Sometimes You Have To Make It In Monochrome / by Graham Dew

Droxford Field, 2008 © Graham Dew

Droxford Field, 2008

It was interesting to see that Leica have introduced their black and white-only M Monochrom camera last week. Apart from a few specialist cameras back at the dawn of digital, no-one’s produced a monochrome camera for a very long time. By discarding the Bayer filter and colour from the image making process, Leica are promising improved resolution and dynamic range over more conventional cameras. We’ll see. I’m not convinced; modern cameras and software are now so good that I don’t think the advantages will be anything other than theoretical, and owners of the new cameras will have to start using coloured filters over their lenses once again if they wish to manipulate contrast. But that’s not really the point. Leica is playing on its heritage. For many decades the archetypal photojournalist, street shooter and life-as-lived photographer, would shoot Tri-X in their Leica rangefinder. Monochrome and Leica do seem to go together.

It’s a long time since I put black and white film in a camera, and since using digital cameras I’ve always shot my images in colour. In the old days of black and white silver film base photography, one would try to pre-visualise the image in monochrome, and would shoot accordingly. This often meant looking for strong composition and dramatic contrast. If the contrast wasn’t there at the point of exposure then as long as the feature was there, one could bring this up in the darkroom, or as we do now, in post-processing. We learned how to manipulate the image, and we all learned how to look at this sort of manipulation. In monochrome you can push the tonality much harder than you can in colour and still create an acceptable result. Viewers will often call supersaturated colours garish and unreal, but pitch black skies and chalk white fields are acceptable in monochrome. Tonal manipulations in colour portraits will have people saying that image is ‘Photoshopped’, but a similar approach in black and white will usually be met with approval. Putting aside nostalgia & retro styling, some images just work better in monochrome, just like some music is best played as a solo piece and others benefit from using the full orchestra. Knowing when to make the final image in monochrome is the important thing.

These days I commute to work by train (where I write this blog), but when I do take the car I often travel along the country lanes. Although I often see things I’d like to photograph, stopping is impossible on these narrow lanes. However, just above Droxford there is a muddy pull-in area that I sometimes stop at. One February morning the light was particularly wonderful, and I had a strong urge to pull over and see if I could make a picture or two. Ploughed fields are always a magnet for me; I love their well-groomed appearance, their graphic nature. Caught early in the morning or late in the day the low sun accentuates these features. In the picture above there is no single focal point for the image. Instead, the subject of the picture is the interplay of curves between the clouds and the ploughed field, together forming a reflected ‘S’. However, the tonalities of these two elements were quite different, with soft white clouds in pale blue sky, and the sharper, more defined brown soil and dark shadows. Just boosting the contrast in the colour image ends up in ugly colouration. So the trick here was to remove the colour altogether, and to apply quite strong contrast and darkening to the sky. The result was a pleasing image that worked in black and white, but could not be achieved in colour. Sometimes you have to make it monochrome.*

*Apologies to U2; my daughter groaned when she saw the title of this post!