My photography, I thought, had largely evolved over time to inky, contrasty, b/w shots, usually close up, and fairly minimal in composition.
Nine years on from buying my first “proper” camera, a Nikon Coolpix P300, after a few years of Sony camera phones, I was pleased with where I’d reached.
But then I went back and looked at some of the images I made with the Coolpix nearly a decade back.
And found that I had quickly settled on a pattern of using the camera’s on board high contrast mono mode, to make close up shots, fairly minimal in composition.
It seems I got it pretty right the first time, and perhaps the hundreds of cameras I’ve had and used in between, haven’t taught me as much as I thought they might have.
But then comes the question, where did/does this preference come from?
Despite also enjoying summer flings in full colour with my CCD sensor DSLRs, this mono output is more abundant.
I don’t recall taking many b/w shots when I was using phone cameras, I nearly always just used them to point and shoot and never post processed to alter the colours, or anything else.
So where did my penchant for moody, intimate black and whites originate?
I think I can break it down fairly simply.
I prefer b/w because it strips away extra levels of detail, and decisions to be made.
In the final image, it makes it easier for the viewer to focus on the raw essentials of light and shade, texture, composition, depth of field.
And whilst shooting, it simplifies, even purifies the photography experience for me, makes it somehow cleaner and more direct than when shooting colour.
So this explains the choice for b/w, but why the higher contrast and inky blacks?
I guess I just like drama. To accentuate what is already interesting (to me), to give it greater weight, higher impact.
And perhaps, to take it a little further from reality.
I rarely go out with the mindset of wanting to capture true colours or the same depth of field as my eyes see, ie the photograph my eyes would make. I already have my eyes and my memory for that!
I love that we can encourage our cameras to see things we cannot see, to seek out the secrets, and emphasise the overlooked.
Shallow depth of field.
Increased saturation and contrast.
Super close focus (I don’t know about you, but my eyes start to blur when text is closer than perhaps 10cm, but my favourite close focus cameras go down to just 1cm).
With photography, we are limited to an extent by the scene in front of us.
A sketch artist can take a pencil and paper and draw absolutely anything from their imagination. A musician can play any series of notes they choose. Or indeed anything in between.
(Aside – a musician once said to me “it’s all equal for musicians when writing songs, we all have the same scale of notes to choose from”. Which I always felt was a rather silly thing to say, given the incredibly vast range of instruments and music in existence. I don’t imagine many of us listen to our favourite music and consider it only an arrangement of basic notes. Most of the music I like doesn’t even have singular notes anyway, but layers and swathes of interwoven sound. I digress.)
So with photography we can use our cameras as an instrument to shape the “reality” in front of us.
For some this means taking a shot of nature’s beauty, then processing it to look like it’s dated CGI with hyper saturated colours. Each to their own.
For me, this re-imagining of reality usually involves the aforementioned elements – b/w, higher contrast, close up, shallow depth of field.
I think another factor is wanting to create something timeless, or not attached to a specific time.
When I used to write poetry by the bucket load, one of my core rules was to not use any contemporary reference that would date the writing. I wanted poems that sounded like they could have been written a hundred years ago, or a hundred years hence.
It’s similar with photography.
If we look at something like billboard or magazine advertising over the years, distinct colour palettes and typefaces and styles emerge that allow even the casual observer to have a good guess at what decade they were from.
By using b/w from the outset with photography, I feel we can further muddy these waters, make our work less dateable, and more timeless.
Lastly, one of the reasons I photograph, aside for myself, is to share what I consider beautiful with others.
And often this does seem to be something as simple as a decaying leaf, or a rusting screw, or the vein like structure on the surface of a bee’s wings.
The kind of things we don’t see – we can’t see – if we’re bustling through life constantly just trying to reach the next destination, meet the next deadline.
So in that sense I hope I can encourage people to slow down and look more closely at what’s often right there in front of us, if we’re willing to look closer.
How about you? How has your photography style evolved (or, like mine, not!) over the years?
As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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13 thoughts on “When You Don’t Realise How Right You Got It The First Time”
What I photograph I think has stayed fairly similar since I began. Has always been about being outdoors for the most part but think my skills have improved. Less fluke of getting a good photo.
Do you think your preferences of what you want to capture have become more specific, or you just understand your camera better now, and how to get the result you’re looking for?
I think probably a combination of all three over time with more practise , knowledge and understanding.
These are beautiful … as always. I prefer the timeless quality of black and white as also it leaves a little something to the imagination. Gorgeous.
Thanks Katie, lovely to hear from you, it’s been too long!
I missed your photos!
Like you Dan, I think I’ve been going around in circles…
Once I got my Pentax K20D in 2013, and bought my DA 35 2.4 lens, I was probably as happy a photographer as I’ve ever been. I’m not sure I’ve gotten any better since then! I get to some different ways to try to emulate the film look (or should I say what reality looks like?) with digital cameras and it might be time to just stop trying to emulate… and embrace the real thing?
The DA 35/2.4 is pretty much the only lens I need on a DSLR too. Small, light, plenty sharp, cheap, the plastic fantastic!
My wife “found” a box of film negatives and positives she had put away for safekeeping. Among them was a large set of Ilford HP5, Tri-X Pan and T-MAX B&W negatives from my early days (30+ years ago) of photography. It seems that I preferred shooting in B&W, but I don’t remember why. Perhaps I thought it was “arty” and cool. I was a moody college student in the mid-’80s, wore only black and was very much into punk music.
My early photography, with a few exceptions, was minimalist and focused on either objects or people. For some reason, when I switched to digital in the late ’90s, I rarely shot B&W, and I rarely shot objects. I don’t know why.
With digital photography, I was focused on documentary photography; age-related milestones of my children, family day trips, weddings, etc. Then I discovered I enjoyed landscapes and cityscapes and did that for a while.
In 2018 and 2019, health-related challenges kept me from exploring the forests and city alone, so I was limited in what I photographed. In 2019, in between radiation treatments and doctors visits, I started doing more street photography in Philadelphia using adapted vintage 35mm film lenses. Street photography is essentially documentary photography. I was back where I started, and I think it was a good thing.
I made my Philadelphia street photographs in B&W and colour, but the colour images are muted. I used the Classic Chrome film simulation on my Fuji X-T2. In retrospect, I should have captured those in B&W.
Now, after eight months of global pandemic lockdown, I can see that I am back to being moody again.
I’m not a musician, but I would think that a statement like “…we all have the same scale of notes to choose from” could only come from a culturally limited musician. Western and Asian musical scales are vastly different, and I’m sure one can find infinite combinations of those two.
Khurt, how did you feel looking at your 30 year old photos?
Yes I agree about the music comment, it seemed very narrow minded to me! There are of course infinite combinations of sound, and the more layers you add, the wider the scope.
I’m happy that I found that box because first of all it proves my photography has improved. 🤪
Secondly, it also proved I’ve always been a documentary photographer.
; proof of computers I’ve owned over the decades, places and people, pets ( cats, dogs and fish), college dorm rooms, etc.
No sunsets, landscapes, cityscapes, or macros, etc.
My dad was like that with cars (he had many!), and at the time it seemed a bit pointless, but now my brother and I enjoy going through some of the pictures and recalling the memories…
[…] February) Winter Light in Black and White project by The Photographers Group and the other was a recent post by photographer Dan James who posed the question, “How has your photography style evolved […]