The Gear I Use for Mono Photography

The title of this article is almost clickbait. Almost. Let me explain.

An earlier article mentions that I was using a Fujifilm Finepix A101 when I decided to get serious about photography, and that my first ‘serious’ camera was a Casio EX-Z700. Quickly realising that I couldn’t do everything I wanted, I got a Canon 40D, my first DSLR, along with an 18-55mm kit lens and a 55-200mm zoom. Other cameras followed over the course of 11 years including DSLRs, bridge cameras, compacts, and smartphone cameras.

The 40D is no more but my Nikon D5100 is still one of my treasured cameras. The Nokia Lumia 930, with its 40MP sensor, was an amazing cameraphone, limited by its fixed focal length. My Canon S3is bridge camera had what was, at the time, a stunning 12x zoom, as did my more portable Canon SX220. Both gave me the reach I wanted as a candid street photographer, and a good range for other subjects. I had a number of other cameras, including the Samsung Galaxy Camera – basically an Android cameraphone without the phone.

These days it’s a Sony A6000 mirrorless camera that’s my ‘workhorse’. Although I still love my Nikon, the A6000 makes the D5100 look like something pre-stone age; not so much DSLR as DNSR.

I also have a Panasonic TZ70 compact with a 30x zoom, from 24mm to 720mm. It gives excellent quality images as long as you don’t pixel-peep. My Samsung Note 4 smartphone completes my toolkit; I went for the older Note in order to have a swappable battery, and the stylus makes processing (in Snapseed) easier.

So, why did I say that the title of this article is “almost clickbait”? Because it doesn’t matter which gear I use, you use, or anyone else uses. IT’S NOT ABOUT THE GEAR. Photography is about photos. Gear Acquisition Syndrome is about the gear.

Once you get good enough as a photographer, you can – and many do – make photos with a cardboard box with a hole in it. One photographer has recently been shooting photos using tin cans with holes in them, and the subject is – tin cans with holes in them (using a mirror). You can get excellent photos with a children’s toy camera. You can go fully manual or leave the camera in ‘green box’ mode, and still get good photos.

It’s not about the gear.


The Advantage of Raw plus JPEG

For me, there are three or four stages of learning to shoot mono photos, and I’ll talk about those soon. But one thing I’ve found very useful with the Sony A6000 is that, like many other cameras, it can shoot raw and JPEG at the same time. A waste of space? No, not when you can use micro-SD card storage of 64 GB or more. I shoot both but only copy the raw files to my PC. So why shoot the JPEGs?

The A6000 has Creative Style settings that get applied to the JPEG, so I can set that to “Black and White” to see how my photo will come out when processed as a monochrome image. This has helped right from the start of this journey. As someone who felt that removing the colour removed the life from a shot, but who is now a reformed character, I can understand visually what works and what doesn’t.

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Half In, Half Out

Half In, Half Out - a photo of a woman standing in a doorway using her smartphone
Half In, Half Out © Garry Knight 2018

A woman is using her smartphone in the doorway of the Sunday Up Market in London’s Brick Lane, where life taught me my first hands-on lessons in how to shoot black and white photos. A simple image, taken after a few seconds of looking at the scene, deciding what I wanted in the photo and what I didn’t want to include.

My shot came together when the people on the right seemed to line up, and another woman came up behind the phone lady. Not a great shot by any means, as it was taken right at the start of my journey with mono, but it serves as an adequate example of my three principles of encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning.


Before moving on with my story, it seems like a good time for a quick recap. You might remember that during eleven years of serious photography, my belief was that taking all of the colour out of a photo meant taking all of the life out of it. Early photos by people like Muybridge and Cartier-Bresson only reinforced that belief. Lack of interest in mono drove my ignorance of other photographers’ mono work.

About the time I discovered Fan Ho, the black and white street portrait photos of another photographer I met showed me that good mono can stand up well against good colour photography, and even surpass it. Intriguing! How does this magic work? Is it freely available? Where do I sign up?

Fan Ho, though inspiring, couldn’t be a source of learning – not that early – as his work was largely staged, and very unlike what regularly showed up on ‘my’ street. My new acquaintance could, to a point, and comparing her black and white photos to her colour work was the early-morning wake-up coffee I needed.

But that wasn’t enough magic for me. Flickr Explore, for all its failings, was my first tutor. Encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning were its long-serving lessons. Could these three principles serve well enough in the realm of mono photography? I had absolutely no idea whatsoever. Let’s assume, to be going on with, that they could.


Half In, Half Out, Fully Encapsulated

‘Encapsulation’ is how you show what the subject or story in the photo both is and is not. It’s the setting of a kind of boundary, physical, notional, temporal, and metaphorical, that separates the subject from the background and the protagonist from the story. In Half In, Half Out, Phone Lady is obviously the subject. Why?

