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Friday, 12 October 2007


I know of no photographers, not even Marie Cosindas, who can switch succesfully between B&W and color esthetic.


Keep at it!


Bill, I totally disagree. I do both color and black and white and do pretty well at switching back and forth, I think. I know a lot of others who do too.

Dear Bill,

It's hard to believe that no one else does this. I mean, I know I'm weird, but I can't be THAT weird.

pax / Ctein

Bill Mitchell,
Me either.

Ctein, you have to admit that if you threw out every black-and-white picture you ever took, it wouldn't really affect your ouvre or your legacy much. Whereas if you threw away all your color pictures, it would be a disaster.

I think the same test can be applied to every photographer who has ever done both. You can throw out Eliot Porter's and Ernst Haas's and Bill Eggleston's B&W and we wouldn't really be the poorer--and it wouldn't really change our perception of them. But we could throw out Weston's and Paul Caponigro's and Kertesz's color work and, ditto.

I can't think of a single photographer who has contributed equally in both B&W and color. I'm willing to stand corrected, I just can't think of one.

Mike J.

I can only agree - B+W encourages a totally different vision than colour. I think there must be many people people who have at least those two modes and happily switch between them. And the camera as well "encourages" a particular type of vision

I can go along with Ctein on this one as well. Sorry Bill Mitchell, but many of us can do the switch in an instance because we - possibly, come from an era when film was the only medium and one had to have a good knowledge of how they all worked, both in camera, and in the darkroom after many hours of getting the film/dev/print combination right. Add different cameras and film sizes coupled with a good technique and you have a mix that any worthwhile photographer could work happily with.

Perhaps Ctein and I come from a certain age bracket :-)

I think you're right Mike: look at Ansel Adams's risible book of colour photographs.


Cindy Sherman is the name that springs to mind when thinking of photographers who have worked equally well in colour and black and white. Robin Morrison (a New Zealand photographer who died way to early) is another.

I think what often happens is that artists become known for a style or vision and get stuck, trapped, forced into going down the same visual or stylistic path by dealers, curators, critics and collectors. Others are pushed into a choice early in their development by teachers/mentors. This then becomes what we know them for. And change can be a hard, hard thing.

Some had no real choice. Colour film wasn't really an option, such as with Weston. When it was, he never really had the chance to work extensively with it.

On the other hand, some people do just work better when they pour their creativity into one medium, one emulsion and one format.

Another thought provoking thread, good stuff!
I have far more colour pictures than B&W but if I had to lose one or the other I'd throw out the colour ones.
Although I often make successful B&Ws from colour neg originals I find it easier to compose and visualise a B&W image if the camera is loaded with B&W film.
It is good mental exercise to consider the world prom the viewpoint of different camera formats and lens angle of view, but I never did really get used to the vertical frame of the Fuji 645s.
In the past Mike quoted someone as saying that the 40mm focal length for 35mm film was "just right", for a while I was fully in agreement with this but kept finding important elements of the shot too close to the edge of the frame (or just cut off). So tried a 35mm lens but it somehow lost the frame filling immediacy of the 40mm.
Walking around with just one focal length lens can be very productive but frustrating when you bring the camera to the eye and then have to zoom by stepping forward or back. I got a pleasant surprise a couple of weeks back when out for a stroll with a Konica C35 fixed lens rangefinder - every time I stopped to take a snap I was already standing in the right position! The focal length? - 38mm. Voila, now I know the "focal length" of my eye/brain photo seeing apparatus.

Cheers, Robin

Ctein, this reminds me of something I've written about elsewhere. Sometimes I go on a shooting expedition specifically to make pictures that will be contact printed in Pt/Pd. So I load the truck with 5x7, 8x10, 7x17, and 12x20 inch outfits. People have asked, "how do you choose which camera to use," and I had to stop and think about it to realize, I don't. The picture chooses. By the time I've looked at a scene and decided, Yes! there's a picture I want to make, there is no question which of the cameras I'll use. Deciding there was a picture at all determined which format it must be.

