Wikipedia’s definition of monochrome photography is photography where each position on an image can record and show a different amount of light but not a different hue. It includes all forms of black and white photography which produce images containing tones of neutral grey ranging from BLACK to WHITE.
There are basically three colours recorded by the sensor in our digital cameras, being red, green and blue. The internet tells me that at 24 bit, each of the three individual colour channels can record 256 different shades of that colour, meaning we have a total of 1,677,215 different colours to work from.
With all this information available why would anyone be crazy enough to work with just shades of grey?
Well, in my opinion:
- black and white saves ink as we use fewer cartridges (Says he with tongue in cheek)
- It takes us back to the basic roots of photography
- A black and white print has to be good to impress, whereas colour can often compensate for other imperfections
- There seem to be a “richness” of tones which is difficult to achieve in colour
- black and white produces less noise when high ISO values are used
- It’s often easier to rescue an image which has been taken in inclement weather
Of course, all the above is irrelevant. The fact is I just love black and white photography.
When I first became interested in photography (more years back than I care to remember) I couldn’t afford to have the film processed and printed and so very quickly learned to do it myself, loading the developing tank under the bedclothes.
I didn’t have an enlarger and so had to be content with producing a contact sheet from 120 negatives. This was done by changing the lightbulb in the spare room to red, waiting for darkness and making sure no-one turned on the landing and bedroom lights. I still remember the thrill of seeing those twelve black and white images slowly appearing in the developing tray.
In the last sixty-odd years I have progressed (believe it or not) but still love black and white prints, which probably account for over 90% of my photography.
When I first went digital (can’t remember when, but it was long after it became the rage) with a cheap deal on a “new old stock” Nikon D1x (the D2x was the then current model) I had little trouble in producing a decent colour print, but I couldn’t achieve a black and white image that I was happy with. For this reason, I probably kept the darkroom for a further year, or two.
A side note regarding the Sony RX 1.
For most of my working life I’ve been involved in aviation and have been fortunate enough to have travelled all over the world. I bought the Sony RX1 camera because it was small and had a high megapixel count, meaning I would be able to produce large prints with it.
The RX1 produced superb results, but I never bonded with it for some reason. The menu system gave me a headache, granted. But it seemed that you didn’t need to be creative to get great images. Which all sounds stupid. I guess the Sony was just a really good point-and-shooter. After being on a trip with it, I just wanted to get home and go back to basics and creativity with the Leica Ms.
Getting back to the main subject, I persevered with digital black and white and with updates to Lightroom and Photoshop, plus the introduction of Silver Efex Pro, I’m now getting results which at least satisfy me.
At the printer’s
When I first started to print digital monochrome, I bought two printers, both Epson Stylus Photo 1290s. One I loaded with Epson Inks and used for colour; in the other I used Lyson grey ink cartridges and their Archival Quality Photo Gloss Papers. I had attended a Lyson presentation and, at the time, they seemed to be the only people taking monochrome seriously.
I was really happy with these printers but, of course, the years took their toll on them and they had to be replaced. Currently I’m using an Epson Stylus Photo R3000 with their K3 Chrome Inks and Premajet FB Mono Gloss Baryta 320 paper and I am really happy with the results.
Leica screw thread
I bought my first Leica camera, a III-something screw thread (LTM), in 1969 and have been using Leica ever since. After the screw-mount, I progressed to a double-wind M3 and then a pair of M6s bought in Japan in 1995. That was the year of our 25th wedding anniversary and we had intended to go on a cruise. However, I ended up having to go to Japan on business and so we both went. I bought my wife a ring and, in my mind, that justified the two Leicas for me; one for colour transparency film, the other for black and white.
Leica was behind the curve in going digital and so I bought a Nikon D2x and a D200 in readiness for our forthcoming safari in Africa, followed by a trip to the Galapagos. Once the M8 was announced, I ordered one for my 60th birthday (well justified) and it actually arrived a day or two before we left for Peru and Ecuador.
