The story about your friend photographing you and your wife one day before your son was born is remarkable. You mentioned it was taken with a Leica M4-P. What are your thoughts on this camera and was this the moment when you decided to start doing photography with Leica?
Based in Southampton, England, I am a freelance editorial and documentary photographer with over 50 years experience in photography. My work has been featured in exhibitions and publications worldwide. It has been featured on the web version of National geographic, and I have had a one-man exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in the U.K. and many other galleries in Europe and the U.S.A.
Alas, this is the problem with digital technology. It has made a once perplexing skill into a low barrier to entry activity. So do I think that digital technology has ruined black and white photography. Not at all. It’s not as if the practice of proper black and white photography is dead. There are still practitioner of the medium that’s keeping it alive.
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Your photography is mainly made with film and analog Leica cameras. Is this an aesthetic decision?
If we go back to 2002 a close photographic friend convinced me (against my better judgement) that film was a thing of the past, and that to hold my own in the professional photographic world I had to go digital. Eventually I succumbed to his argument and traded in my Leica film cameras (I had 4) and started on the dizzy road to digital photography.
It would have been easy to underexpose the background in order to bring out the foreground subject. But in doing so, you would lose the details of the tree roots growing into the wall. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v1.
Mind you, I don’t believe it’s necessarily wrong to overexpose or underexpose for the sake of mood. I understand it’s a form of expression. But it’s a form of expression that cannot be a cure-all-crutch to turn the image into something else other than a normal image.
I used the Leica M4-P for several months. I switched to M2, just because it has a better personal feel. The kind of smooth mechanical sense fascinated me, it allows me to enjoy this feeling in all of the shooting time.After one year later, I bought a M3 again, because it feels better than the M2. This is really amazing. Leica M9 is my first Leica digital camera. Most of the time I use it in night shooting. I use zone focus with the maximum aperture, 800 ISO. I think that is enough to shoot the streets at night. The OVF and slight shutter sound are another very important reasons for why I use leica. Now I have three Leica cameras and three Leica lenses including 28mm/35mm/50mm. I really can not make a choice in these three focal lengths. So I bought them all. As mentioned earlier, between these cameras and the lens, I do not have a standard to how to choose, basically it is a random choice. Maybe I just like to have them all.
Jul 23 Has Digital Technology Ruined Black and White Photography
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The big plus point of the digital world is, of course, that my work gets viewed by thousands of people every week, and is available for purchase worldwide. You of course would not be viewing this blog if it were not for the digital world, and I would not be writing it sat in my favourite café drinking coffee.
But the reason that let me decide to buy a Leica camera is the actual demand to capture images. The photos I want to take are usually fast, bursty, random, in public, and very close. If there is a such camera that meets all these conditions, the answer is Leica. I’ve never been asked why I shoot with them during the two years I’ve been shooting in the streets with Leica camera. Beautiful and professional appearance make the people feel calm and not angry. Almost zero shutter lag can capture any moment. Slight shutter can be used at any time without attention, compact and accurate lens can achieve fast focusing. So, I think the essence of Leica is the ability to capture the image in any environment, and this is what I most fancy.
It’s only when a photographer understand this, and demonstrates it in a body of work, is greater expression warranted. I know we all want to be artists, but that distinction needs to be earned, and not appropriated undeservedly. I mean, if Pablo Picasso couldn’t paint realistically, his abstract paintings wouldn’t hold any value. It’s not because he cannot paint realistically that he paints abstractly. It’s because he can paint realistically, but chooses to paint abstractly that justifies his choice of artistic expression.
Pre-visualisation is where you look as a scene and know how it will look as a finished image. At the age of about 16 a dear school friend who I shared a darkroom with said “I hate you, you have the ability to see in black and white” and I realised he was absolutely right. I had that ability to pre-visualise any scene as a black and white image and shoot accordingly. I don’t know where it comes from, maybe looking at too many copies of ‘Life’ magazine as a child, but it was there. If I shot an image I knew how it would look as a black and white print, as simple as that!
Where digital technology has failed black and white photography – it’s how it has misguided the public’s perception of what proper black and white photography is.
People tired , fireflies fly out streets. ———sunset-street ‘Ashes and soil’ is a colorful work.The pictures were taken with long-expired color negatives. This can cause its color to be very strange and uncontrollable. And this is precisely in line with my life at that time, all seem uncontrollable, very passive life. Therefore, the color here represents the mood. I remember one of these pictures is shooting a few plants in the afternoon, the sky is dull, but after it be processed out ,the sky showed deep blue , the huge color grain filled the photo, like the dawn of the stars, silence and loneliness.
