The Monochrome Photgrapher's palette

Discussion in 'B&W: Film, Paper, Chemistry' started by Michel Hardy-Vallée, Jun 4, 2006.

  1. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I know, photography has been calling for years about its separatedness from painting, but it's still a 2D imaging medium, objectively speaking. I was pondering about a way to summarize the monochrome photo "palette," i.e. the sum of recognizable pictorial elements that photographers manipulate to make a photographic picture. Most of the books explain proper exposure in detail, but I was interested in the pictorial building blocks we recognize and manipulate in a picture. I came up with the following:

    Composition
    Subject matter
    Purpose

    Angle of view (wide, normal, tele)
    Areas of focus (bokeh vs. detailed areas)
    Perspective (controlled by view camera movements)

    Grain size
    Grain density
    Sharpness
    Gradations
    Contrast (global, local, micro; lith contrast)
    High-key/Low-key tonal arrangement
    Tonal mapping (i.e. the impact of filters+film in mapping the colored world to the monochrome space, and what it does on our perception of the depicted elements)
    Tone of image (warm/neutral/cold/sepia for normal metal halide; blue for cyanotype, etc)

    Size of print
    Paper base color
    Paper finish/texture
    Print reflectance range

    Mounting/framing material

    Exhibition context


    In monochrome, there is a wealth of different materials that constitute the toolchain, but what I wanted to do was to list a vocabulary to describe the content of a photo. You can achieve a high contrast with all sorts of materials, but in the end it's still a high contrast. All of the above elements are variables that are constitutive of a photo, and are the end result of an entire process. What do you think is missing?
     
  2. AlanC

    AlanC Member

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    You can explain everything about art exept the bit that matters. ( To quote George Braque )

    Alan Clark
     
  3. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear Michel,

    A masterly analysis -- but I supect that Alan (and Braque) have the heart of it. There's also the point, raised in another thread, of how some cameras seem to love some films or [I would add] some photographers, an enormous alchemical/mystical dimension which may be more important than all the rest put together.

    In other words, the palette isn't even consistent from one photographer to the next. Unhelpful, perhaps; but then again, perhaps more useful than screwing the inscrutable.

    Cheers,

    Roger (www.rogerandfrances.com)
     
  4. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Roger and Alan, you are right, but I wasn't going to try and catch the "essence of art" type of thing here, just humbly cataloguing the toolbox. I've always found that books on photography explain only exposure and contrast control, without showing how to manipulate the other variables in a picture.

    For example, wouldn't it be nice to have "The Book of Grain", a compendium of reproducible film grain patterns, as they are produced by various film/developer combinations? There must be a core set of effects that are reproducible, despite all the variations.

    I just thought that the palette of painter is something that artists and historians took time to understand and analyze properly; photography still shrouds itself in the mystery of instinct and daylight tanks.

    It's like music: knowing theory won't make you a great composer, but we can safely say that 99% percent of music is made out of clear concepts like scale, tone, chords, progression, rythm, etc. There is still a "mystery", which is the Gestalt effect of interpretation and all the contingent factors, but it does not alone music make. Photography is not built out of luck alone either.

    Ansel Adams defined the tonal scale of photography with the Zones; I'm interested about defining keys, chords, timbre, and orchestration.
     
  5. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear Michel,

    I think your example about grain mails it perfectly. It ISN'T reproducible. At least, not enough. Times, temperatures, exposure variations, equipment variations and (once again) alchemy. What I fear you are doing is cataloguing the pigments -- and even then, there are variations in particle size, purity, oxidation, oil medium (origin, age, storage...) , dispersion, brush loading...

    Again, sorry to be negative, but I know a modest amount about art materials history(and have a friend who is a world-class expert) and I have serious doubts about how much is added to anyone's understanding by even your excellent analysis.

    Which is not to say that there isn't a book in it.....

    Cheers,

    Roger
     
  6. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Dear Roger, excellent reality check, so let me try to refine my point.

    Perhaps the exact nature of grain in a negative is so contingent that you can't reproduce it all the time. But you'll also agree that each brushtroke in a painting is unique as well. Yet, we still have a way to describe it, to qualify and interpret it, as well as to direct the learner in how to make it.

    I don't think one could go down to scientifically accurate reproductible results in every case, but you can't say either that it's random. Otherwise grain would be fine one day and coarse the other.

    I know, my whole point here is rather academic, but sadly, I AM an academic... :wink:
     
  7. Ray Heath

    Ray Heath Member

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    interesting thread Michel,

    maybe we don't need to define these aspects

    photography is usually assumed to record truth and be honest and objective, however we all know that any photograph is subjective

    so any choice of materials (and subject, and technique, and equipment) is part of the creative process

    my grain may well be your high acutance

    my carefully considered composition for you may be ordinary and boring
     
  8. dolande

    dolande Member

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    Hi all,

    I think that this is a very valid point. As a beginner I have a lot of question from the artistic side and from the technical side of photography and while the answer from the artistic side I may have to give them answer myself (hopefully;-)) I usually try to find answer for the technical questions in books and forums like this. Most of the time the answer are good enough for what I’m looking for; but here is still a lot of that “alchemical/mystical dimension” that Roger mentioned.

    I understand that there are very many variables in the photographic process but if “Great Photographer Z” can get consistent i.e. grain it does mean that it is reproducible by Mr. Z. Why can’t that process be documented and followed by others? I understand that Mr. Z may not have interest on this since it may reveal Mr. Z approach to photography but I don’t see why others can have similar results by following the same process.

