"To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression."
- The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson
- The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photography, properly executed, is poetry of light.
This is perhaps never more obvious than with monochrome images. Without the distraction of colour, the fundamentals of image-making stand out—form, movement, composition, story and contrast. This is, of course, the proverbial double-edged sword. Any weakness in your image is also laid bare, unobscured by hue and saturation.
Several years ago, I set myself the challenge of creating compelling monochrome images underwater. I used black and white film back in the day—Fuji Neopan, Kodak TMax and Tri-X, the occasional roll of Agfa. I loved the grain, the raw, edgy quality, the mood that the films often produced. I missed that.
With much trial and error, I eventually achieved results that I am happy with, underwater images that work best in monochrome.
The first example below is a photo of a high-energy heat run, when male humpback whales are vying for the attention of a female.
The stream of froth and angry water created by the determined, vigorous fluke-pumping of the males catches your eye. The motion carries you through the procession of whales, leading you through the action.
Black and white emphasizes form, flow, tones, contrast, lines. Your eyes and emotion are drawn into the baby whale's motion, poise, eye contact.
Next is an image I struggled for years to capture. This behaviour happens only in specific circumstances, usually at depth, at great speed with tremendous energy—all not ideal for photography. Monochrome turned out to be perfect for the task.
Being able to capture the full tonal range of light 20m-25m down was crucial to underscoring the power of this dominance display, highlighting not just the bubbles and white pectoral fins, but also the extensive scarring on this battle-tested bull.
Even though I haven't done much scuba diving in recent years, I have spent a little time photographing in black and white on the reef dives that I've managed to squeeze in.
Here for example, is a study of chevron barracudas (Sphyraena putnamae), in perfect formation, one leading, the balance following. The vertical stripes of the fish provide perfect counterbalance to the horizontal, piercing direction of motion.
Creating black and white underwater images is not just a matter of using software to convert a mediocre underwater photograph into grayscale. That would just give you a mediocre grayscale underwater picture.
Photographing in monochrome requires seeing and capturing in monochrome, like seeing the beautiful falloff of light enveloping the simple, yet elegant symmetry of a jellyfish.
Or spotting the moment when bigeye trevallies (Caranx sexfasciatus) use a cruising grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) as a scratching post. The tonal opposition of the paired fish (black and white, spawning shading) closest to the shark provides visual interest, and also conveys the reproductive status of the fish. The flow/ line of motion is clear, and the fact that fish are making use of a shark embodies the complexity of relationships among animals of the sea.
Lines and patterns that play second fiddle in colour images become the stars of black and white.
I'll wrap up with a few more whale photos, the first of which is one of my favourites out of all the photographs I've ever taken.
It's a humpback whale calf breaching on a stormy day. Mood, movement, clarity, drama—it's all there.
Colour would have ruined the image.
The strength and depth of the maternal bond (dare I say love?) between mother and child shines through in black and white.
In black and white, the perfection of the mini-me form of a baby Bryde's whale is completely clear, right down to the sharply curved dorsal fin and pointy pectorals that are characteristic traits of these sleek marine mammals.
The arc, structure and sweep of this humpback whale's pectoral fin is accentuated by being portrayed in monochrome, leading your eyes from the foreground, along the intricate indentations of the pec fin, all the way back to the spyhopping cetacean. Eye contact seals it.
I could keep on going, but this photo seems like an appropriate one with which to end this section. It is the tail end of a singing humpback whale, hanging head-down about 20m depth at the fluke, with sand and reef visible below. See the scratches and scars on the top side of the fluke?