Although very tempted to take the new Leica because of the lighter weight, I managed to resist and stuck with the Nikons. In retrospect, it was probably a good decision in view of the potential infra-red problems with the M8.
Enter the Monochrom
The M8 made way for the M9 and then my prayer was answered when Leica announced the M9-based Monochrom.
I put myself on the waiting list and was absolutely delighted when David Stephens (I’ve always dealt with Stephens, now Leica Store Manchester, as far back as when David’s dad, Tom, ran it) got in touch to say mine had arrived.
With all the hype over the new M240, I decided to trade in the M9 and upgrade. The M240 was okay but in my opinion not a big improvement on the M9. However, I wasn’t going to take a step back. I did however get fed-up having to carry two lots of batteries and two battery chargers.
So. when the M246 was available, I let the Monochrom go to a new home. I was happy with the M246 until the camera and a bunch of glass got stolen in Lisbon, while I was taking part in the Leica Forum’s One Challenge.
It wasn’t all bad luck because I ended up with an f/0.95 Noctilux as a replacement for the stolen 50 Summilux. I would have never spent that sort of money on a Noctilux, but as Stephens didn’t have a replacement Summilux, thanks to the insurance, I had to put up with their demonstrator Noctilux. What a bummer.
The sad bit in this saga was that I lost the memory cards and I’m sure the winning image was on one of them.
M9 Monochrom and M10 combo
My favourite camera had been the M9 Monochrom and, after looking at many used ones, I bought one last year. It had hardly been used but had had the replacement sensor fitted. Now I’m really happy with that in combination with the M10. Never say never, but I don’t think I’ll be going for the M10M because I don’t need that many pixels to process and the M9M does everything I can conceivably need.
Anyone who has been reading the captions on the above images will see that I’ve really taken to the SL. I’ve had it since shortly after it was introduced and intended to use it only with M lenses. However, after reading the reviews on the SL lenses, I decide to take the plunge and buy the 24-90mm zoom.
What an eye opener! In my opinion this lens is superb and equal to the prime Ms in my collection. I was so impressed that I managed to dream up justification for obtaining the other two — the 16-35 and the 90-280mm. They are both a bit on the slow side, however, so I also bought the 50mm Summilux, another great lens. However, had the smaller Summicron been around at the time it would have been extremely difficult to choose between them.
I hear many people talk about having a small and lightweight travel camera, with very limited lenses. I used to be the same when I travelled primarily for business. However, when I travel solely for photography — and certainly now I’m retired — it’s a different story. If I’m paying a bundle of money for an air ticket and going to be forced to sit in the big tin can at the top of the world for umpteen hours, I want the best photos I can get without compromise. I am therefore willing to accept the bulk and weight of the SL system.
With the exception of the one digression to the Sony RX1, I have been faithful to the Leica system. These cameras and lenses have always produced results which have satisfied or exceeded my expectations.
No camera is the right camera for every situation and the M system is no exception. We lived in Zambia for a time and still regularly go back to Africa on safari. I’m also keen on motorsport and, unfortunately, the Leica system is not well suited to these two aspects of photography. I therefore also use a pair of Nikons (D810 and D800) with mainly the 600mm f/4 and 300mm f2.8. However, when we go to Africa, I can’t take two systems and therefore I also have a couple of Nikon zoom and prime lenses for taking other than wildlife.
Who knows, as the focal length coverage of the L-mount system develops, maybe it will be possible for one system to cover all my needs. But I can’t see that happening anytime soon. It would be a sad day when the Nikons are retired as they have served me well over the years, from the F, Nikkormat, F3s and F4s before going digital.
I’ve enjoyed looking back through my images to put this article together and, hopefully, it will give you an insight into my photography. At least it should fill a few minutes of your day during this difficult period.
For me it’s now back to find something else to paint, although the paint is running out and I’m fearful that as a last resort, I’m going to have to turn to gardening in order to fill my days.
Stay safe and healthy during these unfortunate times.