The enduring power of the black & white image
THE MODERN digital photographer enjoys a freedom that any practitioner from the film era could scarcely imagine. In-camera processing, plus the gamut of filters, effects and editing options available in post-production, mean that an image can be presented in a huge range of different styles and finishes. From subtle tweaks in colour balance all the way through to creatively artistic reinterpretations of the original photograph, the options are almost endless. And yet, for all these choices in how to present the final image, the most popular and enduring edit is still the simple desaturation to mono.
The mono appeal
Why does black & white still entice photographers? Undeniably, a large part of the appeal is that it links directly to the history of photography. For roughly 100 years every photograph ever taken was a monochrome image. It wasn’t until the end of the 1950s – which was also when Practical Photography magazine launched – that colour reversal and emulsion stock became widely available and of practical use to the hobbyist. And even when this colour revolution did occur, many amateur photographers still stuck with black & white for its compatibility with home processing, while reportage shooters also stayed with mono as the film speeds were higher and could be ‘pushed’ more than the early colour emulsions.
Tapping into the historic aesthetic of the mono image and producing a ‘timeless’ classic is clearly a key factor in deciding to present your work in black & white rather than colour, but there are other advantages to shooting in shades of grey. Search for a colour photograph that you
really like and it’s a safe bet to guess that it probably contains four or fewer distinct colours. Any more than this and there’s a good chance that the image will become overly fussy and confused. Trying to limit the number of competing tones in a colour image is a real challenge for a photographer who doesn’t have the option to ‘edit’ them out as a painter might do. But by shooting, or processing, in mono these jarring elements are removed, leaving nothing but the power and purity of line and form.
A matter of light
The graphic starkness of the mono image is further enhanced by the way that black & white photography interacts with light. For while every great shot, no matter the medium, relies on an understanding and control of the available illumination, monochrome images display a much starker division between light and shade.
This interplay between the dark and bright elements in a black & white image can allow the mono practitioner to push the graphic appeal further for dramatic effect, or else embrace a delicate softness that colour can rarely replicate, all dependent upon the prevailing light.