Monday, May 2, 2011

Back to the Future

Years ago when I started my first photography class, I remembered start using black & white bulk films mainly because it was a cost effective way to capture images, flexible enough for processing, and durable enough to enjoy the result for years to come.  I also shot colors, and color transparencies over those years for convenience, and different challenges, respectively.  Color transparencies presented a whole new challenge when shooting by forcing one to think more before shooting.  Lighting, exposure, and especially composition must be nailed before firing that shutter.  There's no second chance to recompose color slides given how it was used and viewed.  

Fast forward to the new millennium and the early digital camera era.  Colors were generally inaccurate.  Dynamic range limited, and a whole new challenge with white balance.  After a decade or so, it seems that the real improvement has been made to improving dynamic range.  Newer generation cameras like Canon 5D (I and II), Nikon D700 sport very capable full frame sensors boasting impressive dynamic range.  White balance remains a game of hit and miss, and consequently color accuracy suffers.  RAW files and modern software like LightRoom and Aperture have largely transformed digital photography, paradoxically, to a more analog-like process.

I must be among the many photographers who have re-discovered the joy of photography in this ever-changing digital era.  Today, those RAW files are simply digital negatives, and software like LightRoom or Aperture are simply the darkroom as we used to know it.  While I do not deny that my Leica M9 has brought back the fun in photography for me, a big part of this fun came from the RAW file format and Aperture.  The latitude of adjustments is generally quite great, much like the control available when developing negatives, and printing.  Easily, a RAW file can be adjusted by a few stops without losing too much tonality and details (even though this flexibility reduces with higher ISO).  Colors and white balance can also be corrected with relative ease (but remains a challenge, still). 

What is great about RAW is that one can shoot first, and later decide to 'print' in either color, or black & white (or both).  This was not possible back in the film days.  Since I've taken ownership of the M, I have been regularly converting the photos to black & white for two main reasons.  One, sometimes the white balance is just hopeless, despite post-processing, it remains hopeless.  Two, and this is the main reason, I still prefer black & white, its tonality, contrast, and the way black & white photos draw the audience to the subject in ways color prints often distract.  Black and white reduces the essence of each photo to its subject, the mood, and the feeling its subject conveys.  Be it the eyes, the smile, the sky, they are presented in the most fundamental way without their natural colors so the viewer can focus more on what's going on.  

Modern software are well equipped with darkroom techniques such as burning, dodging, and contrast adjustment, which, two decades ago, was all that we needed.  I no longer have to rely on filters and effects to make the pictures look good (if they did at all).  Now I'm forced to make the pictures look good every time the shutter is released, much like shooting films and color transparencies. 

While prints from digital files may never have the same glow of gelatin silver prints (hmm, some would say, 'Never say never.'), it's still worthwhile to have so much control and flexibility with digital like we used to have with film.  So, I was a black & white convert, and now I can say that I remain so in this digital age.  It's Back to the Future.  

Below are some of my recent black & white favorites.  Enjoy.

Missus - M9 + 24 Summilux

Play - M9 + 50 Summicron

Party Smile - M9 + 50 Summicron

Smiles - M9 + 24 Summilux

Dad Contemplating - M9 + 24 Summilux

Fake Smile? - D-Lux 5

Birthday Smile - Nikon D700 + Nikkor 24/1.4

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