A second reaction, this time to the color issue. I have yet to make a b&w 'conversion' from a digital capture that is worth looking at. I think this is because if you put a dslr in my hands I *know* that I'm using a tool that makes color pictures, so I make pictures in color. Remove the color, and the picture doesn't work...

Harry Callahan, and if you disagree you are wrong.

This is a little unrelated to the topic, but I've always felt I could pick a Ctein photograph from a group of photographs, but I'm not sure if it would be due to subject matter or style. Maybe it's a combination of both. There's something about your photographs that shout "Ctein" to me. If I could describe what it is, I would, but I can't.

Bruce Davidson
William Klein

One more:

Sylvia Plachy

With apologies for the successive comments, I might retract Davidson (I was thinking of his subway series, but his best work really has been black and white).

But I stand by Klein and Plachy.


"I have yet to make a b&w 'conversion' from a digital capture that is worth looking at. I think this is because if you put a dslr in my hands I *know* that I'm using a tool that makes color pictures, so I make pictures in color. Remove the color, and the picture doesn't work..."

This is exactly my problem. I've tried repeatedly to shoot B&W with DSLRs and it just doesn't work. I know the machine sees color, so I see color. For a while I kept going on about wanting a pure B&W digital camera, and people would say "what's the big deal? Just convert in software." They don't get this. You get it.

Mike J.

Lately I have been going out picture making with two 533/16 Super Ikontas. One with Delta 100 and one with what ever ASA 100 color neg film I have at the time. I don’t know how your cameras work but when I look through the viewfinder the world is in color with both cameras. I have never had a film camera that showed me the world in monochrome. So here is the way my mind works. If the scene is about the color; a tree in bloom with red blossoms set against a blue wall, it is going to be a color picture. But if it is about structure; the soft curves of a black 39 Ford next to a weathered wood shack with its sharp angles, it is going to be B&W. Sometimes it can be both color and structure, then I take two pictures with each camera and sort it out later. Lots of fun. E

I myself used to switch between the two a lot, although it always seems to come in moods, having little to do with what I have in the camera. Now I shoot mostly color, though. James Nachtwey also comes to mind when I think of photographers who use both color and black and white.

summary comment to all-- Wow, INTERESTING thread!

MikeJ-- Yer right, the overwhelming body of my significant work is color. I think that's primarily due to the Muse whispering "color color color" no matter what the Photographer is comfortable doing. In aggregate, 90% of my art photography is color, so 90% of the good stuff is gonna be, too.

Famous photog whose important work is substantially in both: Jim Marshall, the music photographer. Because of the exigencies of reproduction and economics of the 60's and 70's, he's known to many simply as a B&W photog (vis his photo of Johnny Cash giving the finger to the camera). But his color work contributes just as much to his rep and fame-- Jimi Hendrix on his knees setting fire to his guitar, all reds and yellows and blacks; Miles Davis in his cherry red leather jacket, holding his horn, sitting on the green grass; Janis perched on her psychedelic-painted Porsche at the Palace of Fine Arts...

But, indeed, the question parses more intricately than I imagined in my column.

I will have to try the "B&W" experiment with my digital camera some time-- tell myself it's B see if I (the Photographer me, that is) believes it. 'Specially since when I switch my camera to B&W mode, it's still capturing full-color RAW, it's just previewing me B&W. Will it convince me? I've not a hint.

pax / Ctein

What do film cameras see?

I can't disagree with the fact that people are not pleased with "digital" B&W..... but how can an inanimate object force you to see things any different than you would other wise?

It's a frame of mind and has nothing to do with the camera, digital or film.

To clarify my original comment:
There are several famous photographers who have produced iconic work in both B&W and color, (I think immediately of Avedon and Penn). But that is a totally different proposition from switching, willy-nilly, between the two in the middle of a single shoot, to produce significant images.

