In the previous exercise, you would have most likely experimented with ways of degrading the colour saturation, moving the image some way towards monochrome.
Black and white suffered a gradual decline after the introduction of colour films in the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, digital photography as given it new creative power. The main difference in the process between digital and film is the point at which your eye has to translate a scene in colour, into an image in black and white. In film photography, that had to occur at the time of shooting, which effectively meant anticipating the image in black and white before raising the camera.
With digital photography, the image is actually converted to black and white long after shooting. Converting the image to black and white on the computer can be even more complex. Some cameras offer the option of image capture in black and white, and as long as the red, green and blue channels are retained, there is an imaginative advantage in being able to see the monochrome image immediately on the camera’s LCD screen.
The main preparatory step in black and white photography, is being able to ‘think’ in monochrome. This takes a certain amount of visual training in order to ignore the stimulus of strong colours and concentrate instead on the tone, form and light.
Digital technology enables black and white photography in two important ways. One is the ease of printing without the need for a wet darkroom with chemical baths, black and white has always been a printer’s medium. The other is the ability to control and fine tune the tonalities in the finished image, by manipulation the RGB channels. The skills needed are no less than with film and filters, but the means are easier and more accessible.
At this point, it is worth considering at some length, the reasons for photographing in black and white, and its creative value. It does, after all, involve discarding information in a medium, photography, that has always carried with it the sense of recording details of the real world. Why would anyone want to limit information?
One reason is that by discarding colour, the eye is persuaded to focus more closely on other image qualities. Black and white photography is strongly oriented to the graphic qualities of proportion, line, shape, form and texture.
Renaissance writers on painting such as Cristoforo Landino, were accustomed to separating the elements of painting into , for example, Rilievo (Modelling in the round), Compositione (Composition), Disegno (Linear Design) and Colore (Colour). The skills of draughtsmanship, in working with line, shape and volume, were considered to be different in principle from the handling of colour, even though all were combined in and oil painting. Therefore, restricting the palette to eliminate the complex perceptual effect of colour has the effect of concentrating attention on the graphic elements of line, shape, form and texture.
When black and white was universal, it was generally understood that the image was an interpretation of a scene into a very specific medium, dominated by tones. What colour photography has done over the decades, has been to convince many people that taking a picture is about capturing reality in two dimensions, an illusion, of course, but an effective one.
As we will see in part four, thinking about the process of shooting digitally brings into question photography’s dubious relationship with reality. For now, consider how your visual creative thinking might change when you aim for a black and white instead of a colour image.
Below is a short checklist:
Contrasting creative concerns
Black and White:
- Key (Overall brightness, varying from high key-Overall bright, to low key-overall dark)
- Colour into tone
- Colour effect of exposure
- Colour style
- Colour relationship
- Colour intensity