Saturday, 4 October 2014

It Don't Matter If You're Black Or White

For the first hundred years or so of the history of the photograph, everything was shot in black and white, or more correctly monochrome. This is because of a whole bunch of boring stuff related to the way the image was captured and transferred to its final medium. Some initial attempts were made through the eighteen hundreds and into the early Twentieth Century to capture colour images. The process was so cumbersome it wasn't until the arrival of Kodachrome slide film in the nineteen thirties that colour photography made its way to the masses. Even then it was a complex and expensive process, and cameras were nothing like the autobots we have today. You had to know what you were doing then be prepared to wait for your film and slides to be developed and then pay money to see how badly you messed up. So now in the early Twenty First Century we really have got it easy. Count how many shots you took of your entree the last time you went out to dinner, divide that by 24 then times that by 20 bucks. That could be a lot of photography lessons right there.

So why does black and white photography still exist and remain wildly popular if we can quickly and easily make true to life colour photos? Probably for the same reason Photoshop, Instagram and any number of other editing programs exist. We just gotta mess with stuff.

Actually this is not messed with. 'Mitchell In The Quadrangle',
shot on black and white film in 2003 for a university assignment.
'Elise At The Violin'. A perfect moment taken in wildly imperfect lighting conditions
and at a high ISO. Black and white conversion helps to overcome issues with
noise and washed out colour in the image.
Of course when you remove colour from an image everything is rendered in tones of gray, 'zones' for the uninitiated, and some colours then simply blend together making a great colour image into a gray soup.

Image by Danny. Taken in soft afternoon light, colour is especially
important in this image - all the tones in my blouse blend together
when processed in monochrome.
It has been my experience that black and white images work best where the shot is uncluttered, especially in the background, some strong contrasts of light and shadow are present and I'm trying to convey an emotion or ask the viewer to focus in on the subject rather than notice their surroundings or clothing.

The perfect subject, lighting and backdrop for black and white. Danny shot
in soft light filtering through our front doorway with the door itself as the
backdrop. 2010.
Flynn, May 2011, shot in the client's own home
under strong directional natural light.
Zara and Family, shot in the client's own home
in natural light.
Isabella, August 2005. Again, natural light in the client's own home.
I can completely contradict myself here also and say that sometimes a shot works better in black and white because the background is so cluttered with colour and activity that we can't see what is going on or focus on the subject. This is very handy when you have no time to stage (set up) a shot or find yourself working with limited means.

This works for me in colour and in black and white, but I think I'd have to crop the yellow train off for a wall print.
This of course is the oft-photographed Boy Grandchild taken in February this year.
At the QUT end of the Goodwill Bridge in Brisbane. January 2006.
My same couple as above photo - this was taken on their wedding day in terrible
weather and bleak skies so colour was of no advantage in the image. Brisbane
Botanic Gardens, October 2006.
I pulled this moment between beast and bride out of a larger composition.
Shot on black and white film January 2004, Applethorpe, Queensland.
A moment during the reception of the above wedding. Shot on high ISO film
with much going on as far as colour and movement. This is a colour image
converted to black and white to help focus attention on the couple.
If I have a family or other group come for a portrait wearing clashing colours sometimes the simplest solution is black and white. I've shown this shot before but not the colour version, shown here to illustrate the point. I could show you some real doozies from other clients over the years but this is my bestie and I'm pretty sure she won't sue me for making an example out of her.

Hastings Point Beach April 2014.
Rendering an image black and white can be about asking the viewer to find something extra that might be overlooked because of the dominance of colour in the original shot.

This was shot on black and white film and sepia tinted for an 'olde worlde' feel to the sitting.
Imogen On Her Birthday, April 2008.
I've blogged this one before but here's the original colour version. 'Modern Day Madonna';
shot in our front loungeroom March 2013.
Nature presents us with many interesting forms that can be emphasised when the colour is stripped out of an image. This is especially apparent in the ever shifting sand at the beach and my perennial favourite, sugar cane.

Usually if I'm shooting for a client or with an end in mind, I'll have an idea in my head if I want a shot to end up black and white and work toward that end.

'Grant And The Bridge', part of a series shot on black and white film
and hand printed in the darkroom for a university assignment in 2003.
This is the engagement portrait of my Applethorpe
wedding couple, shot in October 2003 on black and
white film.
Again shot on black and white film, the absence of colour here emphasises the starkness of the landscape. This and the above image shot on the client's family property in Applethorpe. This image January 2004.
'The Calm Before The Storm', Tamborine Mountain, July 2009.
Elise, January 2012.
August 2005.
There's a saying in the industry that goes basically: 'make it black and white and call it art', referring to the practice of a lot of photographers of taking a set of mediocre at best images and trying to save them by changing them to black and white, putting on a few fancy effects and presenting them as alleged works of art. I say: 'you can't polish a turd'. A bad photo will always be a bad photo, regardless of the colour palette or lack thereof it is presented in, and the reverse is also true.

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