Color or Monochrome? Or both!
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.