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Black and White Photography – Part 1

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One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you’d be stricken blind. 

Dorothea Lange,  who documented the Great Depression in black and white.

Summer storm

A summer storm on the prairies

This week’s topic is another one of those that I keep running into on the web. Black and White Photography.  It is an area of photography that is currently undergoing a bit of a resurgence in interest.  There are a number of magazines and a large number of recently published books available on the subject.  As well, most major software applications such as Photoshop and Lightroom now have the capability to do extensive black and white rendering of colour images.  They can also be supplemented by plug-ins from developers like Nik software, Topaz and onOne software.  This will be a two part blog.  In the first part I want to cover some of the history of black and white photography and maybe consider some of the things that motivate folks to render images in black and white.  In the second part, I will talk about some of the software that is used to render black and white imagery and some of my ideas culled from my experience and the literature on what I think makes a good candidate for a black and white conversion.

The History of Black and White Photography.

It is difficult to say who actually made the first image that might be called a photograph.  Early Chinese and Greeks note the use of pinhole devices.  Whether they actually made any prints from these has never been documented.  The first print that that could be seen as a more or less hard copy is attributed to Louis Daguerre.  He is credited with developing the daguerreotype having taken the first ever image of a person in 1838.

The English inventor, Henry Fox Talbot, who had been working on various imaging processes, invented the calotype process in 1840.  His process was probably the first to create an actual negative.  His 1835 image of the Oriel window is the oldest known negative to exist today.  Many advances in photographic technology were made in the 19th century.  In 1884, George Eastman invented the process for producing film that lead to the technology in use in today’s film cameras.  His invention would eventually replace the use of glass plates.

For a long time, all photography was done in black and white, even after colour film was available.  Monochrome, as black and white is sometimes called, continued to dominate for decades.  This dominance was primarily because of its lower cost and its more classic look.  Furthermore, it was a lot easier for amateurs and professionals alike to process in home labs.

My History of Black and White Photography

I remember my first camera – it was a small little black, plastic box that had a fixed focus lens and took rolls of 120 film.  It worked quite well for a young kid who didn’t know anything about photography, except, point and shoot.  It was very prone to have the images of fingers in the corners of the pictures.  When I moved into high school, I earned enough money, from part time jobs, to buy a twin-lens reflex camera.  Boy, was I in seventh heaven!  This camera lasted about 5 years and came to an untimely demise, during a hike in the Rockies, after falling from a backpack and rolling downhill and over a cliff to the rocks below.  Needless to say I didn’t follow it and I never saw it again.  I will remember that camera because it was the first one I owned that allowed me to actually shoot a roll of colour film.  It was a good camera and I probably shot a few hundred rolls of black and white film with it.  Colour was still too expensive by comparison, to use for anything other than special occasions.

My next camera was Pentax 35mm “through the lens” camera that allowed me to make the move to colour slide film – that was that a major step forward in my amateur photography career.  Needless to say, my black and white photography came to an end, until the digital age opened up a whole new world of photography to me and thousands if not hundreds of thousands of others.

So, why did I become interested in black and white imagery after a very long period of shooting nothing but colour slides.  I think my interest returned, at least it was stirred up, about 10 years ago when someone gave me a calendar of Ansel Adams photography.  My initial reaction was – WOW these look great!  As I investigated his work even further, it became obvious that here was a man who was definitely a master of his art.  His images opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me.  I was basically hooked.

Why Black and white?

The question I often see is “Why shoot black and white today?”.  If you asked a dozen different photographers who do black and white photography, why they do it, you would probably get a dozen different answers.  I do it for the challenge of rendering an image in black and white.  The challenges are many.  For one, you can no longer depend on colour to provide the compositional relationships between things like contrast, texture and tone.  In black and white photography the compositional challenges lie more with the interplay of tones and the rendering of compositional elements such as lines, shapes and textures.  There is also the question of which shade of grey best represents the rendering of the different colours in the original digital image.


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