Monochrome in a Technicolour World

Schroeder at Forest of Dean

A photo of our dog, Schroeder, in the Forest of Dean. Taken in 1999 on Ilford Black & White film and developed in my home darkroom, this is a scan of the original print.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, if you wanted to take photographs you had to buy film. This allowed you to take either 24 or 36 pictures before having to take it off to the chemist or camera shop for developing and buy yourself another film.

For the more frugal photographers the film they got back from the chemist may have had a Christmas at both ends and the summer holiday in the middle. For the more enthusiastic photographer, burning through film could be an expensive business. I went on holiday to Egypt in 2003 and film and developing added an extra £100 onto the cost of my holiday.

In either event, the patience required in waiting to see the fruits of your labours seems almost unimaginable in today’s world of instant digital images.

But this wasn’t the only limiting factor of film. Once you had chosen your film you were stuck with it until the end. If you chose yourself a 100 or even 50 ASA film to suit the sunny conditions, you had to hope that the clouds stayed away until you’d finished the film. This problem was even worse when trying to decide whether to shoot colour or black and white film.

I am rather partial to black and white photography: I did a course in Stroud to learn how to develop my own film and built myself a home darkroom, where I spent many an hour breathing in noxious chemical fumes. However, I could never fully commit to it and give up colour photography altogether.

My solution was to carry around two camera bodies, one loaded with colour and one with black and white film. But even then, I could never decide when to use which medium. Inevitably I ended up shooting everything in both.

Now all of that is much easier. You can blast away with the digital camera, changing ISO ratings from shot to shot as the mood takes you, and then use Photoshop to decide whether to render the picture in colour or black and white.

But I still have trouble deciding when to use which.

The problem is, once I start converting pictures to black and white, all images seem to lend themselves to the treatment. I find myself going monochrome mad, sometimes just in the (forlorn) hope of turning a rubbish picture into something decent.

As I have been trawling through my pictures lately I have come across this dilemma many times. Here are some examples where I think black and white has worked well – showing original image for comparison:

Pillar Warehouse, Gloucester Docks

Pillar Warehouse, Gloucester Docks

This picture of the Pillar and Lucy warehouse at Gloucester Docks looks like it could have been taken 100 years ago.

Prescott Hill ClimbPrescott Hill Climb B&W

is was taken at the Prescott Hill climb last year; because of the old bikes I think the b&w treatment gives it a nostalgic 1960s feel and removes that distracting red background.

Queuing to get into St Peter's BasilicaQueuing to get into St Peter's Basilica

Initially I didn’t like his shot and am slightly worried that I have used b&w to save a rubbish shot, but I liked the concept of the nun queueing to get into the basilica and she stands out more in the b&w shot as the runners preparing for the marathon behind her are less prominent.

Outside the Town Hall Building, NaplesOutside the Town Hall Building, Naples B&W

Still in Italy, these people are lounging outside the Town Hall building in Naples. The crop helps on the b&w picture, but I also think the monochrome treatment helps – I often like it on candid people shots.

Here are a few examples of where I thought it would work, but I’m not so sure:

A guy in the audience, Cafe Rene open-air stageA guy in the audience, Cafe Rene open-air stage

This guy’s a regular at the Cafe Rene in Gloucester and I managed to catch this candid snap during the Blues Festival in 2011. I like the b&w shot – as I say, I like b&w for people pictures – but here I think it loses something as he is such a colourful character.

IMG_0378IMG_0378_edited-2I took lots of night shots around Venice, expecting for them to be good monochrome shots, but actually I think I like the colour cast from the lights.

Venice fruit & vegVenice fruit & veg B&W

Still in Venice and same problem as previously, plus the colour of all that fruit is great.

So what do you think, to monochrome or not to monochrome?

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About Darrel Kirby

I am what I am.
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