Barbed Wire & Fence Rails
Sep 14, 2020
Barbed Wire & Fence Rails
As a photographer, I appreciate having some limitations when creating photos. For example, I typically use only prime, not zoom, lenses when working on a photo project. I do carry several lenses when traveling because different subjects need different fields of view. Besides, using my feet to walk forward and "zoom in" makes better sense to me. It frees me up to think more about the photo's composition than if I should be zooming in or out. If a much wider or tighter framing is needed, I can take the time to change the lens.
Last year, I was at an event in which Leica sponsored some seminars. I walked to the Leica booth to signup for a specific lecture, and there was a black and white photo that I immediately recognized. It is a street photo of a man leaning up against a brownstone stoop. The enlarged photo was about five feet tall in a portrait aspect. It was stunning. As it turns out, the photographer who made the photo was also giving the lecture that I planned to attend. The photographer and I started a conversation, and I asked about the photo and how he achieved that "look." The short answer is; he used a Leica monochrome camera. In other words, a camera that makes only black and white images. I was intrigued.
My next move was to dive down the rabbit hole of monochrome cameras, learn about them, how they work, and what they cost. Let's start with cost. A new Leica monochrome camera is $8000. Also, Leicas hold their value, so used ones aren't very affordable ether. I Karumba, that's a hefty investment for sure! So me, being curious the way I am, and the internet being the load of information it is, led me to monochrome camera conversions. Ah-ha, a (more) affordable way to have a monochrome camera.
First, a quick bit about how a camera creates a color image and why that matters. When manufacturing a camera sensor, the base layer is the layer where are the pixels are. Those pixels record the light and dark values of a scene and give a camera its pixel count. Covering the pixel layer are other filters and layers, one of which is the RGB filter that gives a red, green, or blue cast to each pixel. Mash all that together and it makes a nice color photo. In a camera converted to monochrome, removing the RGB filter leaves only the pixel layer to record the bright and dark values. After conversion, since the pixels are no longer recording light and dark values tinted with color, the detail, contrast range, and sensitivity are drastically improved.
One of my favorite cameras is an old Sony RX1, which I have had for years. It has traveled the world with me and has been a trusted companion when doing street photography. I thought it had died, and the cost to fix it was beyond reasonable, so I replaced it with the new version of the same camera. Well, a month without a battery was all the old RX1 needed to come back to life. I sent it off, along with a check for $1000 to a conversion lab in Washington state. Weeks and weeks went by, and at one point, I thought I had been scammed and had mentally written the check and the camera off as a bad investment. One day, the camera appeared in my mailbox. Pretty much just out of nowhere.
Now I am the proud owner of a beautiful, custom, monochrome camera. The photo above is from a walk in the canyon the first day I took the camera out. Since then, I have taken several walks with the camera around the neighborhood and even took an overnight trip expressly to photograph with my (new) mono-camera. Like using lenses that don't zoom, a camera that doesn't see color is a constraint that pushes a creator to look at subjects differently. It is somewhat like when I was a kid, and all I could afford were garage-sale cameras and out-of-date b&w film. I created some great images with those found-in-the-attic cameras. If you have stuck with me this far, you will know, when you see a b&w photo from me, most likely, I made it with a camera that is not a Leica but is just as capable. The limitations that can be freeing, sometimes nothing else matters.
Thanks for reading