My love affair with black and white photography

HCB-collage
Henri Cartier-Bresson inspiration

I have to say straight off, that these are of course not my photographs! Many will recognise them as the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson who I talk about in this post. Looking at these photos, there is something about a black and white photograph that catches my attention. The way that the lack of colour strips away all the distractions, allowing me to focus on the shapes, patterns, lines, light, shadows…

When I first started photography way back in the 1990’s, photography was still film based. I bought my first SLR camera but soon realised that I needed a second one so that I could take b&w and colour photographs at the same time. It seems crazy now, in the digital era, that we can simply change the settings on the camera and hey presto, we can switch between the two. But that is how it was back then.

I wasn’t very good at b&w photography using film though, because I never had the urge to get into the whole dark room processing thing. But the allure of a well taken b&w photo stayed with me.

In 1998, a work colleague took me to Henri Cartier-Bresson “Europeans” exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was the first time I’d heard of Henri but I fell in love with his work even though I am not a people photographer. His sense of timing is impeccable. The details and context in the photographs provide so much information about the people. His viewpoints, use of light and shadow, leading lines and framing give the photographs such depth. The collage attached to this post is made up of some of his photos which illustrate what I am talking about and which I aspire to be able to emulate some day.

And so my love affair with black and white began...

My own journey into black and white photography

I had a very dry period between 2000 and 2014, seldom taking photos and defiantly not thinking about black and white with any considered approach. Sure, I took b&w photographs but I was never entirely happy with them. I had some success with black and white shots based on close ups of flowers but not much else. They always looked a little washed out and wimpy. I didn’t have the intention of focussing on b&w when I started my 365 photo project, but the annual b&w month (in February) has become something that I look forward to. Each month, the host of the theme, works from a book based on b&w photography which guides our learning. Some people purchase the book and others just work with the summaries provided by the host.
1st year on 365
2014 was my first year on 365, and I did my first b&w bookclub challenge. I began learning to think and see in black and white which I hadn’t done for years. I knew that my flower photography (both in colour and b&w) was reasonably good, so I tried different subjects such as buildings and other still life subjects. Secondly, I began to think about tone, texture, shape and form in b&w photos. But the biggest thing I learnt was the difference (in theory) between low and high key and low and high contrast. Although I couldn’t intentionally take shots like this when I wanted to, I think I eventually understood how to achieve high key in camera and then high contrast through processing. However, looking back on my shots from this challenge shows that I had a tendency to put borders around my shots and write all over them.
2nd year
In my 2nd year, I participated in the b&w month again. This time my focus was on taking every shot in RAW and learning how to process these to achieve different looks. The biggest new learning for me was on the processing of colours in the raw file and the effect that has on the b&w image. I also set myself the task of not processing using other photo editors and over-doing it with borders and words. I finished the end of the month at the point where I had a few b&w presets and processes that I could use on the RAW file to get me the kind of look I wanted. I also worked to make sense of minimalism and negative space when taking a photo.
2016
Of course I had to participate in the b&w month this year as well. This year was about using Lightroom to process my shots and finding b&w presets that I liked. I also explored different points of view, the use of light and shadow as well as trying to find my own style. I took some portraits, landscapes and animals and tried to establish what shots can and cannot be converted to b&w and why they work. My top 10 favorites are in this post.

2017
2017 saw me participate once again in the month of black and white in February on my 365 project. Continuing with shooting exclusively in RAW and using Lightroom to do initial processing, this year I explored using SilverEfex (from the Nik Collection) to polish my shots. I found and saved a few presets which i used for most of the shots. Once again, I chose 10 of my favorites for a post.

So my journey continues. I am inspired by some of the photographers on the 365 site (such as northy (who works with light and shadow) and ukandie  (who uses strong compositions, contrast and shapes). I am hosting fortnightly b&w themes in an effort to encourage myself and other 365er’s to continue taking b&w shots and to keep thinking in b&w. The more I practice, the better I get, I hope! I am striving to catch the Decisive Moment in my b&w work, something which Henri wrote about at length. I am continuously guided by what Henri Cartier-Bresson said:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression”

and

“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative”.

 

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