The mood can also be changed by overexposing the image. Overexposing the image can elicit a dream like quality, by washing out details in the highlight. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v2.
It was in developing film and printing images that separated real photographers from those who just took photographs. Whereas the latter group had no control in optimizing the look of the images (after it was developed and printed at a photo-mat), the former had complete control limited only by the scope of his ability in the darkroom.
At the zebra crossing at Times Square, Hong Kong. Especially with this many people in the frame, it’s very difficult to optimize the black and white tonal range of each figure while still optimizing contrast to reinforce visual emphasis of the main subject. As important as the main subject is, it shouldn’t diminish the details of the supporting figures. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v2.
This image is significantly underexposed. The details in the subject’s clothes has essentially all been crushed. Stylistically, the subject appears more a silhouette than three dimensional. However, the reduction in details render the image more dramatic, reinforced further by the tilted wide angle perspective. Leica M Monochrome + 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH.
All my portfolio images are available as decor prints. If interested please contact me through the ‘Contact’ for above.
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An off-centered subject, dominated by a large underexposed wall with very little perceptible details, in order to elicit a more solitary mood. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v2
Talk about your equipment. Is there any preference when choosing to shoot between your Leica M2, M3, or M9?
There is no doubt that I really like the film’s unique grain. To be precise, I use film and digital at the same time, without any emphasis on which side. I will switch between the film and digital. When I hit the bottleneck in the shooting, I will switch to digital mode, with a more casual attitude to take a large number of shooting. Through the large number of photos, I may be able to find new insights.I still often use the film because I can not give up the film texture, although the digital can imitate this texture, but can not replace it thoroughly.At the same time, I will use the darkroom to enlarge the black and white film, which is another irreplaceable experience.Fortunately, Leica M9 is the digital camera which is closest to the film.
Of course, because of this memorable little story, I have a special feeling of Leica. This was a decisive factor when I decided which Leica camera I should buy.
When the exposure is properly optimized, all the details will appear clearer. Note the details in the folds of the subject’s clothes. If the image were underexposed, all the creases would have been blacked out. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v2.
Mind you, this is not always the case. On occasion, photographers would bend the rules and print images that would either be overexposed to the point of blowing the highlights or underexposed to the point of blocking the shadows. Usually, this is done as an effect to elicit a mood, rather than optimize details for documentation.
Yee Wei was born in 1980 in China. His hometown is located in the central south of China, which is an ancient town. He graduated from Wuhan University of Science and Technology in 2001, majoring in visual design. After graduated, he went to the South China for working two years, and then returned to Wuhan. Now he is a commercial graphic designer and photographer, living in Wuhan. Yee shares his experience in monochrome images using the Leica M2, M3 and M9.
These photos are taken in Wuhan. Wuhan is the largest city in the central region of China and is the only city that the Yangtze River passes through.
Unlike my laissez faire attitude towards full negative prints, I am much more critical when it comes to the integrity of black and white images. I have been brought up in the school of thought that a proper black and white image needs to have a full tonal range starting from the darkest black to the lightest white.
There was a time when all photographers shot black and white film. For the most part, the decision to shoot in black and white had very little to do with choice or preference for black and white photographs. In most cases, it was because black and white film was more convenient to develop, when compared to color film. And in case you’ve forgotten what develop means, it’s not when you drop off your film at the local photo-mat. It means going to the darkroom and developing it yourself.
So why have I now also gone back to shooting many of my images with film – a retrograde step some would argue?
But for the most part, photographers generally stayed away from mood photography, during the film era. Those kinds of images were shot by artists. Instead, most serious photographers concentrated more on documentation. That meant more tonal range for more detail for better documentation. Besides, it’s easier to print a mood image, that’s very black or white tonally – or at least it has always been in my experience. It took skill to expose images properly on film, and even greater restraint to print it with tonal optimization.
Graphic design is a great help to my photography. I use a lot of photography skills, including freedom and disciplined composition, light and shadow levels, etc. Usually these techniques are only available in professional photography education. Photography is not my day to day activity. I only take pictures in spare time. With no camera in my hand, I do not think about anything about photography. Even if I see a very interesting scene, I would only feel pity I did not bring the camera, nothing more. I have become accustomed to this experience and realized the fact that as long as you are still in photography, the streets are always there for you. I never use mobile phones to photography, I only use my cameras for photography, it’s like a type of ritual for me.
