Lose the colour

Take away the colour? Why?

Landscape near Huntly, Scotland
Landscape near Huntly, Scotland. A misty morning in black and white

It seems such an obvious question. The very words “take away” mean to subtract, to lose something. If you take away the colour, surely what you are left with is LESS that what you started with? We see and experience the world in colour, so why is there such an interest in B+W and monochrome photography? I admit that I am hooked – I also admit that I can’t easily explain why – or why I am not convinced by the usual explanations.

So where to start? We live in a world literally and metaphorically awash with images – it is so easy (perhaps far too easy) to take thousands of photos. What I had for lunch, what the weather is like today, my daily selfie, out at the pub with the gang, me in front of the Eiffel Tower … the list is endless! Sometimes it feels like being a ‘serious’ photographer is like trying to swim through a vast log-jam of floating plastic out in the ocean. All the ‘throw-away’ images seem to clog the internet – and somehow clog my mind too when I try to think what I want to photograph.
Yes, I do take photos that are purely personal records of what is going on in my life. The building of our house; pulling down an old shed and building its replacement; uprooting an old tree: garden work; the plum harvest; Spring blossoms; the effects of the 3-months of no rain last year; the weekly shopping trips to Inverurie ….. and so on. Just like I keep an intermittent written journal, I keep a visual one. Purely personal and quite simply shot and rarely processed and not posted online.

But that’s not what I am thinking about here. I only need a smartphone with a decent camera to do all that. I have a variety of camera bodies and lenses – I have all the power of modern 21st century computing – I want to do more with it all. But what? And how?
I began this journey with my desire to learn to draw and paint, back in the 1980s. With a pencil and paper. I’ve written about it here: as there is an overlap with photography.
Drawing white objects to see how the light and cast shadows fall on them, you begin to understand how to make a flat surface come alive with the illusion of depth, the 3-D effect. So here is my first clue in my hunt for why black and white (B+W). I draw in B+W or monochrome, and it draws me into its spell!

Conte Crayon copies of two Raphael sketches
Conte Crayon copies of two Raphael sketches

Here I was copying the artist Raphael in order to learn how to express depth of field in monochrome. A couple of sketches using the orange/earth tones of a Conte crayon. You can clearly see how the fall of the light, and the depth of the shadow is represented clearly – more clearly than in a full colour version. It provides a guide to the fall of the light and the depth and intensity of the shadows, that can help the artist when tackling a full colour canvas or fresco. I just love these kind of preliminary sketches – sometimes even more than the finished works! Pencil, charcoal or Conte crayon – they hold a simplicity and clarity that I so enjoy!
The next step was to use pastel and add a mid-tone background (grey) and white pastel for highlights.

Three portrait heads in charcoal and pastel
Three portrait heads in charcoal with white pastel highlights

Again, this technique is used extensively by artists through the ages. The addition of pastel, often just white chalk, adds highlights to the image
Here I have 3 portrait heads. And there’s my second clue in my hunt. The use of a limited and B+W palette does something special to the human face. We read so much about a person’s character, mood, even their health, from looking at their face. Every tiny detail of colour is processed by the brain almost subliminally. Strip away the colour and you have something more like the ‘bare bones architecture’ of the face. And you can see things you didn’t realise were there, as they were hidden, or overwritten, by the colour.
Much the same thing happens with trees in winter – the reason I find them so magnetic. The summer leaves are beautiful, but when winter strips them away you see a different tree, with the architecture, the bare bones revealed.
So when I moved from drawing and painting to the camera, I found a ‘kindred spirit’ in B+W. It could do the same thing, emphasising the importance of light and how it falls, to create the illusion of 3-D on a flat surface – and stripping away the colour to reveal the essential ‘architecture’ that lies underneath a face, a tree, a landscape … almost anything!

It may seem odd, to strip away in order to see more! But yes, that is what happens – or what can happen. Because for me the constant pull of B+W is this ability to offer a way to see more – or a different perspective to that offered by the colour version.
I looked here at converting a shot of ivy leaves into B+W. In that article I was exploring the details of how to convert the image to B+W; how it is not a simple ‘press a button’ but a skilled process guided by what you want to say about your photo and why you took it!

And now we are nearing the heart of the matter (for me at least): why am I taking this photo; why do I want it in B+W; or more precisely, why do I want to take away the colour?
Just a couple of quick examples here to consider. I wanted to find colour and B+W versions of Ansel Adams but couldn’t find any colour photos that are copyright free. So, sorry, you’ll have to make do with me ;o) BTW the book “Ansel Adams in Color” is well worth looking into!
Here I wanted to focus on the tree stump. It must have been a mighty tree, and the remaining stump is still an imposing feature, and now being absorbed back into the forest, as moss and lichen grow up and eventually over it. A crop brought the stump itself closer, but still the eye is drawn more to the green leaves in the background. Removing the colour brings the eye towards to the actual stump, and gives focus on the textures of the remaining bark.

