Saturday, September 13, 2014

Seeing Better is Black and White—Part II (The Fuji Monochrom)

Part 1 discussed why you should consider switching to black and white as your default mode of image capture. This Part explains an easy way to put it into practice.

Unchain Yourself

A major impediment most new photographers face is that color is the default mode of expression. Not only are we inundated by color images in every possible medium, but digital cameras presume color as the chosen palette. The tragic fact of these defaults is that it interferes with the development of seeing subjects and places emphasis on the impossible task of trying to capture a color reality which makes little natural sense in two dimensions. The result is a great deal of frustration when the captured image doesn't match the experience of color.

Few cameras are available that address this problem. The Leica Monochrom is one of few. The Monochrom only records in black and white, and only displays its menus and previews in black and white. It's the gold standard for capturing black and white—after film. However, the Monochrom body alone costs about $8k. That's a lot of money to get rid of color. There are cheaper ways.

The cheapest way to shoot black and white, of course, is to switch to film. Using a film rangefinder is one of the fastest routes to improving the composition and content of your images, and you don't even need a darkroom.

But for this article we will assume you want to stick to digital, and aren't ready to buy into a Leica Monochrom. The next best thing is the Fuji X100s. The X100s contains all the elements you need to work strictly in black and white. To wit:

  1. A rangefinder, with an electronic viewfinder which can be set to display only in black and white. 
  2. A fixed lens with a 35mm field of view.
  3. Small and light.
  4. Silent. (More silent than a Leica.)
  5. Monochrome JPEG modes with yellow and red filters. 

All the images in this post are JPEGs shot on the X100s.

The X100s can produce rich black and white JPEGs straight from the camera.

Let's look at each of the camera's features in turn:

The View

Learning to see in black and white is the process of evaluating the luminance of an object instead of its color. Simplistically, luminance is how much light is reflected from an object. People are often surprised when converting a color image to black and white because a bright color often has more or less luminance than expected and doesn't appear as one would expect. Through the practice of reviewing the monochrome images you make, you'll develop your luminance sense and start to better anticipate how a tone will translate into black and white.

A way to speed up that process is by using a monochrome viewfinder. When set to capture monochrome JPEGs, the Fuji X100s will switch its LCD back and EVF displays to black and white. This makes evaluating the scene much easier, and will help you quickly adapt to recognizing luminance values.

Zone system JPEGs if you want.

The Lens

Photographers are blessed with a nearly infinite variety of camera bodies and lenses, which can be shuffled into various combinations to address very specific needs. Photographers are likewise cursed with all those options. Options are choices, and choices are decisions. Having to make decisions is an active process in the consciousness, and it leads to a lot of distraction from the subject. In discussing the thought process behind a "decisive moment," Henri Cartier-Bresson said:

It’s a question of concentration. Concentrate, think, watch, look and, ah, like this, you are ready. But you never know the culminative point of something. So you’re shooting. You say, “Yes. Yes. Maybe. Yes.” But you shouldn’t overshoot. It’s like overeating, overdrinking. You have to eat, you have to drink. But over is too much. 

Making choices about lenses is just as distracting as making choices about color. One lens is enough, and your body can be the zoom. Having to move within space and time to frame your subject makes for far better pictures than standing in one place and letting a variety of lenses do the work of seeing for you.

The X100s's f/2 Fujinon lens would be fantastic on any camera. Fuji has a storied history in making high-end lenses for a variety of camera makers, and Fuji glass is world class. The X100s can use autofocus, or a very smooth manual focus.

Detail holds great in the highlights.

Small and Light

Having a small camera means you'll have it with you, which is the most important ingredient in making any photograph. The smaller and lighter a camera is, the more likely it will be with you. The X100s is smaller and lighter than my Leica M6.

Rich blacks.


Other than opera or a royal wedding, the best way to do things in life tend to be subtle. That's especially true for photographers, who are dependent upon other people living their lives so that an image may be made. Unless you're shooting in a studio, pay respect to your subject by being unobtrusive. Being silent is part of that respect, and an X100s shutter is quieter than my M6.

The X100s has a great lens. Fast focusing, and a wide aperture.

Monochrome JPEGs

Photography is about capturing a moment and then capturing the next . . . and the next . . . and the next. Spending time tweaking and playing with images is decidedly not photography—modifying an image is working with software. The goal of any tool should be to do work so you don't have to. As my dad always advises about using a saw, "Don't push so hard. Let the saw do the cutting." If your camera is making you spend more time post-processing than you do taking pictures, it's either not a good tool, or you're pushing too hard. Since we can't get Adobe to make decent software, however, we can use the tool better by putting the work back into the camera and let it produce quality JPEGs that we merely need to review. This not only speeds up the process of selecting good images, but it also lets you learn the capabilities of the camera just the way you would learn about the qualities of a particular film. This is vital knowledge that helps you see better when you're out taking pictures, meaning you get better results, which sets up a lovely, positive feedback loop.

Move yourself around and a 35mm lens works great as a wide angle or a telephoto.

Put it into practice

With Photokina upon us, Fuji's already announcing new X-Series cameras. If you don't already have an X100s, you should be able to pick one up for a good price.

Once you get it, go to Shooting Menu 1 and select Film Simulation B with a yellow filter. (Red is another option, and will result in more contrast. Start with yellow.) Scroll down to Shooting Menu 2, and change Highlight Tone to +1, and Shadow Tone to +1. This will give you a decent starting place for your JPEG's. They should require minimal development work after you import them into a computer.**

Switch the shutter speed dial to A. Aperture is the important bit for now, and limiting the number of settings with which you need to be concerned will keep your mind on track about what matters: the subject. The subject. And only the subject. While you're at it, set the ISO to Auto as well.

Use the EVF. It will display in black and white and get you started on seeing the world that way. (Later, you'll be able to take advantage of the X100s's rangefinder.)

As you're taking pictures, keep your thumb on the Exposure Compensation dial and ride it like you stole it. You're shooting JPEGs, so work at getting the final product the way you want while you're shooting.

The X100s also has an excellent Macro mode.

With a few camera setting tweaks, you're off to a better world in black and white! You'll now:

  • See luminance instead of color
  • See shapes, forms, and shadows
  • Cut down on development 
  • Spend more time working on your ideas and making stories

The purpose of taking a photograph is to capture an image which conveys your impression of an event and tells the story. The purpose is decidedly not about tweaking, playing, collaging, and otherwise twisting the image into something unnatural. So, if you want to become a better photographer, you have to practice seeing what matters. Seeing what matters happens easiest with a rangefinder shooting monochrome images. Long live the X100s. (At least until those Leica Monochrom prices come down!)

Texture and detail as sharp as a winking cat's whisker.

**You can set the camera to shoot both RAW and JPEG files. This is a good crutch to get you comfortable with the idea of shooting only in monochrome. However, you'll quickly discover that the Fuji's JPEGS are very high quality and the RAW files are just a crutch.