Last November, I was given a challenge to take 7 black and white images – one a day – via a Facebook challenge. It was a like a chain letter – nominate someone new each day whilst posting your images – and I was nominated by the erstwhile editor of this blog.
Personally, I think Facebook is not the place to discuss photos. Good enough for the odd social photo, but if you want meaningful discussion, go somewhere else as I’ve discussed already.
Fortunately, black and white photography and I are having a bit of a fling at the moment, along with my other passion street photography, so I decided to participate. It would also be a pre-cursor to the 31 Day Challenge that I’ve participated in for the last 7 years!
Why does black and white work so well? Michael Freeman in his recent book Black and White Photography lists these characteristics:
- Transcend reality
By removing colour you are seeing a different world – one we don’t naturally see.
Strip away elements to get the essence of the subject. Remove the emotion. Focus on the composition. As Elliot Erwitt is quoted as saying “Colour is for work. My life is already too complicated, so I stick to black and white. It’s enough. Black and white is what you boil down to get the essentials; it’s much more difficult to get right. Colour works best for information”
- Expressive Range
The tonal range is expressive and can cover an enormous range. Oversaturate a colour image at your peril. In black and white the tonal range can be dramatic, mysterious, engaging. Doing the same in colour requires control multiple colour channels. He quotes Ansel Adams – “the negative is similar to a musician’s score, and the print the performance of that score. The negative comes to life only when performed as a print”
Black and white photography is where it started. There is a continuity from the first photographs. Freeman quotes Walker Evans “Colour tends to corrupt and absolute colour corrupts absolutely”. Interesting, film and black and white photography are making a come back amongst even those who never experienced it, and students are learning these methods first to understand their craft.
So let’s have a look at the photos I took and discuss.
This is the SAMRHI building on North Terrace. I work next door, so it’s easy to access. I walked around for about 10 minutes, took multiple images from different angles of different features. This one had the most impact in my mind. Most images you see tend to be colour, but the repeating textures and leading lines are ideal for monochrome – I stripped away the distraction and presented the essence of the design. With the low angle of the sun, a clear blue sky (darkened a little) and a Dutch angle I think this one worked exactly as planned.
I walk past this building (part of University of SA) on Hindley Street every day. The architects have given us a play thing with the windows aimed at the street reflecting our busy lives. But how to make it work? I tried from left, from right, from below but all my attempts over a couple of days disappointed me. Colour would have a lot of distractions again – I needed the essence.
Over a few days this image formulated in my mind. That is the trick – think about it, go back to it, look for multiple viewpoints. The windows were a mirror to a busy street, the cars pouring back and forth like ants. If I could put a car in each window level, the streetscape planting on another, even the natural distortion, it would describe the building and the street. The cars had to be travelling in opposite directions – and only one per direction. Car colour was important too – light colours would stand out better. I think I’ve got it – what do you think?
A long day at work, no chance to do anything outside. Lunch wasn’t even an option. Sitting at home having dinner I admired the bowl of peaches. The perfect shape sat before me. How can I make that interesting?
One of the first exercises photography students are given is to photograph a ball, change the lighting and see what it does. Well this is just that exercise. A single peach positioned to give an interesting shadow and texture – not just the sphere. I played with different angles of the flash until I had the shape and shadow that expressed that peach. Look closely – there is full detail in the shadow as well as the exposed side.
Does the black and white work better than colour? What would the colour of the peach add? The art here is to give the viewer detail in the light and the play of shadow, and retain the texture. You don’t need colour for that.
Another of those long days with no time. It always pays to have a fall back. In this case my macro stacking methods. Take a series of shots, with a macro lens on extension tubes, and let Zerene Stacker combine them. What subject? I spied this razor. Looks clean enough to the naked eye, and I might be able to see the grinding marks on the metal. Why not?
Then as I took the images I saw the little left over bits of human that don’t wash out in addition to the manufacturing features. That add a whole new layer of interest. It is amazing what you can see if you just bother to look deeper.
Would colour add to this? Even though the colour palette is small (metal, blue plastic, black background), the colour has no value in this study of the razor blade.
Heading to work again. My aim over the next 31 days was to create a photo essay a week of some theme. This week was transport. Well, there are trams running past my work place all day. So wait, let it go by, get down to a low angle and capture it. I tried this a few times and got this one.
In colour it was very dull – too busy, too many distractions. Conversion to black and white made the tram the feature. Playing with the structure setting (in Silver Effex) of the road and concrete surface added more depth to the image. The smooth lines of the rails, the curbing, the overhead wires – it all leads the eye. It’s not a perfect shot – I’ll need to go back and try some more, but it’s a good start.
Saturday. I’ve been busy doing home things that need doing. My wife has a collection of moth orchids which look wonderful. But if you look closely you’ll see more. This time the macro lens and a shallow depth of field to just show the front of the flower and render everything else out of focus.
The black and white treatment hides the other parts of the flower, flash from under and to the side of the plant to add mystery and depth, and a square crop to focus the viewer on the front of the flower.
The last day. Time to celebrate with a glass of something nice with ice. Taking out the ice tray this little mountain popped into view. It’s not very large – no more than 5mm.
But with a bit of side flash at a low angle, a dark background, a good macro lens and a simple subject close up can be quite interesting.
This image had the Facebook and Flickr viewers guessing for a few days. It was at first thought to be water. Then an ice cube dropping into water. But the natural change in the ice in a supposedly frost free refrigerator gave this sculpture.
That’s it – 7 days of black and white photography with some really simple subjects most of the time. Not all are ideal, but the secret was to keep on trying and thinking what to do next. It worked as a kick start for my 31 Day Challenge ideas and resulted in almost 1000 images over that time with some work I am very pleased with.
My suggestion to you is try the discipline of a photo a day on a theme for a week. Then stretch that to a longer period. See how your work develops – you will be surprised how exercising your visual mind triggers new ideas.