Colour and B+W versions of a tree trunk
Colour and B+W versions of the same image, a tree trunk

(Shot with a Sony NEX-7 and a Zeiss Makro 50mm lens. Not a lens I often use for landscape shooting)

In the second comparison I’ve chosen a winter morning after a heavy frost. The sun was outlining the dead seed heads of a potentilla bush in the garden. Here the lens offered a wonderful array of colours as I focused close-up on the seed heads. I love the colours and will use the shot as it is – but this day I wanted to emphasise the cold of the frosty morning, and also the fragility of the tiny seed heads. I felt that could best be accomplished by taking away the colour and leaving a gentle image with delicate grey-scale mono toning.

Colour and B+W versions of frosted seed heads
Colour and B+W versions of the same image, frosted seed heads

(Shot with a Sony NEX-6 and a Russian Helios 44-2 lens at F2.8)

In processing a photo I may want to transform it into tones of sepia, or maybe de-saturate the colour so that only the hint of the original colours remains. Maybe I’ll keep a spot of colour, or maybe I want this image in infrared. The real heart of it lies in what I want to say about the image before I take it. It has to engage me in the way that poetry does, calling up emotions, remembered places or events, echoes of other things I’ve seen or read ….. so many chords that can be struck in me, to impel me to take up the camera and start to frame the shot.
Personally, I shoot the same subjects and locations a lot. And that means that the changes in the season, in the weather and in the light are very important in conveying something new, something delicately different in how I see and respond today. The other big variable is in the lenses that I use. The same subject shot in bright sunlight with a Lensbaby optic will be quite different to a dark background, low light and a macro lens. Add to this the dimension of B+W or colour (and just how much colour) and there is a mix that can give me a huge range of possibilities. And that is before the whole range of post-processing is even thought about!
But why am I not convinced by the usual explanations that many photographers refer to when shooting or processing in B+W? It seems to me that there are 3 main ones:
1) It’s more ‘real’ and ‘pure’.
2) The great photographers all used B+W.
3) It’s ‘timeless’ and ‘classic’
Let’s take a closer look at these three reasons for elevating monochrome to its special status.

1) More ‘real’ than colour photography?
It can’t be more real or pure, as we experience the world in colour! Surely it is the B+W that is unreal! Unless by ‘real’ they mean (as I have been describing) that layers of meaning can be revealed that colour can obscure.

2) Sure, the great photographers in the past used B+W – but they had no alternative. The history of photography doesn’t go back very far. In the early days it was a faster and cheaper way of having your portrait taken – replacement for employing an artist. A full colour portrait in oils would be the ideal, but a B+W likeness was the next best thing and made portraiture more accessible to the less wealthy. B+W was the only choice, and not necessarily the ideal choice. As photography developed and widened out to include landscape, photo-reportage, and records of everyday life it has given us an archive of immense value. But each was bound by the technology of his or her own times. There were early experiments in colour photography, in the 19th century. One of the most impressive exponents was Sarah Angelina Acland whose colour photos taken in Gibraltar are truly impressive. She was a dedicated and expert ‘amateur’ who travelled widely and (of course) processed her own photographs.

Sarah Acland, early developer of colour photography
Sarah Acland, early developer of colour photography with some of her photographs

“ Sarah Angelina Acland (26 June 1849 – 2 December 1930) was an English amateur photographer, known for her portraiture and as a pioneer of colour photography. She was credited by her contemporaries with inaugurating colour photography “as a process for the travelling amateur” by virtue of the photographs she took during two visits to Gibraltar in 1903 and 1904.”
To find out more, check her out on the Wiki.
Ansel Adams took thousands of colour photographs alongside his B+W but the technology was still primitive, and colour printing had to be done by sending the film away to a lab. Control of the image, especially the printing, would be out of his hands – control of his darkroom was crucial to him. Only recently have we begun to see some of his colour archive – and they are magnificent! I suspect that he would be keen to explore the world of post-processing that we have at our command today.

3) Timeless and classic …. is it?
Photography itself isn’t that old, so I’m not sure what ‘timeless’ means, except perhaps difficult to date? And ‘classic’? Well, all those beautiful Greek and Roman white statues we so admire were originally painted in bright colours. Looking back, every artistic form of decoration or depiction strove to be colourful. Technical studies were routinely done in charcoal, pencil or Conte stick – but the finished canvas, frescoes, churches etc. were in full colour, embellished with gold leaf and painted with hugely expensive colours like Lapis Lazuli blue.

So the question remains – why shoot in black and white? Is it the lure of a mythical lost past – a special mystical ‘pure’ past that attracts modern photographers? There are certainly those who shoot using old cameras and glass plates. And there are so many ways to add ‘authentic’ scratches, light flares and other signs of ageing to your digital shot. But to me that is not what attracts – it seems like a digital cul-de-sac that leads nowhere. Neither is it a way to rescue a badly composed shot. A bad composition is a bad composition. Rendering it in B+W will not improve it – B+W is not a universal panacea that will render a poor shot into an artistic gem!

For me it essentially offers a new or ‘other’ way of seeing the world. It gives another perspective, and allows us to pause and study a little closer, a little longer. In a time of so many images clamouring for our attention, that is significant! And it leads me quite neatly into my next step into the world of B+W – Infrared. If B+W allows us to step back from the multicoloured assault on our senses that is life in the 21st century – then Infrared is rather like ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ – it is a whole different world, just waiting for us to explore down the rabbit hole ……

Coming next – a personal adventure into the world of infrared

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