    There is a good reason why there are many different films, developers and papers, different results are possible by combining them in different ways. I have no means/time to test all possible combinations in different ways but the different results achieved by others could be documented.

    Knowing all this will turn me in a better photographer? I doubt it.

    Thanks

    Rafael
     
  9. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear Rafael,

    The problem is that Z:

    Lives in a soft water area with slightly acid peaty water
    Lines in Scotland (shorter average subject brightness ranges)
    ...and therefore needs to develops to a gamma of 0.65
    Uses a Pentax Digital spot meter that is 1/3 stop out
    Shoots with an uncoated Dagor with a flare factor of 2
    ...which is in a sticky shutter that overexposes by 1/2 stop
    Doesn't believe in the Zone System
    Has an elderly MPP with a camera flare factor of 1.5
    Times his development from when he first adds the dev to when he adds the fixer
    Has a thermometer that reads 1/4 degree high
    Prints with a 5x4 inch condenser enlarger
    ...and a slightly elderly rnlarging lens
    Always makes 30x40cm prints

    The other photographer

    Lives in a hard water area
    In Japan (linger brightness range than ISO assumptions)
    ...and would therefore develops to a gamma of 0.55 regardless of equipment variations
    Uses a Soligor spot meter that is 1/2 stop out the other way
    Shoots with a brand-new multicoated Sironar with a flare factor of approximately 1
    ...in a Copal with perfect timing
    Uses a brand-new Gandolfi with a camera flare factor of 1
    Times his development from when the tank is full to when he starts to drain it out
    Has a thermometer that reads 1/2 degree low
    Is a fervent Zonie, but doesn't actually know anything about gamma
    Prints with a De Vere mixing chamber on his 5x7 inch enlarger
    ...which is fitted with a brand-new lens
    Always makes 50x60cm prints

    And these are only SOME of the variables. But fortunately the photographic process is very flexible...

    Cheers,

    Roger
     
  10. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear Michel,

    I'm not saying it's random: I'm just saying it's not easily reproducible by someone else with different working methods, as witness my letter to Rafael.

    I'd also add that without visual references, terms like 'coarse grain' and 'fine grain' are extremely difficult to define -- though you could use a densitometer, it's true -- and 'crisp grain' and 'wooly grain' are even more difficult.

    Obviously I find the subject interesting or I wouldn't be writing so much about it; but I remain to be convinced that it can be codified.

    Cheers,

    Roger
     
  11. dolande

    dolande Member

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    Thanks Roger to provide the full picture.
     
  12. Kirk Keyes

    Kirk Keyes Member

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    People do that?
     
  13. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Dear Kirk,

    Yes. Me for a start. Mind you, I don't use a stop bath or intermediate wash.

    Cheers,

    Roger
     
  14. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Hi Roger,

    I think we're getting closer to where I wanted to get this thread. The first important item, on which we agree, is that it's not random. I will try to clarify a little more my concept of palette here.

    When we look at a photograph, and we wish to describe its content, we can approach it from two opposite directions. The first direction is that of the viewer. The viewer sees a finished picture, and can say things such as:

    * Cold tone
    * Lots of grain
    * Diagonal composition
    * Square format
    * Portrait of a woman

    Those are rough categorizations, but they are meanigful and stable. Pretty much anyone else who sees that same picture would concur with these statements. Those are not purely trivial detail either (as "it's a photo"), and they give important information that can help determine a photograph's meaning.

    The second direction is that of the maker (makers, if there are lab assistants). From the point of view of the production of a photo, there are a number of choices made at every step in the production. In the same hypothetical case I described above, the photographer(s) would go through such stages as:

    * What subject? a woman friend
    * What pictorial approach? A gritty look
    * What means to achieve this intention?

    That last statement is where I see the "palette." The answer to that question is NOT "Tri-X in Rodinal 1+50 8 mins, enlargment 4x on Ilford MGIV dev'd in Harman Coldtone for 2 mins." Such an answer is highly dependent on one's workflow, and is not solidly consistent between users.

    On the other hand, if you answer that same question with "strong grain, large print format, cold tone, high contrast, wide angle shot to include gritty surroundings" THEN you are using a palette that is applicable to monochrome photography. The palette is not a strictly technical list of possibilities: it's the graphic building blocks of an image. TO ACHIEVE these graphic features you could use "Tri-X in Rodinal..." or "Delta 3200 in FX-39", but in both cases your image is structured by concepts such as "strong grain, large print format, cold tone, high contrast."

    The question of reproducibility is a secondary one. No one can reproduce anyone else's results, but there are graphic primitives that are specific to photo. You will notice that the primitives I have identified from the point of view of the viewer are similar to those I have identified from the point of view of the artist. It is important that they intersect because they are the vehicle of communication of a work's meaning.

    My idea of the "palette" is a layer of abstraction just above the actual technical realisation of an image. It's the concepts with which we operate to create an image, and I don't think it has to be a closed list. Art is pretty much an open-ended endeavour, so cataloguing only shows what's been done SO FAR. So I argue that we can define it, even though not in a limitative manner.
     
  15. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Just to add to the critique of existing books, I reread Les McLeans's Creative B&W Photo book the other day, and in my opinion he does an excellent job of giving a tour of the graphic primitives of a photo. When he explains how he made a photo, he gives a great insight into what factors he took into consideration. The actual technical details are not what is the most important. If you use his recipes, it won't give you the same results, but we learn from the logic of his picture-making, and his masterly use of the palette. He explains why he chose grain, tone, angle of view, etc, and in that way he shows that photo is not about a silver bullet, but about bending it to your will.