The people on the right are in their own window, existing in their own space. They are facing away from Phone Lady and as we look to the right, are increasingly less clearly visible. The man is looking at something. The woman is gazing in a similar direction. The younger woman on the far right is engaging with her drink. The less interesting these people are, the more we are drawn back to Phone Lady.

The people on the left have their backs turned, blocking our gaze, directing it back to the right. Phone Lady is encapsulated in her own window, which is the doorway. The entrance. And the exit through which an older woman is soon to go, and to end our encapsulated moment in time.

Encapsulation doesn’t live on its own, though; it’s more than just ‘besties’ with orientation and colour-toning. Each of the three is the leg of a tripod, which falls if one is missing. Orientation is less important in this image, though it could be difficult to get an interesting shot from any other angle. Colour-toning, as we saw with the three increasingly less important people to the right and the darker, blocked-off people to the left, is at least important in drawing our eye back into the encapsulated frame.

The three principles aren’t only theoretical concepts, and they don’t only show up in photographs. I’ve learnt and am still learning to see their presence in the living streets, camera in hand or not.


Extensive traveling induces a feeling of encapsulation, and travel, so broadening at first, contracts the mind.
Paul Theroux

On Flickr Explore

He Spotted It, She Checked It - a photo of two tourists dressed in rain macs
He Spotted It, She Checked It © Garry Knight 2019

This is the only monochrome photo of mine, at the time of writing, to have got into Flickr Explore. Taken in London’s Covent Garden, it features a tourist couple dressed in plastic rain macs, hers spotted, his checked. And that gave me the photo caption. Like all experienced people-watchers, I wondered what their story was. No, that’s not quite true. I thought about what their story could be. And that’s not true, either. Like all experienced people-watchers, I invented their story. Because that’s what we do.

We’re (almost) all people-watchers and story-tellers to some degree. We see a scene and try to make sense of it, usually mostly unconsciously. Sometimes we get it right (“I knew that guy down the road was up to no good!”). And sometimes we get it wrong (“Turns out that naughty little boy in the supermarket is autistic; who knew?”). And most of the time the reality is more complex than we first suspect.

A street photographer keeps the story simple. If we post the photo on social media, we don’t want to cause the person in it distress, and we certainly don’t need them suing us for slander.

So, they’re tourists, sheltering from the rain while on their way to somewhere. He looks up something on his smartphone and notices something interesting. He hands the phone to her for confirmation. He spotted it, she checked it.


Before going into more detail about how I used what I’d previously learned from Flickr about how to take good photos (for various values of ‘good’), I wanted to put down a few of my thoughts on Flickr Explore.

Would He Spotted It, She Checked It have got into Explore with a different title?

A good question, IMO. A photo gets into Explore because enough people think it’s a good photo (for various, etc). It could have been called ‘Sheltering from the Rain’ or ‘In a Market’, and I don’t think it would have been featured in Explore. I have to confess that, without that particular title, I don’t think it’s a good photo. It’s an OK photo. Let’s phrase the question differently.

Continue reading “On Flickr Explore”

The Gravitational Theory of Photography

Over the course of my adventures with photography I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. It’s to do with gravity. Some of you might have read articles about astronomy, and of a phenomenon known as ‘gravitational lensing’. This is where the gravitational pull of an object in space can bend light around it, allowing you to see what’s behind that object. Well, that’s not my phenomenon. Mine is pretty much the opposite of that.

My interesting phenomenon has to do with street photography, and can be (and has been) noticed by anyone attempting street photography. And it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of photographing the street. Let me summarise it.

The Gravitational Theory of Photography states that, The moment you point your camera at something (or someone), that thing (or person) acquires so much gravity that they pull in all of the bystanders, thus obscuring that object (or person).

Luckily, it’s not an absolute law of physics. Sometimes we get a break. Occasionally we get a shot in quickly, before the Universal Gravitational Law kicks in.

I’ve worked out that if you see a photographer in the street, you can work out what they’re most likely to take a photo of next. Look at what’s around them and notice where there are the most people. Draw a line between the photographer and the middle of that mass of people, then extend the line in the same direction. The object or person in the photographer’s line of sight that is the most obscured by bodies is the most likely subject of the street photographer’s next shot. And all of those people are moving into position to obscure it.

To paraphrase a great photographer from the past, “The moment it clicks… is the moment someone walks in front of your lens”.

A Cunning Plan

A man takes a photo of some bikes, near London's Brick Lane
A Bike Picture © Garry Knight 2018

This is another photo taken in London’s Brick Lane, showing a side street where a guy is taking a phone shot of some bikes. There’s quite a bit of graffiti and street art, and quite a few signs, both being features well-known by photographic visitors to the area. The photo was taken on the 8th of April 2018, on my second ‘mono’ street shoot – the one in which my black and white photography improved a lot during the course of the day.

