Robin’s stylistic experiments: monochrome squares

It is no secret that I prefer to shoot in color for my street photography but I do have a special adoration for black and white for very specific situations. With the right lighting condition and sufficient contrast in the frame I tend to favor black and white. I then decided to do a specific outing just to shoot everything in black and white. Initially I did not plan to do square crops for all images in this series, but a few images called for square composition which worked well. For consistency, I cropped everything to square.

In this particular shutter therapy outing, knowing that I was making black and white images, I set the Olympus PEN E-P5 camera to “monochrome” mode. This can be done by selecting the monotone picture mode and the live view will show you a fully monochromatic view while you compose your images. By doing so, I eliminate the need to see the color in my shots and quickly divert my attention to the subject matter and framing while shooting. I also find often find converting color images to black and white not always the best solution as they may not result in what I have initially expected. This issue was easily mitigated when the viewfinder or live view shows you a fully black and white view during the shooting process itself.

Why am I doing a full black and white session so suddenly?

I believe in constant experimentation and also doing something different once in a while. We all have our preferences when it comes to shooting style and approach in photography but that does not mean we should do the same thing over and over again. Sometimes we have to do something that we do not quite like in order to truly learn something new. Moving out of the comfort zone is crucial and being in an uncomfortable situation pushes us to see things differently. By eliminating colors during my shooting process, I found myself spotting subjects more differently and seeing streets in a different perspective. I also paid more attention to how the light falls onto my subjects. I was more aware of the shadow and highlights within the frame when there were no color details for my brain to process. I also paid more attention to geometry, shapes, repetitive patterns and many other interesting elements that can make up a good image.

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Comments

  1. a) I love black and white
    b) I love square format
    c) I love your images and especially the way you processed them

    Great job!

  2. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    If you ever try, you’ll ever know – for me, trying something is the best way to learn – and the person who doesn’t has in essence ceased to live.
    Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.
    On the subject of format – WHY can’t camera manufacturers give us a “format option”, where we could choose whatever shape we like? 3×2, 4×5, 5×7, 6×6 or any other? Why are we forced to capture the image and choose the format on the cutting room floor, when there is opportunity to fine tune our composition and all we are left with is the right to slash and burn?
    ESPECIALLY in this digital era!

    • Jean Pierre – Fuji systems do have that feature. I shoot Black & White, Square Format frequently, In Camera.

      • Ron, thanks for reminding me. Yes, this feature is built in to my X-Pro1, X-E1 and X-M1. Jpeg shooting only, but then in most situations Fuji’s jpegs are equal in IQ to their converted RAW’s so this isn’t in anyway a disadvantage.

    • All Pentax and Ricoh GR have that feature since decades ago. Nikon and Canon don’t? They are really far behind then…

  3. Robin, a lovely set of images, my personal favourites being 1-3 and 5, where I feel the square format really works well. As a life-long TLR man, from a YashicaMat in 1963, via Rollei 3.5f and finally Mamiya C330S, I became wedded to the 6×6 format, and shot B/W only and did my own d&p. Colour, slide and negative, was left to a 35mm camera that I always used in tandem.

    During all those years, up to 2003 when I embraced digital for its convenience, I suppose I got to “see” in the square format and subconsciously interpreted colour into b/w, and was never really at home with 3:2; I felt somewhat straight-jacketed by it. I was probably quite wasteful with the 35mm format as I was always composing for 6×6 without consciously realising it. Critics of the square format, probably those that don’t or can’t adapt to it, may equally argue it is wasteful of film. So long live digital in this context.

    But using a digital camera for b/w, especially those with readily available live view, I can appreciate is surely an excellent way into it. One sees a b/w view and can more readily see if the colours/lighting convert well into a b/w image. I understand that some cameras can actually interpret the image as though a colour contrast filter is being used to simulate the effect such filters have with b/w film.

    I believe digital cameras with a native ability to shoot in the square format are very few and far between. I know the little Panasonic LX series, either by a firmware update, or directly accessible via a mode switch can do this without too much loss of resolution. (I have the LX3 and 5.) An m4/3 is also a good choice in this regard as the loss of resolution is only 25%, but with the 3:2 format it is 50%.

    • Thanks Terry for the compliments. Also glad that you have shared your history of working with square formats and your challenges following the evolving digital era.

      You are right about composing in Live View using a digital camera in full black and white view, and yes filters can be applied and effects can be immediately seen live while shooting. The “What you see is what you get” benefit is something that I used to my advantage while doing this experiment. I did not tinker much with the color filters since the images had sufficient contrast and looked “right” while I composed them.

