Monday, April 13, 2009

Why black and white photography?

click photo to enlarge
There are many people who question why photo- graphers still work in black and white. "We see the world in colour," they say, "and every camera produces colour images, so why convert them to black and white?" The act of making a black and white image, to those who think this way, is deliberately restricting and reductive; a process that produces less than is possible. It's a perfectly legitimate and serious question, and one that requires more space than my blog pieces to answer fully, but here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

Early photography was monochrome and its practitioners produced great work, some of which easily stands comparison with that of later years. The ability to make images of great quality in black and white is the only justification that is necessary for its continued use. After the advent of colour, black and white photography began its downward slide, but has never completely gone away. Why is that? Well, many people never saw its "restrictions" as limiting their creativity any more than poets felt restricted by the sonnet form, musicians the rondo, or fine artists, the ink wash: it simply defined the compass of one aspect of the many elements of photography (colour), and allowed the photographer to do anything within that circumscribed area. So black and white photographers composed giving greater weight to tones, shadows, highlights, contrast and line. Subjects that didn't work in colour, due to the combinations within a composition, could be made to work in black and white. Coloured filters could change the balance of tones across an image - a blue summer sky could be made to appear any shade between light grey and black. Photographs of landscapes under the flat light of an overcast sky could be made to work better in black and white than in colour. Depending on the subject black and white (and shades of grey) could be used to give a unique emotional value to a shot. Furthermore, the polar opposites of black and white enabled the making of images of stronger contrast and greater imapct than is usually possible with colour. In our colourful digital age we can still do all of this - so why shouldn't we?

Today's photograph shows rain drops on the fresh, newly opened, dark, glossy brown leaves of a rose bush in my garden. As I wandered round looking for images after the rain had stopped, the deep colour and highlights attracted my attention. The sky was still heavily overcast, but the sheen of these leaves really stood out. I took the shot, hand-held, predicting that the high contrast would translate into black and white very well, and would emphasise the detail of the leaf veins and water drops better than a colour photograph. And so it proved.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 35mm macro (70mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/125 seconds
ISO: 200
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On