Monochrome, Not Kodachrome

Back in 1833 when photography was created, Niepce and Daguerre only had black and white photographs, with few details in the limited shades of gray, printed on metal plates.  Exposure times were measured in hours.  Talbot found a way to use paper by 1836, and, although the photographs were still limited, he had reduced the exposure time to minutes.  Later, additional processing techniques and chemicals produced monochrome images with different hues.  [Side note: In 1851, Sergei Levitsky, won a gold medal in Paris, for a portrait, and he became the first "award-winning" photographer; millions have claimed that title since.  ;-)]  Finally, in 1884, George Eastman developed what we called film.   By 1888, he marketed a camera for just regular folks. Color was available in the 1940s, but in very limited quantities and with difficult and inconsistent production.  As the film companies improved their films and processing chemicals, color took off.  And, by the 1960s, consumers were hooked on color, and black and white film became the tool of artists and photojournalists.

Today, there are still some artistic types shooting black and white film, and their numbers will continue to dwindle until the film stock is retired.  I used to own my own darkroom and loaded my own film canisters from 100-foot rolls of film.  I loved it, but I don't miss it.

Long lead-in, but I am very fond of history.

When was the last time you made a monochrome photo?  Monochrome because it doesn't have to be only black and white (and doesn't it make me sound artsy and distinguished?)

Black & white photograph of sea oats, Virginia Beach, VAAnyone can do it.  Today's point and shoot cameras usually have a setting that produces a black and white (B&W) jpeg, and Leica just released an expensive camera that only shoots B&W in digital.

And, of course, there is software that will help you turn that jpeg or RAW image into something Daguerre and Fox couldn't even dream of.  There are many books and software programs dedicated to different approaches to convert your photos to some kind of monochrome.  We'll leave that for another day.  Just to give you a sampling, my photos in the blog today were made inside film and digital cameras, and Lightroom and Photoshop software.

Why would you want to create a monochrome?   Well, you could simply do it because it creates a different look than most other people are making.  Your monochrome - seriously, I'm switching to B&W because I'm supposed to be wearing a beret when I say monochrome - your B&W will generate some interest just because it is something they don't see everyday.  But there are other reasons to try it, too.

Island near Seward, Alaska, black and white photography

The bright, and too often over-saturated color in today's photographs can distract the viewer when you want them to focus on the lines or details in architecture.  I climbed 13 stories on a spiral staircase to get this photo.  The staircase was so narrow I had to carry my camera bag in front of me.  It was worth it.

Stained glass in York Minster, England, monochrome photograph

Textures seem to pop out in B&W.  To enhance that feeling, I'll sometimes add noise to the super clean photos that we get from today's digital cameras.  Some subjects just seem made for a monochrome and gritty look.  This photo of tobacco drying in a barn near George Washington's birthplace has color, but it has been modified to show just the hues of brown.  Texture to spare.

tobacco hanging in a shed at George Washington's birthplace, in Westmoreland County, VA

B&W is great for portraits.  It shows the weathered faces of the elderly and the smooth glow of youth.  B&W portraits focus on the subject, not the colors they're wearing or surrounded by.  B&W portraits are still very popular requests.

volksmarcher in Germany, black and white photograph

Young girl portrait, black and white

As a history lover, I like to make B&Ws of historical things.  I've mentioned before that we are going through the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, and I've been attending many of the events.  Living in Virginia, you really can't avoid them; so much of that war was fought in and around this state.  I think the re-enactors' photos look better in B&W.  When I offer them a copy of the photographs I make, they usually want their copies modified to B&W.

Robert E. Lee re-enactor, Stratford Hall, Virginia, black and white photograph

Consider trying it yourself.  Let yourself get artsy.  Convert some of the photos already in your library.  Try to visualize photos you're making this weekend in B&W.   Drop us an email if you need a hand.  We've talked about B&W in past blogs and will, again, in the future.

German castle, black and white, B&W, landscape, Prince Ludwig