds of conversions of the original color image into monochrome. Even newer digital cameras that now have a bunch of creative modes including black and white, are usually internally converting a color image to monochrome.

How one does this conversion, the tools and techniques used, can vary from person to person. And in fact some of the important concepts of how that conversion happens are carried over from B&W film photography. For example the use of “color filters” to bias how certain ranges of hue are converted into ranges of monochrome brightness. But to really dig into this takes an increasing awareness not just of software tools and filters, but of things like color, tone, contrast, shadow and ultimately light. Of form, line, texture and detail, of image framing, structure and composition. These concepts are all important to any photography, but can be brought just that much more into focus in monochrome work.  These considerations really have little to do with the tools, and much to do with learning to see the light and developing an intent of what is to be shown in the final image. Then using the tools to get there.

So thinking and working through these ideas, I often approach a scene in the field and have an impression right away whether I’m going to take the development towards color or monochrome. In fact, sometimes I’ll photograph a scene precisely because I know it will look great in monochrome, and not really give any thought to how good it would or wouldn’t look in color. Sometimes it just seems obvious that the color is a distraction, and a B&W treatment is the right way to go. Learning to see and work with tonality and think through these kinds of options is going to be one of the anchor topics we deal with in the 2011 Light Matters Masterclass, focused on Creative Expression. I’m looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, it sometimes happens that I’ll come across a scene and like it equally well in color and monochrome renditions. The photos shown here are just such an example. I like them for different reasons, and couldn’t decide which one to favor. So in the end I fully developed them both, and here they are. Shooting with B&W film, the choice would be set in stone. (Unless a parallel exposure was also made with a color stock.) But with digital, I can have my cake and eat it too. 🙂

Got an opinion on color vs. monochrome? Is a B&W print the pinnacle of the artform? Is monochrome an anachronism in an era of color imagery? Share your thoughts.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2011 16:10

    An excellent example of just one of the many advantages digital has brought to photography, Royce. There are some scenes, such as this, that allow both tradition and modern technology to coexist and shine in a way that the old masters would appreciate and use to great advantage. I was watching a YouTube video from a 4-part series the BBC (I think) did with Adams where he spoke the words so many have referred to, expressing his excitement over the possibilities that electronics would provide in the future of photography. I think the range of light can be expressed in both formats and the digital image allows for incredible freedom of expression.
    I don’t know whether monochrome is the pinnacle. But I do think visualizing the final image in black and white is a very challenging undertaking, for me anyway, and I see nothing anachronistic about it. As beautiful as the finest color images can be, I feel there is something incredibly striking about a well captured and processed monochrome image that can be so mesmerizing.

  2. David (Art? Art who?) permalink
    February 8, 2011 18:16

    Despite not being a photographer, artist, or otherwise inclined, I do have an opinion on this subject. B & W forces you to concentrate on other issues of the subject– shape, contrast, etc. What could be a crutch, ie. the colour of the subject, is removed. This causes one to look to other sensibilities, other tools, to capture the subject. Like a painter who eliminates a colour from the palette, new expressions need to be attempted.

    Colour, on the other hand, allows a fuller exploration of the subject. And as already noted, digital photography permits one to select the palette of colours to be used in the exploration.

    Two sides of the same coin?

  3. February 9, 2011 01:23

    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and writing about Black & White vs Color images recently as well. (Shameless plug for my article – http://availablelightimages.com/?p=342).

    I am a firm believer in “composition is everything” how the elements within the frame are organised, and their tonal relationship to each other. Whether those elements are colours or just tones is not important. It is the harmony of their relationship to each other that strikes the heart.

    I see the zone system as the photographic scale, as the octave is in music. The notes on the zone form harmony or disharmony, and resonate with the viewer in the same way a melody does in music.

    As Dave mentions above, both images resonate in different ways, and if the tonal harmony is working, then the image can work in color or mono. Because of the intricacies of your workflow, and your attention to tonal range and contrast, your work has a symphonic quality to it… They demand attention, and they demand scrutiny.

    Great work as always….

  4. February 9, 2011 20:27

    Great comments, guys. A range of perspectives but some common core ideas. My leading questions obviously were a false dichotomy aimed at pulling in some discussion. 🙂 Digital does give the freedom to try different forms of expression from one initial record of reality. As I recently noted in a blog post on another site, part of the true essence of photography as art is to interpret reality rather than just record it. Both color and monochrome can be tools in that interpretation, as long as things are being composed harmoniously to use Ali’s analogy. Sometimes that interpretation will be pretty well formed ahead of time, while other times it may come through exploration during development.

    In a bit of coincidence, today over at The Online Photographer, Ctein writes in a similar vein in an article called It Doesn’t Matter How You Get There If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going. He talks about developing an image and realizing part way through that the monochrome version would work much better than the color rendition he originally planned. His conclusion carries on with the music theme: “Sometimes you just have to riff and see how it sounds.” 🙂

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