      You are right about using Micro Four Thirds losing less resolution when cropping to square! I never thought about that, and surely this is encouraging to know, and I shall explore more square crops.

      • Robin, blame it on old age, but I got the numbers all wrong – images 1-4, and 6. But I did it a second time; I have the LX3 and 7, not 5.

        I wonder if there is a little confusion over “contrast” when applied to the coloured filters used for b/w film. Long ago, these were often referred to as contrast filters and indeed use of the orange and red filters will certainly provide contrast, but not in the sense we understand it today. All those stormy b/w cloud shots with deep orange or red filters are the ones to stand out. But the term “contrast filter” is used to contrast i.e. compare, colours when represented in a b/w image. This is probably best illustrated in flower photography.

        Coloured filters make objects of the same colour look whiter in the final print. So a red flower shot with a red filter will come out almost white, whilst the complimentary colour green is darkened. Thus the flower stands out. Shoot with a green filter and the foliage is lightened and the red flower goes darker. Again the two colours are contrasted for the desired effect. Now shoot the same scene in b/w with no filter and you will see that the tones are very close to each other, and the flower does not stand out.

  4. A successful experiment Robin! It is quite clear that you have been led to concentrate on light contrasts, lines and form more than colour generated atmosphere. I am increasingly finding that B&W seems closer to the fundamentals of many types of photography. I must say though, despite these being wonderful pictures, I miss the vibrant colours that seem so much a part of the street life and human atmosphere you normally capture.

    • Thanks Paul for the kind words. Indeed, by removing color I needed to shift my attention to other elements that can create an interesting photograph, and I have to work harder to get my shots. Don’t worry about the absence of colors, they will return soon enough!

  5. I just love the first shot. That has so much visual content and is so classic. Good exploring my friend.

  6. David Runyard says:

    Wonderful work. I love B&W and the square format myself and wish Olympus would produce a 17.4×17.4mm square sensor camera with 5184x5184Mp (26 usable Mega pixels). The current range of lenses would cover that format and allow cropping to 4:3 and 3:2 to current quality standards either in-camera or post. After all, two of the most famous and most widely used pro cameras of the film era were square formats – the Rollei and Hasselblad, and looking in my EM-1 there is already enough space above the current sensor position to accomodate the extra height, so it would not add extra bulk to the camera body.

    • Having a true square sensor is an interesting idea! Though I doubt the manufacturers will be keen on doing this considering this goes against the norm of rectangular images. I don’t think camera companies are bold and daring enough to try out something so drastic, it would have been so fun for us photographers.

      • Robin, Panasonic did just this. First seen in their small LX series, from the LX3 to LX7, and later with their larger LX100 series, they used the pixels usually discarded with a rectangular sensor and made full use of all the pixels in a circular sensor and into which one can fit a rectangle of almost infinite proportions but, usefully for photographers, all of the standard formats: 3:2, 4/3. 16:9 and 1:1 are accommodated. Whilst Fuji has the option in camera to select formats it is not as versatile as Panasonic’s implementation in that Fuji’s is a crop of the 3:2 sensor, whereas Panasonic is able to retain the lens’ full FoV across the diagonal of all formats. Any other camera sensor that uses a crop mode to achieve the image ratios does so with a loss of not only of resolution, but angular view across the diagonal, i.e. the lens becomes a slight telephoto. The Panasonics are not immune from a loss of resolution, but it is not as severe as with using a cropped sensor fixed format sensor.

        As a m4/3rds user, the LX100II could interest you as it follows the principles set in the first LX’s, but makes use of a 4/3rds sensor. So you have the 4/3rds format you love at full res, and you only lose about 15% resolution as opposed to the 25% you’re getting now when selecting the other formats. The potential downside for you may be it only comes with a fixed mount zoom. But if your interest in b/w takes off, this could be just the ticket for you. :D)

        • I have had extensive experience with the first LX100, did not quite like that camera and sold it off in the end. The field sequential EVF was bad (this has not changed in the Mark II), the focusing was not as good as I needed it to be, the image quality was alright but the JPEG files were poor. I have repeatedly said this, there is something wrong with Panasonic colors. Overall the LX100 is not the kind of camera that makes me want to pick it up and shoot.

          Nothing against Panasonic, I was very impressed with the G9. I also loved the GM1 I used to own, and that was one camera that I have deeply regretted selling off. Just that LX100 is not for me.

  7. photos bien cadrées et un portrait magnifique.
    Bravo !!!

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