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 Nature Photography :: Essays :: Why Black & White

I choose black & white because…well I just love it. I love the deep blacks and the brilliant whites. But most of all, I love the million subtle greys that, with care, can be coaxed to the surface of a fine black & white print.

Colour has its own strengths. It's certainly good at catching the eye; after all, how often do you see black & white packaging in the supermarket? Not often. Colour is fine for point-of-sale displays but it can be a trap for inexperienced photographers. It's just too easy to rely on spectacular colour and forget the content of the image. The expression "If you can't get it right, get it red" wasn't coined for nothing.

There are of course many great photographers who use colour with feeling to produce stunning results. Robert Rankin, Chris Bell and Dennis Harding are three contemporary master photographers producing world class images, in colour. Peter Dombrovskis and his mentor Olegas Trechanas were Australian pioneers in high-quality colour landscape photography, while Eliot Porter's work is legendary.

My colour work is not up to the standard of the aforementioned photographers; I have used colour over the years, even made a living from it. However I found that when working with colour I was trying to capture what was in front of the camera. I was looking for a rendition that was as near as possible to the original scene.

It's different with black & white. While technically I'm still photographing the scene, the sound of the shutter merely signals the end of one creative process and the beginning of another. With black & white a negative is just the beginning, it's the print that counts and that's probably several hours (even days or weeks) of hard work away.

Colour is good at depicting reality and providing the 'wow' factor, black & white is more about subtly and mood. I believe that, as monochrome photographers, we should not be striving to re-create reality, rather we should be trying to create feeling.

This may sound strange coming from someone who uses a large format camera, a camera who's main claim to fame is its ability to record every leaf and grain of sand with 'photographic realism'. And it's true that I like to capture every minute detail. However high definition and mood are not mutually exclusive.

There are of course many practical reasons for choosing black & white. For example, you get more time to photograph at sunrise and sunset because you are not concerned with the light's wavelength (ie. colour), just its direction and intensity. Forget the 'golden hour', a colour photographer often only has a few minutes of quality light, whereas his monochrome friend may actually get an hour or so.

Why not do both?
I am regularly asked about shooting both black & white and colour at the same time (using two cameras, film backs etc.). With a large format camera this is extremely easy as you can simply carry film holders loaded with both type of film.

While shooting both colour and black & white is easy from a technical standpoint, mentally I find it very difficult. I find that most images and compositions are either one or the other. For example the beautifully backlit leaves that stand out spectacularly from the background in a colour photo may merge with, and be indistinguishable from, the same background in black & white.

Another problem arises when using large format cameras, I can only carry a limited amount of film. What do I do if I have film for five colour and five black & white shots and I encounter ten colour photos? In theory I can change film in the field using a change bag. In practice this is very uncomfortable, error prone and fraught with problems such as dust and moisture.

All in all I find that it's important to arrive at a state of mind that allows you to see images. This may sound obvious but it's easy to let your mind wander and when this happens you tend to stop 'seeing' things. If I complicate matters by trying to see two different types of images then I divide my effectiveness.

There is also the possibility that I'm just plain better at black & white than I am at colour. I'm sure that this is true and I'm also sure it's true of other photographers. To my mind the colour work of Ansel Adams has nothing like the power of his monochrome work.

In short, it's difficult to serve two masters and better not to try.

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