Black and White Photography (Part II)

dark_lord

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Black and White Photography (Part II)

21 Aug 2019 7:42PM   Views : 211 Unique : 162

Some images are 'better' in monochrome than in colour for a multitude of reasons. Last time I looked at why black and white was historically a practical choice. Now I look at why you'd choose black and white over colour, i.e. as a creative choice.

First, let's define what I mean by 'better'. In the first instance any image needs to engage the viewer and hold their attention, spur their imagination, evoke a mood, recall memories, and so on and so forht. If the image stumbles at this first test it's failed (colour or mono). How long does the viewer then spend looking at and exploring the image? What is it that interests or excites them? What mood or feelings do they get from seeing the image? Are they more involved or engaged compared to looking at a colour version? Or are they less?

As photography progressed, photographers were creating images that were more than just 'record'. There were the Pictorialists later in the 19th century. Julia Margaret Cameron's portraits challenged ideas. The fact they were working in monochrome was because they had no choice. The materials available meant that the first photographs were composed of black, white and shades of grey. Having said that, hand colouring of monochrome prints did gain popularity. So those photographers had to make sure a mono image worked for the viewer. Even so, a straight 'record' was less interesting if it was a mush of mid grey tones.

There are a lot of questions I'll pose to illustrate each point. There'll be no definitive answers as you'll need to make the final decisions for yourself and it'll be different for everybody. For example, when uploading two versions to thew Gallery on ephotozine and asking for people's preferences provides a whole variety of comments. So what sort of things should we be considering when making a decision?

Colour is a Distraction
The most obvious occurrence is where an area of colour in an image draws the eye away from the main subject. Think of a soft portrait or a gentle rural landscape with a person in a red coat in the background. Your eye is drawn to that bright colour. Even if you force yourself away you can't ignore it. I'm not saying use mono in those cases ascolour may be more appropriate to the scene. Changing composition or waiting are practical steps that can be taken. Shooting mono removes that consideration, though vey gright highlights in the 'wrong' place in a mono image can be just s unhelpful.

More subtly, the overall colour content may be fine but the image looks ordinary. The scene is attractive because of the play of light and shade, strong lines and so on (more on that next time). Colour can dilute that strength. Does a mono image of an abandoned building tell more of a story than a colour one? Or at least pose more questions. Does colouir dilute the mood or story as we latch on to the colours in the scene?
Then there's documentary photography. While colour no doubt createse realism it can also make (serious) situations appear 'every day'. Perhaps we've been conditioned to expect war photography, for example, to be in black and white from a historical point of view. Certainly Don McCullin's examples are hard hitting. Would they be so in colour? Are colour images from recent conflicts any more or less strong, in their story telling? Certainly it's extremely rare to see mono images in the news these days. Exhibitions and books are a different matter.
Does a mono image make the viewer consider more carefully the issue or story behind it than a colour one? Is mono the distilled essence of the story? Is mono more powerful in triggering a response from the viewer in that situation?

Without colour do we concentrate on the message or story in the image rather than having that diluted by the presence of colour?

Does the image if the boy in Barcelona making ash trays make you focus more on the activity and the fact he's trying to make a few Euros rather than the colour where you couls be drawn more to the conspicuous red global branding of the cans?

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The scene is devoid of colour
A winter scene for example on a dull January day may look drab with many browns and weak colour. It's tonally 'flat', there is an abundace of very similar tones. Boosting contrast in mono can give a more visually interesting result, and the same boost in colour may look unnatural.
Modern architecture which has strong lines but is mainly glass and concrete may not have much inherent colour. Going mono cuts the structure down to its standout features.

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Mood
There is no doubt that colour provides mood. A little colour gives subtle mood which is good. Indeed, toning of mono prints has long been used to create mood. Think sepia for warmth and blue for cold.
Even without toning, mood can be expressed in pure mono. The obvious treatment is high contrast, lots of dark tones with a dark vignette or darkened edges. Shadows add mystery. But also consider high key mono images, as they project a mood too.
Contrast and tonal relationships can be pushed much further in mono than in colour (as we'll see in a later blog post) so there's ample scope to create a particular look.

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A period look
A popular reason for choosing mono, that can be effective. To work well the subject needs to be representative of a bygone era (no modern objects if you want an authentic look). The image needs to look good without colour as a straight conversion to grey tones won't guarantee success. On the other hand, the result may well be timeless, such as a coastal landscape.

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Badly faded originals
This is a more obscure reason where an old colour photo has faded very badly. A not unknown scenario. Some colours could have faded so far that it's guesswork as to what the original colour was, however much digital enhancement is available. The magenta dye layers tend to be the ones that last longest. Highlights tend to go first, so there isn't an even deterioration across the colours. The result is that colour distortions are rife. While those faded colours have their own attraction (and I'm in no way saying ignore them), in some cases a mono result may give a more presentable result.

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So those are some of the reasons for going mono. Next time I'll look at some of the aspects of the image to consider when creating an effective result.

Comments


pink Plus
16 6.1k 7 United Kingdom
18 Sep 2019 5:39PM
It's funny but I always think in colour, I find the above quite inspirational as it encourages you to take pictures when the lighting may not be favourable (for colour images)
I do quite a lot of B&W printing but these tend to be from colour images that I thought to be ok, I think if you get the composition and other technicalities right then a B&W conversion can really rescue an image.
On this basis I may revisit some of my archives and see what I can find.
Thanks for the read, I look forward to the next installment!
Ian

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