Autumn colours in black and white

Autumn is a great time for photography. Vivid colours and still waters that give beautiful reflections offer great scope for the photographer.

However, with all these beautiful colours around, it can be a challenge for the photographer working in black and white. This time of year is one of the best times to get to know tones and to be able to look at colour but visualise in black and white.

For those who are used to working in monochrome, autumn should present fewer challenges, but for those who are new to the genre, it is a wonderful time to experiment, and it is a good lesson in using limitations and constraints to produce a final image without colour.

It was a gorgeous day when I decided to shot material around the River Spean in Scotland. The weather, as often the case in Scotland, was changing rapidly. One moment the sun would be out while 30 seconds later it would be overcast with low moving cloud.

I always resist using filters, but I appreciate some people like to use red or yellow filters when shooting with black and white film. Using filters to bring out the clouds or deepen a white overcast sky is a good technique, but I prefer to shoot without colour filters. At this time of year, I often shoot the sky separately from the main image, later combing it back into the image during post production.

Tree colours at this time of year are numerous. From evergreens to orange, red and yellow leaves, colours abound. One of the techniques that I do think is particularly useful at this time of year is the zone system of exposure, which I will discuss in later posts. But for those familiar with the system, using the zone method helps to place the tree in the correct dynamic position in the exposure scale.

In the image below, I underexposed a couple of stops, which put the furthest evergreen trees into the lower 3/4 of the exposure range, while it allowed the orange and yellow trees to retain their individual place in the dynamic range. I tried to capture all the different colours with their representative monochrome tones, from the very light grasses and ferns to the orange, yellow and green trees.

Click on the gallery to flick through the images I shot to get a context of the area.

My final image of the shoot is the dam at Laggan.. Again, I wanted to capture the structure and surrounding tones in their relative monochrome range. The autumn ferns were quite light but the darker evergreens had a two-stop difference, and the reflections in the water had a three-stop difference. I used the zone system to place the darker water in zone 3, which allowed me to retain detail in the lighter areas.

Autumn is a fantastic time of year to get out with the camera. If you shoot colour on either digital or film, you shouldn’t be short of opportunities. If, like me, you have devoted your photography to the art of black and white, autumn is a great test of your ability to see in colour but to visualise in monochrome.

Why black and white film photography is great!

Black and white film has the ability to inspire creativity. But so does digital, so what is the big deal about black and white film photography?

Film photography has been in my blood since childhood. I was given a Kodak camera when I was eight years old and have been shooting film ever since. I built a darkroom in my parent’s attic and spent many a day experimenting with processing and printing negatives.

Having used, and still use, digital cameras, I think there is something very different about the results from film photography. Black and white negative film offers creative opportunities that digital and colour can never do. Here are a few of my reasons for shooting with black and white film.

Firstly, it is about mindfulness. I know, mindfulness is a much-overused word now, but this is a definite aspect of film photography that I think is the most important. Although the digital photographer has to think about composition, light, contrast etc, there is nothing stopping him taking tons of photos to find the one that looks just right. On the other hand, the film photographer has to really concentrate on getting the image in the camera right the first time, because each shot costs money. Getting the image right involves much more deliberation and concentration, a very mindful experience.

Film photography is about anticipation. You never really know what you are going to get until the film is processed and scanned or printed. I process my own film, and the sense of wonder is compelling when the film emerges from the developing tank, especially when a quick look reveals some really nice negatives.

Film photography is about challenge. There are so many things that can frustrate the photographer. Dust, scratches on the film, uneven development or even light leaking into the camera are all possibilities when shooting with film. Yet, even with these factors to consider, film offers the opportunity to accomplish skills that the digital photographer will never master. The challenge is definitely worth the frustration!

Colour is great, but it can sometimes confuse the viewer. A colourful image tends to hide patterns and shapes. When these elements are important features to communicate, black and white can win hugely over colour. It is almost like the analogy of the forest and the trees. Seeing a huge forest is great, but sometimes the overwhelming view of a forest hides the most important element, the trees. We can overlook the detail when overwhelmed. Colour can often have the same effect, while black and white lets the viewer see the detail.

Many people who give film photography a try can be disappointed with the results because the final image can look very different from a digital comparison. Film can have a grainy look to it and it definitely has a subtlety of its own. And, different films have different characteristics. For example, I use Ilford FP4 and Delta 100 for most of my work. Although both are rated about ISO 100, they behave quite differently. Delta is more contrasty while FP4 has a slightly better dynamic range. Working with film means learning the characteristics of the material and how it will behave. Almost like working with colleagues – you never really know their real character until they are pushed a little!

So, frustration, challenge, and never really knowing what you are going to get are some of the aspects of film photography that make it a special craft to master. By turning those challenges into a positive, film photography, especially black and white, offers amazing opportunities.

Have you given film photography a try? Let me know how you get on.