I was asked by a good client of mine to have a look at a set of black and white photographs that a new photographer had shot for them. They quite liked them but couldn’t see why they weren’t enthused by them because they fitted the brief. My answer was that if they had been in colour they’d have been seriously dull but that in black and white they were elevated to mediocre because black and white has impact. I tried to find the words to say that for monochrome to work really well you needed the light to contribute to the finished picture in an even more compelling way than it has to for good colour images. That wasn’t to say that great light doesn’t make for great colour pictures – far from it – but by this time my explanation was foundering and I was starting to sound less than coherent. At that point I cut my losses and simply said “to sum up, the light isn’t very interesting and without colour all you have is light and shade”. Wow… nailed it right at the end!
I drove home thinking about my own long and chequered history with shooting black and white: from the first frames I ever shot as a young kid through the exercises in light and shade, focal length and depth of field and movement that I did as a student to the hundreds of rolls I shot as an emerging professional photographer I have never been all that pleased with my ability to consistently shoot interesting black and white images – ones that I didn’t privately think would look better in colour.
- Photographic heresy alert – I’m a better photographer in colour and so are 90% of my fellow photographers.
- Photographic jealousy alert – I envy those who can just “see” in terms of black, white and shades of grey
- Photographic honesty alert – I have decided to do something about it, 27+ years into my professional career
Thinking long and hard about monochrome and me has been an interesting experience. I’ve found myself examining the way images look through the viewfinder and asking whether the picture I’m about to take relies on colour, light, both or neither. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a clipboard or a mental checklist to hand – it’s just a momentary thought that pops up a few times on each job. I’m definitely making progress. I’ve been shooting a lot of events during the Bournemouth Arts By The Sea Festival over the last three weeks and on more than one occasion I knew that some of my pictures were destined to be monochrome, better in black and white.
It isn’t that I’ve never shot anything good in black and white it’s just that most of the time I wasn’t ‘seeing’ without colour. The market for black and white isn’t huge right now anyway and I haven’t had to develop myself in that direction. The funny thing is that it is the explosion of social media and sites like Instagram and EyeEm that have made me experiment more and, more importantly, it has been my love affair with the Fujifilm X20 that has pushed me into shooting pictures that bear little resemblance to the suff that I do for work – often monochrome fits that bill rather well.
Monochrome and Me… it’s been a long and weird relationship. I like to think that it is maturing nicely and that it is now entering something of a golden era. There’s still no money in it but that isn’t really the point.