This isn’t a great shot but I chose to share it as it’s almost a good example of the three principles I learnt from studying Flickr Explore: encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning. Almost, but not quite. You might benefit from coming back for another look later on, after I’ve explained in depth what those three principles are and how I applied them. But first…


Photo of Greenwich Park
Greenwich Park, 30/03/2003

Prior to February 2007 I had only owned cheap, second-hand point-and-shoot compact cameras. Like the Fujifilm Finepix A101 that I had been using for about four years. It had a tiny screen, not much more than an inch across, like most compact cameras at the time. This photo of Greenwich Park is about the level of photography I could achieve back then. Horizon askew, cut-off people, no easily-discernible subject, bad framing, lacklustre, and with a heavy, unintended vignette.

Continue reading “A Cunning Plan”

How Did You Learn?

Have you ever thought about how people learn photography? Not photography students, who follow a curriculum. People who get a camera, see that their photos aren’t as good as other people’s, and set out to learn how to use the camera ‘properly’. Have you been going through that process? Are you still going through it?

Did you learn about aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, and how the three relate? Did that make your photos better? A lot better? Did you learn topics like the inverse square law of light? How a CCD sensor works? About bounce flash, and fill flash, side light, and rim light? Did you learn Photoshop, Lightroom, or Capture One? How much of a difference did all these things make? Did your photography positively leap up to a higher level?

I learnt all those things. Well, except Capture One, which I’ve never used. And I learned them *after* my photos improved massively.

Not being interested in the details, I wanted to find a way to short-circuit the process. So I went to Flickr. Not believing my photography to be yet good enough to join, I spent weeks looking at Flickr Explore. Looking for patterns. What was it that made those photos so good? For me, it boiled down to three things: encapsulation, orientation, and colour-toning.

“What?!”, I hear you ask? Well, exactly. As I said, I wasn’t interested in the details of how photography ‘should’ be done. I wanted results. And I got them…

Trajectory

Shooting with a Big White Lens
Shooting with a Big White Lens © Garry Knight

Remember that my first serious attempt at a mono photo was The Watching Mask? Looking at it on my LCD screen, I could see black, I could see white, and I could see grey. And the photo was in three sections: dark people, light wall, mid-tone mask. Simple, I thought. Too simple.

To start practising a skill before learning it isn’t my usual way of doing things. But I did have over ten years of experience in photography before deciding to go against my nature and shoot in monochrome. Time for the learning later, I thought. Later that day, as it turned out.

Looking for the obvious mono shots was my way of playing it safe. But when I thought of using the photo of the black guy with the big white lens (above) as some sort of combined logo and metaphor, it was immediately obvious that people might think it was me in the photo, despite the fact that I was the one who took it.

The Touch of GoldThe Touch of Gold © Garry Knight 2018

And then came the Golden Lady. What I liked about this one was that it was almost all tone. You could be forgiven if you thought she was a Silver Lady. “That’s more like it,” I thought. “Isn’t that what monochrome photography is all about? Removing the distraction of colour and concentrating on just the tones?” Well, yes. Well, no! This is beginner mind.

P1020066-tarot-card-readingTarot Card Reading © Garry Knight 2018

In Trafalgar Square I found Merlin Trotter, waiting for a customer. In my photo, his expression was more than just interesting. It seemed to lay bare some of his character. Fascinating though that might be, was it the fact that the scene was stripped down to mono that stripped Mr Trotter down to his raw self? Switching between the raw colour version and the processed mono version left me unsure. A feeling that would become all too familiar over the next week or two.

Passing StrangersPassing Strangers © Garry Knight 2018

In Passing Strangers, the couple walking past the pub are a little more obvious in black and white than in colour. So in this case mono enhances the story of the guy drinking alone while the world and its friend are out enjoying themselves. Each to his own. But the couple are ghostly, and the story is more in my head than out there on your screen. Did you even notice them? I was standing there with my camera, waiting for them to get into position.

All of the above photos, plus The Watching Mask, were taken on the 22nd of March, 2018. It would be another couple of weeks before my next foray with monochrome photography. But I wasn’t idle in the meantime. By the end of that day, I had a plan. The same plan I’d had about ten years earlier. The story of that plan is coming soon, I promise. First, let’s check if the plan worked.

Improvements

Remember Bus Stop? That was taken about two weeks later, on the 8th of April. See any improvement? I hope so.

Black vs WhiteBlack vs. White © Garry Knight 2018

My focus hadn’t simply shifted from obvious black and white shots to more complex shots. If mastering mono photography were that simple, I’d feel too much of a charlatan. It had to be the real deal or I’d go back to shooting in colour full time. Black vs. White was taken on the same day as, and a few hours later than, The Bus Stop. And an hour or so later, I’d shoot Hungry Man and His Boy. And that one blew me away.

[The Watching Mask, Shooting with a Big White Lens, and Tarot Card Reading were taken at Trafalgar Square. The Touch of Gold was taken at Piccadilly Circus. Passing Strangers was taken in Leicester Square. Bus Stop was taken at Liverpool Street Station, on the way to Brick Lane. Black vs. White and Hungry Man and his Boy were taken in Brick Lane.]


“A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
― Alexander Pope