Commitment to Black and White
Quick Note: I like to use the term monochrome when describing black and white digital photography. It is not the most accurate definition, as a monochrome image can be a single shade of any color, but I find it’s an effective way to mentally separate analog based from digital based, black and white photography, so when I refer to monochrome photography, I am speaking of digital based black and white photography.
Monochrome photography has become a gimmick for most photographers. They see it as a fun filter to play with and apply to those color images that are not “successful” or they are unsatisfied with. Few photographers working digitally, fully commit themselves to monochrome photography, to the majority, it is an afterthought. This is a disappointment. To create serious, meaningful black and white images, a photographer needs learn to see in tones, study shadows, explore textures and recognize abstractions. Their mindset needs to be different from when they are creating color images. One of the most obvious examples of a photographer’s lack of understanding of the process of creating monochrome photographs is when they share and even try to sell, a color and black and white image of the same file. This clearly shows that they do not understand, or really care about, creating meaningful monochrome photographs.
Its hard for photographers who have never photographed using film to grasp the idea of committing to black and white or color photography. Most film photographers choose a preferred medium, color or black and white, to pursue with passion. When I used film, my commercial work was in color, but all my personal, fine-art photography was in black and white. It was easy to put myself into the black and white mindset. Loading black and white sheet film into their holders was a form of mental preparation. The black and white film was loaded and so was my vision. There were not usually any thoughts about color because all I had was black and white film and my vision, my previsualization, was set. If something really attracted my color eye, shaking my black and white vision, I would simply enjoy the color spectacle without concern about taking a photograph of it (because it was not even possible.) Sure, there were those photographers, always concerned about missing something, that had multiple camera bodies or film holders, loaded with different films, along with camera bags stuffed with lenses and filters. However, I was rarely moved by the images created by these photographers.
So how can digital photographers get into the mindset of creating monochrome images, how can they make a commitment to black and white? There are three ways.
The Monochrome Camera
A digital camera that only records images in black and white is a foreign concept to many. Using a monochrome camera is just like loading black and white film into your analog camera. It puts you in the zone, and there is no escape. I will say without a doubt, that as soon as I began using a monochrome camera, my struggles with creating the black and white images with a digital camera vanished. It has really made my journey back to black and white photography a pleasurable experience. It is the purest and most effective way to create black and white images for digital photographers and anyone serious about making the commitment to black and white should seriously consider a monochrome camera.
Are there any drawbacks to using a monochrome only camera? Not really. Sure, you lose the ability to record color images, but that is the point. The most common argument against using a monochrome camera is losing access to the color information in the raw file which allows you more opportunities in the editing process. When I hear that argument, the photographers are almost always referring to the HSL/Color panel in Lightroom. The HSL/Color panel allows you to manipulate the color luminance in a monochrome image. You can darken only blue in your photographs or lighten only yellow. It is a powerful and frequently abused tool. Often, using the panel creates ghastly artifacts and often crushes any subtleties in a black and white image. The results are usually harsh, contrasty and dramatic. They can make a powerful impression when you first see the image, but it only takes a few seconds of examination, especially on a full-sized monitor, to see all the ugliness. Fortunately, for those who use the panel with abandonment, most viewers rarely look at an image for more than a second or two and usually on a tiny screen. However, if your goal is to make fine prints, I suggest using the panel, or any digital editing tool for that matter, with caution and restraint.
Most photographers have at least heard of a Leica Monochrom. The Leica is a fantastic camera and the images it produces are stellar. Unfortunately, the price tag is just too much to stomach. You can pick up earlier versions of the camera for between two and four thousand dollars, without a lens of course, and Leica glass is expensive. Would I love to have the latest Leica Monochrom? You bet I would, but I am a working photographer, which means, I have extraordinarily little money!
There is an alternative, have your camera converted. For a thousand dollars (more for some cameras like the Fuji.) you can have any digital camera converted to record only in black and white. I took my old Sony A7R II body and sent it to Monochrome Imaging Services and had it converted. The results from that camera are fantastic. Image sharpness is given a boost from the conversion. The converted camera, just like the Leica, performs like a film camera loaded with black and white film. With mirrorless cameras like the Sony, when you look through the viewfinder, you see the scene in black and white. That was a little bizarre at first, but I got used to it quickly and it really helps you get into the mental zone quickly. The only drawback of the converted camera over the Leica is that it still records a raw file that is designed for color. That means the raw file is a strange shade of magenta. It is an easy fix. You can simply convert the files to monochrome when importing into Lightroom (or whichever import program you use) or you can use a special monochrome RAW conversion program. I use a program called Monochrome2DNG which converts the RAW file into Adobe’s Monochrome DNG file, which is what the Leica records its files with.
I generally would not recommend using Jpegs over RAW files. The one exception is if you are using the Fuji cameras and their excellent monochrome jpeg engine. Using a fuji in monochrome Jpeg only mode is just like shooting a monochrome converted camera. Obviously, the jpegs are missing a lot of data that gets lost during the jpeg compression, so it is an absolute necessity that you get the best possible image in camera. Your Jepg settings and exposure need to be right on. You will have little wiggle room during processing. Artifacts show up quick with jpegs and really reveal themselves in prints.
If you can, commit your camera body to black and white. This is especially important if you take color images too. Have one body for color and one for black and white. Yes, I know that sounds strange coming from a minimalist, but its important that when you go out to photograph with your camera, it puts you in the right state of mind.
Also, when using the Fuji cameras, resist the temptation to take a jpeg and RAW file at the same time. Make the commitment, black and white jpeg and that is it.
I completely understand not wanting to convert your camera to monochrome, especially if you only have one camera. It is a big commitment and investment. I also understand wanting to keep all the information of the RAW files. These are the two primary reasons why most photographers simply convert their color RAW files into monochrome upon import into their preferred editing program. So, what is wrong with that?
If your creating satisfying black and white prints through the conversion of color RAW files, then nothing is wrong with it. However, I have found that it is difficult to visualize and then create beautiful black and white prints when the color file keeps revealing itself. Seeing the color images, especially during processing, severs the creative process of black and white photography.
There are some ways to keep the monochrome chain intact. First off, set your camera to record in black and white mode. Most cameras will require that you use the Jpeg+Raw setting in order to use the black and white setting. Using this setting only reveals the black and white version of the image when you view it on your camera’s LCD. However, all the color data is still in the RAW file. If you are using a mirrorless camera, then you will only see black and white when looking through the viewfinder, just like when using a monochrome camera or using Fuji’s Jpeg mode.
The tricky part is getting the files into your computer without seeing the color files. Most editing programs allow you to create an import preset. If you can, create a preset that converts the RAW files to monochrome upon import. Since you took the images in black and white using the jpeg+Raw setting, you should not see the color image during import. However, some editing programs do flash the RAW file as it is getting converted from color to black and white. If your program does that, go have yourself a cup of tea during import, so there is no chance of seeing the color image.
Now that the images are in your dedicated processing program, your goal is to not accidently covert the RAW file back to color. There so are many buttons that will do that, and it is inevitable that at some point you will make the mistake and wham! You are suddenly staring at the color file. That really throws your creative process out the window. Once you see the color version, your mind has trouble forgetting about it. You may find yourself frequently looking back at the color image, even thinking “Maybe I should just keep it as a color image?”.
The black and white medium of photography needs us to make a commitment to it. It is a powerful and beautiful form of expression that deserve respect and appreciation. It is not a gimmick or an afterthought. It needs to be restored as meaningful, as an independent pursuit worthy of a photographer’s total dedication.