"how can an inanimate object force you to see things any different than you would other wise? It's a frame of mind and has nothing to do with the camera, digital or film."

It has everything to do with the camera and film. If you're out taking pictures, you need to visualize what the camera is going to make out of the scene. Seeing and camera vision aren't equivalent. You're constantly previsualizing based on what you know the camera is going to do.

Mike J.

Dear Bill,

I understood the meaning of your previous comment; I hope my earlier replies made that clear. Honestly, I don't know who else can switch 'willy nilly', not being inside their heads. Which is kinda why I wrote the column. I'm curious about others' experiences. (BTW, I did understand when you said no photographer you knew of did that, you meant no other one besides me.)

Unless someone has intimate knowledge of the working methods of a 'famous photographer' there's no way I can think of to answer your question. For all we know, most of them do it (doubtful). Or I am unique in the world (doubtful). As MikeJ pointed out, looking at the body of produced work is a different equally-interesting question. I asked about the process; Mike asked about the end product.

pax / Ctein

"What do film cameras see?

I can't disagree with the fact that people are not pleased with "digital" B&W..... but how can an inanimate object force you to see things any different than you would other wise?

It's a frame of mind and has nothing to do with the camera, digital or film."

You took the words right out of my mouth. A camera is a device. It doesn't "see" anything. Perhaps what's happened is that those who shoot B&W film are conditioned to see in B&W when holding a camera loaded with B&W film. But that doesn't mean the same thing isn't possible with a DSLR. It just requires re-training.

Shooting in B&W mode on a DSLR in RAW mode is a good way to do that, since as ctein mentioned all data is being recorded in color but the preview is in B&W.


i fully understand your problem with digital bw, but their could be a solution maybe. I remember a review of Epson RD1 on LL, where the reviewer talked about a pure bw-worklow, setting the camera to bw-mode and converting the raw-files _before_ seeing them to bw.
well, many dslr's don't have the bw-modes, but more and more do.

Maybe it would even be good practice to use only one bw-preset for converting all images, because that is the closest equivalent of shooting bw-film. i don't see fancy conversions as a substitute for real 35mm bw (i.e. film). Converting every picture differently is like shooting large format, imho.

Lately i am even tempted to try shooting jpg again, because i think according to another post here, that a digital image is like plastic, and raw makes it even more plasticy. I know that many (including yourself?) don't take jpg for serious, still... what do you think about it?

Guys, just like you listen to music with your brain and not your ears, so you see pictures with your brain and not with your camera. If you're out there shooting pictures doing NO mental previsualizing, good luck, but I don't like your chances. It's not a question of what the hardware will do. It's a question of how well you understand what the hardware will do.

Mike J.

Please don't think I don't take JPEG seriously. It's up to every photographer how he or she wants to shoot. My obligation as a shooter and "teacher" (in which case I shoot and advocate RAW) is very different from my obligation as a viewer, critic, and appreciator of other peoples' work. In that case what I try to do is to accept what the other person has done, take it on the terms in which it's presented, and see if I can figure out what the artist is getting at. In that case it doesn't matter to me what his or her methods were--it's the end result that counts. If the pictures are good, I don't care how you got there.

Mike J.

Ok guys help me out here.

As I understand it you are saying that "camera vision" is based on both format and type of film right? You have a loaded roll of provia it's different than say Kodachrome. You pre
visualize based on those qualities,limitations or latitudes. Format is easy....

With digital, unless shooting jpgs with the B&W setting on (who does that?)all you get is color, and in that just the native color of your particular sensor right?

Since I currently have only a DSLR and don't shoot film (not for 20 years) I have to do all of this and more. In other words I need to have my vision for the shot and also have the camera vision frame of mind when knowingly shooting for B&W as end result.

As an example, this shot was taken knowing it would be B&W. When framing it up I saw beautiful shapes and lines, a range of tones and what was to me not very interesting color that seemed to interfere with the geometry and balance of the shot.