“Photography is an art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliott Erwitt
What are your thoughts between color and B&W? For instance, when you compare your photo series ‘Ashes and soil” with the work you’re presenting now?
The sun is shining and they days are getting longer which means better light and more time to shoot film. What…
WARNING – this is where you have to get into the mind of a photographer who started shooting black and white street photography some 50+ years ago. I am going to talk about pre-visualisation.
I am now very happily, and finally, back shooting 100% Leica now that I am semi-retired and shooting stock and self-motivated projects, so that makes me more comfortable, if somewhat less well off!
Ruahing thrrough the Rain – A young lady in a fur coat rushes through the rain on a street in central Paris – taken from a passing taxi cab. Delta 400 Pekco the clown at a quiet moment during the 1992 Bognor Clown Festival. HP5+
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Please share a bit of the background of these black and white images. Where were they taken?
My on-going work named “sunset-street” is all in B&W.In this series,I used black and white to eliminate the details, highlight the theme.In the Sunset-Street series, the theme is people, the city acts as a background which I set it to be chaos.When I wake up from a dream and walk to the streets, the sun has begun to fall, I see hundreds of strangers, photographed dozens, and just a few ones, as the last to retain the photos, they are sunset street people.I waited at sunset. the light fade away,
Admittedly, this is a pretty hard sell to the Instagram generation, but we have to start somewhere, in order to fix this problem.
In those days some fifteen years ago I thought it would be just like changing film brands: OK it may take a bit of getting used to a different colour balance but otherwise no problem at all. How wrong I was, and as I was shooting three weddings some weeks back then I had little time to learn. I reassured myself that I would be saving myself a fortune on processing even though my first 1gB card cost a staggering £240. Again how wrong I was because as cameras improved and software got better, I spent as much if not more.
Strangely then, in the modern era of digital capture, that no longer seems to be the case. With digital photography, it seems that black and white images have flocked towards mood photography. While I understand it’s not fair to pass judgment like this, I do believe that this is a fair observation to make. Modern black and white photography seems overly moody.
Pre-visualisation in black and white photography Posted On 21st December 2017 To Magazine, Stories & Street
Monochrome basics with Leica Yee Wei shares his black and white imagery with the M-system 02/03/201712/04/2017 Made With, Thanks to the Leica M…
Given the perpetuation of poorly executed black and white photography, especially on social media, the public no longer knows what’s good or not good. The only way to resolve this problem is to show the public what proper black and white photography is. Only then would today’s Instagram generation be inspired to follow a better and more correct path in documenting black and white images.
One final image taken under the bright noon day sun. Finding the right tonal balance in the image was tricky, given the dominance in light tonal objects. To provide dimension, it was necessary to bring out the black in the shadows of those objects. However, too much emphasis on that detail and the details on the main subject’s clothes will become less visible. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v2.
It’s been so much fun this week looking through all of the #fridayfavourites #filtered shots and finding out o…
I have never been happy shooting street on digital, and after not doing it for a few years I realised it was because I had pre-visualised the image as black and white, but when I viewed it, it was colour. It just didn’t work!
Full tonal range does not mean having a black and white tonal range in equal parts. You just need to make sure that both the darkest black and the lightest white is in the image to anchor the full tonal range. Leica M Monochrome + 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH.
The only answer for me was to buy a film Leica (in my case an M7) and start shooting black and white film again. But what about the processing etc. which I really didn’t want to get into under any circumstances? The answer was amazing simple – I would start shooting a chromogenic film such as Ilford XP2 Super which is conventional C41 colour process (so it can be processed anywhere in the world in a High Street lab) and yet it yields a monochrome negative which is virtually grain free and easy to scan. Alternative I could shoot a fine grained 400iso film such as Ilford 400 Delta and get it processed by Ilford’s own laboratory.
My prayers were answered, and I am back to really enjoying my street photography type of work again.
As a bonus, if you want to make the image appear more artistic, you can desaturate it, and crank up or down the exposure in post to make it moodier. And just like that, with a touch of a button, you’re an instant Ansel Adams in developing your digital files – only without his restraint in over doing it for the sake of a misguided sense of artistic expression.
A properly optimized black and white photograph should have a full tonal range, ranging from the blackest black to the whitest white. In the case of this image, the whitest white are the fluorescent tubes, while the blackest black is in the background shadow. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v1.
