Home Cameras/Lenses Leica A Photographic Journey: My life in black and white

A Photographic Journey: My life in black and white

2433
37

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.

Progress

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.

Birthday M8

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.

Travel photography

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.

L-Mount promise

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.


Read more from Tom Lane on Macfilos

37 COMMENTS

  1. .
    You know the picture which really stands out for me, Tom?

    (And it’s not shot with a Leica.) It’s “The Warrior”, Cape Town, South Africa (Nikon D810 with 85mm f1.4 lens).

    Why? ..Because it’s really involving! I want to know more about who he is. And it’s really black and white ..whereas almost all the others seem to be just various shades of grey ..although they’d look much more impressive if they could be clicked on to expand them to full-screen size, as here they’re not quite even postcard, or ‘Entrant’, size ..too small to really ‘get into’.

    “The Warrior” is impressive, and he stands out from the background as the 85mm at f1.4 blurs that away ..whereas in most of the others, everything’s in equally sharp focus ..the sky as much as the foreground, for instance.

    Take “Canal People, taken at the Black Country Museum (Leica SL with Vario Elmarit 24-90mm)” ..it isn’t black and white ..not as I think of black and white: it’s grey and grey. Same with “Camden Market”. Have you ever thought of increasing the contrast a little? ..Not increasing HDR, and making cloudy skies more threatening, etc, but just differentiating a bit more between the various shades of grey?

    It’s funny: I prefer the ones not taken with a Monochrom, because the Monochrom results seem to have too many intermediate greys, and just not enough really black and really white ..for my taste, anyway. (Maybe I prefer Try-X – in film terms – to Panatomic-X.)

    That “Warrior, though,” is the pick of the pack – for me – as it’s so punchy, it has solid black and clear white, besides many dark tones in between; it’s involving ..I can examine the fine details of his hair, beads, decoration and clothing, without being distracted by any equally sharp details in the background.

    That – for me, anyway – is your perfect black and white photo! So even though you “lost the memory cards and I’m sure the winning image was on one of them” I think you’ve actually GOT the winning photo: it’s that brilliant “Warrior” picture!

      • Thanks for your comments David, although I really don’t understand what you mean when you say that a lot of the images are not really Black and White. When using the darkroom I always had a piece of undeveloped paper to make sure there was a perfect white and a piece of paper which had been exposed for hours and then developed, to make sure there was always a perfect black. I then used to compare these to various areas of my prints. Even digitally I make sure there are pure whites and blacks by using the histogram. Maybe something has been lost in converting them to jpg and reducing them in size.

        Pleased you liked the Warrior. In most of my portraits I try to blur the background but personally like a landscape to be in focus throughout the entire image.

    • David, “although they’d look much more impressive if they could be clicked on to expand them to full-screen size”. Mike has fixed that now.

      And the photos are superb, Tom.

      • So he has! ..Much better! ..but there’s something about the flattened mid-tones which just makes me feel – I dunno – “queasy” or seasick. Odd, isn’t it?

        I still like the “Warrior” best of all. All but the “Warrior” look ‘unnatural’, to me. (But, very obviously, I’m in a minority of one, and you’ve certainly scored a clear and unqualified hit with everyone else, Tom!)

  2. A super article and with very special pictures. Thank you for sharing them with us Tom. keep up with this superb work and show us more as soon as you can please. Meanwhile thank you again, and stay well. Don

  3. Fantastic write up, Tom. And beautiful photos. My instinctive favourite was “Paddling the Mekon”, I love the framing and it jumps out at me. The Warrior also very nice for its contrast. I’d love to see a large version of a couple of the landscapes though. I really really like your work.

    Many thanks.

    • Thanks for the kind comments Jason. Yes, Paddling the Mekon is also high on my list. It was a difficult shot to take as I wanted a really low view-point and I ended up leaning out of a canoe in front, with my head and camera practically in the water.

      Best regards, Tom

  4. Superb article and images. “Paddling the Mekong” and “Icelandic wterfall” are my favourite images and the processing is just amazing. Thanks for sharing and looking forward to more articles.
    Stay safe

  5. Beautiful images Tom, and one or two I recognise from Circle D if I’m not mistaken.
    I look forward to more articles and your mono images.

  6. Wonderful pictures, all of them. My humble opinion? There is something special about a good black-and-white picture. A good black-and-white picture like the ones above. But black-and-white is demanding, and not an automatic key to success. One often sees poor black-and-white pictures which would work better in colour.

    • Thank you Luis for your comment. Yes, I have to agree with you that there is something special about Black & White Photography and that’s why I’ve persisted with it through the digital era. I really admire Ansel Adam’s work and more recently David Yarrow.
      Best regards, Tom

  7. Lovely photos and article,Tom. I’m sorry I won’t be seeing you next week at the TLS AGM in Cheltenham because of the cancellation. Hopefully, the pandemic will have passed by the time of the planned Buxton event next year.

    William

    • Thank’s William. Yes, it’s a pity that Cheltenham has had to be cancelled, as I was looking forward to catching up with you there. As you say, hopefully we’ll be back to normal by next year and able to visit Buxton.
      In the meantime, stay safe and well.
      Best regards, Tom

  8. Don’t want meet the warrior, in an alley.Man the Mekong takes the prize, takes me back I can feel the damp heat and the decaying vegetation fills your nostrils. It is funny how camera companies talk about low light performance, I think they should go into triple canopy in Vietnam where it’s high noon in the jungle 30 yards in and it’s midnight, quite the contrast. Thank you for superb photos and article.