How is this really any different than choosing between my camera loaded with B&W or my cam with a roll of color? Did I not still go through the same process? Don't the two photos Ctein used as illustration make the same point?

Thanks much to all of you, as this is very educational and extremely helpful. No need to go to school again,I just steal and learn things from TOP. Maybe Mike, Carl and Ctein should do a 3 day seminar? I'd go for sure....

You are a super boffin!

I think Helmut Newton worked with an equal level of brilliance in both colour and b/w though struggle to come up with many convincing examples off the top of my head.

Oh - Cecil Beaton as well, perhaps.

Dear Anthony and Charlie,

Well, I'll take that as a compliment [smile]. But I don't feel like my boffiness is part of this, although it's part and parcel of a great deal of my other photographic technique. This camera control thing is just something that happens; I don't think I'm thinking it through in any analytical way. Tho' I could be wrong about that; it's mostly an interesting and uncomprehended mystery to me.

Equally mysterious is why, if I feel like I'm equally good at B&W and color, equally facile at both and enjoy them comparably, I don't feel more like photographing B&W? Makes no sense to me. Yeah, I know feelings don't have to make sense, and I know better than to tell myself what I should be feeling. But it's a puzzlement.

Following that vein, Charlie, I'd feel totally unequipped to teach a seminar of any length on this topic. I have no idea why I do what I do or how I do it. I'm reporting the symptoms, as it were, but I cannot counsel on the disease. I don't know how to teach people things I don't understand myself.

BTW, I agree-- your photograph looks like it as made with B&W sensibilities and is very successful. Clearly, you can do the switch digitally. YOU should be teaching the class!

pax / Ctein

I prefer shooting B&W film to digital RAW. I don't want to have to waste my time with tedious step-by-step work flow conversions only to end up, after substantial & valuable minutes, with the ability to print a B&W negative that just as easily could have been obtained with a FILM camera. Maybe some of you remember film?
After trying 3 digital cameras and having thousands of shots to play with, I'm giving my cameras away and sticking to film!
As a full time photographer I prefer to spend 80% of my time behind the camera lens, instead of 80% of my time staring at color images I need to convert!

Thanks for the reply Ctein,

Me teach a class on this stuff? Surely not....

I can barely string together 3 paragraphs much less articulate what I think, and how I work.


Dear Bradley,

Am I right in deducing that you have someone you trust to do B&W film printing for you? Can't see any other way you'd be able to spend 80% of your time behind the camera, no matter what the medium.

Not trying to discourage you from using film if that's what you prefer, but maybe you're going about digital the wrong way. I think you're assuming you have to custom "print" B&W digital photos all on your own, even though you're not doing that with your film photos. (I put "print" in quotes, 'cause you could be sending the polished-up files to a service bureau for output, but you've still put in most of the time and energy).

I'm sure there are folks who do commercial custom printing from digital photos. (Actually, I'm one, but I'm only dealing with very high end work, comparable to dye transfer prices). If you have someone you can work with for digital printing, you don't spend 80% of your time behind the computer. What you do is set up some standard RAW-to-BW conversions and you batch process all your files by those standards. No different, really, from loading your film camera with a particular kind of film. Then you hand those conversions to your custom printer and it's up to them to come up with finished prints you like.

Then your work flow is rather similar to film. And the imposition on your time and energy isn't much different, either.

pax / Ctein

A while back I started shooting 5x4. One driving factor was the ability to go out with a bunch of film holders, some loaded with FP4 and some with Velvia. I can shoot B&W or colour, turn about, seconds apart. I've always enjoyed both, and thought myself equally skilled in each medium.
Then I meet up with a former buddy I hadn't seen for years. He immediately asked if I was still shooting big black and white. It turns out that his perception of what I did best was classic, fine B&W prints. So, maybe our own assessment of our own skills isn't always the most objective.

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