It’s in black and white

As a photographer obsessed with the world of plants, you would think that colour is all important to me.  Well it is. But over the years I’ve come to work in monochrome more and more.  It is a bit of a homecoming. I suppose it takes me back to my photography roots in the darkroom and the smell of acetic acid seems to come back to haunt me.
But we are not in 1979 and, along with all types of photography, monochrome these days offers so much more in terms of creativity and artistic expression, and I really enjoy using the range of software tools we have today.

Poppy by Philip Smith

Poppy by Philip Smith

It is texture and pattern that draws me into monochrome  image-making. Stripped of colour, I can draw attention to delicate forms and surfaces of petals, stems and leaves.

Hart’s tongue fern by Philip Smith

Hart’s tongue fern by Philip Smith

The original shot didn’t do much for me - dull wintry green and not much tonal variety. But monochrome emphasises the dark patterning so that it really stands out and creates a more interesting image.

As well as the visual qualities of monochrome photography, I think it delivers an experience like no other.  I often think that these images are like a piece of music in a minor key; they are contemplative, a little melancholy even.

Welsh poppy by Philip Smith

Welsh poppy by Philip Smith


 This flower  is a bright yellow and nods its happy head along the side of paths in spring and summer. But a passing shower had not only made it droop but left a delicate spattering of raindrops, turning it into an image that for me is full of nostalgia and longing.

Hydrangea in winter by Philip Smith.

Another melancholy image. This time it has been split-toned to emphasise the skeletal nature of the dead flower. Split toning is built into Lightroom and Photoshop. It can be used for colour images, but the technique was designed for adding colour to monochrome in print, so I think it works best in that context. Used subtly, it can add a hint of low-key colour to highlights and shadows that can lift a monochrome image.

But photographers create monochrome images for all kinds of reasons – not just because they are feeling a bit miz. Have a look at Anne Marie Farley’s winning monochrome image of a rose from competition 6 at igpoty.com – it does lift the spirits wonderfully.  

Not all images of flowers in monochrome are so compelling. In giving feedback to competition entrants I see a large number of entries that have been converted to monochrome seemingly because the original image was not strong enough. I always think this is a shame as monochrome has its own special tonal range and depth that photographers can use to create highly original images – it’s not about giving a poor photograph a makeover.  I think the apps that convert to any number of monochrome effects can fool us into thinking that we are improving the original- just because it looks different. These very simple apps and functions to convert to mono can be handy but there is no point in using them unless you have a clear idea about why and how the image will work in monochrome.

 

When I used to use nothing but black and white film I did begin to ‘see’ in black and white, which really means identifying at the point of capture what will work in monochrome. Ansel Adams knew that the moon rising over the landscape would be amazing in black and white - why would you want to use colour? 
So textures, graphic shapes, bold patterns, contrasts between light and dark – shadows for example, are all subjects that often work better in monochrome than colour. 

Strumpshaw Fen. A simple tree reflection. Without colour to help us interpret this abstract image, it can become something other-worldly that captures the imagination.
This time of year is a great for monochrome subjects in the world of plants. Trees have no leaves to cover their wonderful structures and underlying forms, plants tend to be plain or with subtle patterning – hellebores, snowdrops and celandines. And the low sun can produce wonderfully stark shadows across the landscape.
So brave the cold and enjoy the colourful world of black and white!

International Garden Photographer of the Year is currently holding its annual Monochrome’ photo project competition. Have a look at the website and be inspired by prize winning photography. Inspired enough to have a go yourself?