I’ve never read the book 50 Shades of Grey, nor seen the recent film version, and have no particular intention of doing so. Still, it seemed a good excuse to get a pop-culture reference into the title of this post, which is actually about photography.
For a long time I’ve had a particular fondness for black & white photography. Partly this is, no doubt, a matter of nostalgia as I used to be a member of my university photographic society and made quite extensive use of their darkroom (which was equipped for b&w work only) for a year or so (almost 15 years ago, at the tail-end of my pre-digital days).
Largely, though, it’s because I love the look of well-executed monochrome images and the moods they can evoke. Granted, a well-executed colour photo can also be a joy to behold and there are many subjects that require colour to work well, but often I find that the colour can be a distraction and that the monochrome image reveals details that you would otherwise miss.
Here’s a not particularly great example from my own photo collection. The original image was shot in colour (about 6 years ago). This is how I tend to work most of the time in digital photography, since it’s possible to remove the colour later but not to add it back in:
It’s a nice enough picture but not especially gripping or memorable (and even the “in-focus” bits are slightly out-of-focus, which becomes more obvious at larger sizes). Admittedly the same is true of the desaturated version below, but I think the removal of the colour in this case makes for a slightly stronger image, as the shapes and (in this case especially) the tones are more apparent:
Had the moth been a bit more colourful or the foliage a bit more varied, there might have been just as much lost as gained in the shift from colour to b&w. As it is, I think much is gained and little lost here.
Sometimes it’s much harder to decide between colour or monochrome versions of an image. Here’s a photo I took on a trip to Catalonia last August:
And here it is in b&w (and slightly cropped):
In this case I love the blue of the sky and the subtle colours in the stonework that are apparent in the colour version, but I also love the effect when the colour is removed and the tones are allowed to come to the fore. Of these two images I definitely prefer the second one, but that’s more due to the (IMHO) stronger composition with the square crop than to the presence or absence of colour.
I recently came across a lovely discussion of the benefits of monochrome photography, which is largely what inspired this mini-essay of mine. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a careful note of where I found it but I think it was on one of the Weekly Imogen videos on YouTube, which are created by a London-based photographer called Mark and his regular model, Imogen, who also post regularly on Flickr under the name of unexpectedtales. Here’s a picture of Imogen (by Mark), which also doubles as a link to their Flickr photostream, which in turn contains a link to the YouTube series (not, unfortunately, to the video I was after):
(Incidentally, this particular image is one of the top 10 favourite pictures of herself that Imogen selected for the linked video and is also one of my favourites of her; many of their photos are in colour but I think that a lot of the strength of this particular image comes from the fact that it isn’t.)
Anyway, to paraphrase Mark or whoever else was making the statement about monochrome photography, he said something along the lines of: “The joy of black and white photography is precisely that it isn’t just black and white but thousands of shades of grey in between… the monochrome image invites the viewer to engage with it in a way that colour images don’t, requiring your imagination to fill in the missing colours.” I’m fairly sure he also made the point about colours sometimes being a distraction that I mentioned earlier, which is a view I’ve held for a long time. Monochrome photography (perhaps paradoxically, given that it’s been around for much longer than colour photography, which tends to lack this particular advantage – or at least doesn’t have it so intrinsically built in) offers us a new way of seeing the familiar.