Tags: black and white, Leica M, Leica M2, Leica M3, Leica M4-P, Leica M9, Monochrome, Yee wei
You can use the camera to discover what’s on your mind, even your subconscious. Subconscious is a mental act, subtle and sensitive, and disappears in a twinkle. But it is still possible to be captured in the outside, to be touched with the corresponding frequency through the eye. This frequency may be the scenery, light, people, or just color, and even the train’s long roar or the ship’s whistle. In this way, a perfect picture is the product of frequency response. It’s impossible to quantify. Scarcity is its most important characteristic. But in the right place (space), life stage (time), it is very easy to get.
This was actually a very difficult image to optimize exposure in post. The subject is wearing a black lacy top underneath her jacket. In providing optimized exposure, the lace had to be black enough, while still optically perforated to render the transparency of the lace. Too much underexposure to make the lace more black would result in the complete loss of detail in the lace. Leica M246 + 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH v1.
So why has black and white photography arrived to this state? It’s the medium of digital photography that has made it easier for more people to take photographs. Taking pictures today has never been easier. No need to learn about exposure. No need to learn about the rich history of photographic tradition. And no need to know about the Zone System. All you need to do is point and shoot, and instantly, the image is ready to be shared.
I would like to talk more about what photography is. In my opinion photography is purely personal media, mood and aesthetic quality are the two things which determine how to watch the world, and how to express the world. The camera is the photographer’s eye for outward viewing and inward mapping.
Boats on the River (Henley-on-Thames, England 1995) HP5+ Book browsers, Paris 1994 Delta 400
I get it. It looks cool. But it’s overused. And worst still, it doesn’t demonstrate the skill of the photographer in executing a properly exposed image, at the decisive moment, and after on post.
When I decided to start the street photography, I found that the cameras I used before were not very useful. These compact automatic cameras can not be a good capture requirements. At the same time, these small camera will give a sneaking feeling. I need a camera that can shoot in public, and not too much to disturb others, not to be disgusting. Quiet, fast, portable, in addition to Leica, there are not that many choices. And with another very important factor, here is a little story. One day, my best friend took a camera to take pictures with me and my wife, when my wife was pregnant. The day after the picture was taken, my son was born. I like this photo so much! The camera to record this photo is a Leica M4-P. So when I planned to shoot the streets, I bought a Leica M4-P.
I’m aiming at the people in the city streets and I’m not interested in documentary photography.Looking for aesthetics in photography is the standard I have always followed and practiced. Aesthetics is a comprehensive reaction of time, space and emotion. Documentary photography is a kind of emotionless photographic behavior, or the emotion does not occupy a large proportion in the behavior. In my opinion,emotion will play a decisive role in time and space, only when the emotion was injected , time would produce memorable memories; the same time,with the emotion , the people and scene in the space would become subjective and to be a strong guidance which is resonant basis.So emotion is my understanding of all the aesthetics, whether it is warm or sad. Shooting the people living in the city, so that the audience says “yes, life”, this is the purpose of my photography.
Optimizing the full tonal range, will preserve details in the image. In this image, the ribbing of the main subject’s dress and the woven fabric of her jacket are clearly visible. Failure to optimize the tonal range would turn the main subject’s jacket and dress into a single black mass.
How do you compare your photography with being a graphic designer? Do you use photography to complement your day-to-day activity?
Yet despite the possibilities of darkroom work, photographers of the generation, before the digital era, were usually mindful of the Zone System, in that a desired black and white image tend to have a range of tonality from the darkest black to the lightest white. The objective of adhering to such a system is to optimize the the tonal variation of an image, to provide greater clarity of detail in documentation.
Eating Lunch (Southampton, England 2017) Delta 400 The Water Carrier (The Mela, Southampton, England 2017) Delta 400
Leica M4-P is my first Leica camera. It really made me feel the Leica camera shooting experience, and I adapted it almost immediately. I use hyperfocal distance and area focus mode for quick snapshots, a slight shutter sound allows me to shoot people at very close range without disturbing each other. Lightweight and sturdy body, a good mechanical feel, all this makes me very enjoy in the beginning.
It is true. Darkroom work can be an art in it of itself. What a skilled photographer could achieve, with just dodging and burning the print with his hands under the light of the enlarger, was simply breath taking. A photographer skilled in the darkroom could completely change the focus or even the narrative of the print, by merely increasing or decreasing highlights and shadows to emphasize or deemphasize details. Most famous example is Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise over Hernandez”, which required a considerable amount of darkroom acrobatics to achieve.