    • Thanks for the kind comments John which are really appreciated. Know what you mean about Vietnam. That shot on the Mekong was extremely uncomfortable, hanging out of a canoe in front in order to get a really low viewing angle, but it was worth it. I lived in Singapore at the time and used to visit Vietnam Airlines, both in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, to give them training in readiness for them receiving Boeing 777’s and 787’s.
      Best regards, Tom

  9. What a wonderful photographic journey, in both cameras and images to go with the journey. I like so many of them, and the different cameras do produce slightly different result, but all of them are remarkable.

    The warrior is a great candid capture, as is the Mekong canoe, but lets be honest they are all decent images. The eyes on the teacher captured by the SL are just amazingly super sharp, and I love it when you catch a face with eyes so sharp – it sells so much more emotion in the image.

    Thank you for sharing with us.

    Keep safe folks.

    Dave

  10. These are the kind of images that make me wonder why on earth I go on doing colour! So enjoyable, and I’m not going to try and select a “best”. I should be interested to know what printing paper you prefer, r does that vary according to subject?

    • Thanks for your kind comment John. I’ve played around with various papers and the best I’ve found for monochrome is “PermaJets’s FB (Fibre Board) Mono Gloss Baryta 320”. I’m sure there are users but having found a formula that works for me I like to stick with it.

      Best regards, Tom

  11. Thank you for your interesting story recalling your journey with monochrome photography.

    I was interested to see that the Leica Tri-Elmar 28-35-50 featured in one of your described journeys, It is quite rare to see it being used as a travel lens nowadays even before current restrictions. I think it works even better with modern sensors which is a tribute since it was designed for film photography, primarily, although towards the end of its production, it was coded for digital reading.

    You caught an amazing expression with The Teacher.

    • Thanks for your comment David. I love the Tri-Elmar-Elmar 28-35-50 and think it’s a wonderful lens for travel and used to take it everywhere. However, having had two of them I’ve not found them to be very reliable. The first one I bought new in 1999/2000 and it served me well for about five years before stopping to bring up the right frame lines on the camera. I had it repaired twice but still the problem would continue. I missed it so much that I bought a secondhand one a couple of years ago but the same thing happened. Talking to a couple of people I believe this was a common fault with them. I must admit, both were the first version.
      Ideally I would like to get another one (v 2.0) and leave it on the M10 for colour and then these my primes on the M9M.
      Best regards, Tom

      • Mine is a Version 2 which improved the design of the mechanical components. I bought mine new and had it factory modified to have 6-bit identification. I believe you should have better luck with a clean V.2

        • Joking of course David, but you’ve just cost me a bundle on eBay. After reading your comments about the Version 2 being mechanically better, I thought I would just have a look, out of curiosity, to see what was going and fate would have it that there was a Mint (of course in the seller’s eyes) Version 2. I thought about it for ten seconds before pressing the buy button. As mentioned before, I did love that lens and now can’t wait for it to arrive.
          Best regards, Tom

          • Hmmm and I was tempted to offer you my “mint” (genuine) v2 because I don’t use it much. But I think I’ll hang on.

  12. Super photo essay Tom and I particularly enjoy ‘The Teacher’ and ‘Mary Poppins’ … you have a good eye for a potential box-office image.

  13. I love black and white images, so this collection is really special. I think it takes real discipline to “leave behind” color images and just have the confidence that a black and white image will better convey what you experienced first hand. Your images Tom, all have that sense of discipline and I suspect the color versions, if they existed, might not be as strong.

    Many thanks

  14. A feast of images! I love them all. I think your landscapes are superb:
    Grand Tetons, Coron Village, Buttermere, Icelandic Waterfall, Maine Coastline, Mount Cook and Yellowstone. You and Black and White make them appropriately dramatic and awesome. There is nothing colour could add but I also know you could visit the same places and bring back some equally stunning but different colour shots. My choice would still be your mono shots.
    Thank you Tom, a good read and a visual delight.

    • Thank you David for your kind comment. I agree with you about Black & White adding drama to a scene. At the moment I’m printing colour images for a personal book, but seeing them coming out of the printer doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as seeing a B&W appear.
      Best regards, Tom

  15. Wonderful images and article, as we have come to expect from Tom Lane. My favourite was the hanging laundry in Rome, probably because I still find old European streets one of the most romantic settings. In large print, I would immerse myself in Tom’s landscapes.

    When I look at my images, the ones that seem better in black & white over colour are often related to the lens in use. The most extreme is I find the Noctilux f/1.0 is amazing in monochrome compared to the colour versions many times. I wonder if others find that too?

    • Cheers Dan, I think we were together when I took that image in Rome. I’d never considered different lenses creating different effects; I’ll have a look through my image library and see if I can see a difference. Look forward to when we can meet up again.
      Best regards to both of you and keep safe, Tom

  16. Great report and great photos! I loved every single line of the story. Keep on taking great fotographs!
    Greetings from the south of Germany.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.