This is the first feature I published in Black and White Photography although many of the ideas are equally relevant to colour work. © Niall Benvie 2009
Niall Benvie has been shooting colour for 30 years but since giving up film in favour of digital capture, more and more black and white work is appearing in his portfolio. Here he describes what makes him convert.
Whether we realise it or not, almost every picture we take is made with either narrative or expressive intent. Sometimes we are enchanted by line, shape, form or colour and want to convey our feelings about these in a photograph. Narrative images, on the other hand, are preoccupied with telling the subject’s story and if we end up making an attractive image too, that is just a bonus. Success comes from being true to that intention at every stage and making technique its servant. Here’s an example of the difference between the two approaches: you come across a patch of lady’s slipper orchids in all their gaudy and shapely magnificence. If you want to make a picture about the biology of the plant, you will be at pains to include all the vital points of identification, to light it evenly and show it in the context of its environment to provide scale. This is the objective, if slightly cold, representation of “lady’s slipper”. The expressive treatment, in contrast, reveals more about the photographer and his or her taste for abstraction, sense of line and mood, as expressed in the choice of lighting for the picture. As a biological record, the picture may be pretty useless but it carries the photographer’s watermark much more clearly.
The decision whether to finish the picture in colour (since most digital photographers start off with a colour image) or black and white is similarly informed by intention. Colour, in some respects, is the natural choice for narrative images since it augments the photographer’s descriptive vocabulary. But as we know from badly written literature, a dull story isn’t made any more interesting by using elaborate language. So, we should ask, “does colour in this picture let me tell a more complete story or does it just confuse it? Are my feelings about this place or scene made clearer by my use of colour?” If the answer is “no” then reach for those black and white tools! Be wary, though, of dismissing colour as a vulgar distraction if for no other reason than that is our own visual default. There has to be a pretty good reason to switch to black and white.
One of the most compelling is the immediate quality of “otherness” that results when a scene is rendered in black and white – it is held at a distance from our normal perception; it is not quite familiar. Even better, shoot on an overcast day without shadows: this takes the viewer even further from the emotionally one-dimensional blue-sky-white-fluffy-clouds that is the generic snap-shot. Indeed, much colour photography of the landscape portrays it as benign, even subdued, a sublime playground where visitors can safely come and go at will. Black and white, however, hints that there may be an entirely different side to the landscape where we are as vulnerable to natural forces as any other creature, subject to no more compassion than the sun-baked limpet or wind-buffeted rushes.
Most colour photographers also have a strong preference for shooting in the full-bodied light around dawn and dusk when the sun gets below our brows and floods us with the possibilities of day or night. There is an implicit transience in these pictures, a sense that even if the scene is a little overwhelming, it will soon be dark and out of sight or sunny and harmless, depending on when the picture is shot. Not so in black and white where it is easier to imply themes of immutability and permanence – of good and bad – in the absence of explicit clues given by the colour temperature of the light.
Black and white work, done with thought, clearly demands a high degree of sensitivity and a willingness to reveal something of our inner life in the photograph. But there is no point if the viewer can’t read these feelings in the final picture. The sky sets the emotional tone of a picture, whether it is a painting or a photograph; it provides the viewer with a “headline” suggesting what will follow in the rest of the picture. Since this works on a subliminal level, we can rely on the sky to do a lot of the communication work for us. Blank white skies are perhaps the exception. They are ambiguous – containing neither sinister stratus clouds nor cheerful cumulus. I find them quite melancholic and suited to scenes of decay and stillness. How do you get that across in a colour picture? If they are the result of fog, you can enhance the sense of mystery by having key elements of the composition fading into it.
In addition to the character of the sky, its extent in the composition can create another sense, this time of space. When the sky is expansive, the subject can seem diminished by it. But when the horizon is excluded, we lose our best tool with which to construct scale and the subject occupies centre-stage. Similarly, extensive light or dark areas in a photograph not only create a sense of space but also engage the viewer’s imagination as he tries to make sense of the expanse with clues from other parts of the picture.
From the days of Ansel Adams onwards, black and white photographers have been cut a lot more expressive slack than colour workers. The bizarre contrasts evident in some of Adam’s work are no more representative of how things look in nature than tobacco-tinted Cokin filters yet it is the latter that receive the (justifiable!) brickbats. There seems to be an expectation that workers in black and white will be more than mere recorders, that they will put their personal stamp on a scene. There is an understanding that black and white photographers aren’t simply novices who haven’t yet learned the language of colour.
Given these freedoms, we shouldn’t hesitate to look at all the additional tools available to us to finish our pictures in a way that leaves the viewer in no doubt how to read the picture.
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[Box out 1.] Conversion
We live in a golden age for black and white photography. Software is available that allows us easily to create effects that were previously the preserve of only the most experienced darkroom workers. And the latest generation of printers, pigments inks and papers lets us make prints that compare favourably with those from a wet darkroom. But before doing anything else, we need to convert the 16 bit colour image to monochrome. While Lightroom has good black and white tools, I still prefer to do the conversion and tweaking in Photoshop CS3 and/or Alien Skin Exposure 2 simply because they offer more refined control, as well the possibility of using layer masks to make local adjustments.
Photoshop offers many ways of skinning the cat but I normally use a Black and White adjustment layer. The dialogue box presents a variety of presets – High Contrast Blue Filter, Red Filter, Infrared etc – which are often a good starting-off point for achieving the look you are after. Alien Skin Exposure 2 not only replicates the exact look of a whole variety of extinct films but recreates their grain structure too, giving your ultra smooth digital files a more “organic”, analogue look. It too is highly controllable.
[Box out 2.] Tints and toning. Tints and tones can look very attractive but you should be clear in your mind why you are using one. Does it contribute to the narrative by implying “the past”? And is this appropriate? For example, a sepia tint, to my mind, jars when applied to a contemporary cityscape whereas I think it sits more comfortably with a wild landscape where there is more of a sense of timelessness. Amongst the many black and white filter affects found in Alien Skin Exposure 2 is a folder of “Early Photography” filters that can recreate a calotype or daguerreotype and variations thereof. These offer a more authentic recreation than is possible in Photoshop but choose them only if the effect compliments, rather than detracts from your core intention.
[Box out 3.] Fancy frames. When we view a scene, we no more see it defined by a clean, sharp line than by ragged edges or rebates. Don’t be deterred by purists who dismiss them as vulgar. Indeed, a thoughtfully chosen frame can actually add to the feeling you want to express in the picture. I use a Photoshop plug-in called PhotoFrame which comes with about 4700 frames. Well over 4500 of these are ghastly and can be deleted from the library straight away but there are number of gems that can provide the perfect finish to certain images, especially those with large areas of white in danger of blending with the rest of the page. Since each frame is highly customisable, the chances of ending up with something that looks generic is much reduced.