Digital Monochrome Photography

Meeting Report

Andy Beel FRPS is an acknowledged virtuoso in monochrome photography – folklore has it that he holds the world record for going from zero to FRPS so it was a coup to have him talk to us. In fact not only did we all enjoy his talk on Thursday evening but we also had a workshop on the Friday. I’m going to find it tricky to sort out a write-up between the two events. If anyone who only came to Thursday is mystified by anything here that’s because I’ll have muddled the Thursday with the Friday and you should have been there on the Friday as well!

My attitude to monochrome is slightly odd. I readily accept monochrome because it is familiar from holiday and press photographs from an early age so I am comfortable with the concept.  But even a “straightforward” monochrome photograph is a world away from the colour reality. Andy’s technique is to stretch the monochrome image far beyond a simple colour desaturation - and that is his art.  

If there is one word which is not appropriate to any of Andy’s work that is “bland”. Andy’s style is to make the extreme darks really dark (but not blocked out) and the extreme lights very light (but not blown out) and whilst all in-between shades of grey are represented they are often in the minority. This makes for very powerful pictures – he leaves the viewer no doubt as to the centre of attention of the picture. Did I like all the images he showed? Well, no, but I did like some of them as much as any photography I’ve ever seen.

The Thursday talk was illustrated by some of the biggest prints this side of Pete Bamforth and there is another similarity between these two photographers – both are driven by the quality of the printed result and everything else is a means to that end. Andy’s style of monochrome involves high contrast and counterchange – usually light centre of interest against dark background but occasionally vice-versa. And he’s very much of the persuasion that the best weather for photography involves conditions when normal people stay indoors.

Andy is minimalist equipment wise – not for him sets of ND filters, nor a flash gun - and a tripod is a device of last resort. His camera is one of the latest Fujis but in an unguarded moment he confessed to owning 10 lenses!  And I thought him more mainstream in his processing techniques than I anticipated. No HDR, nor any particularly advanced digital imagery, he is a rather reluctant Photoshop user but a Lightroom enthusiast – and he doesn’t use the Silver Efex software as much as I, for one, would have expected. A darkroom photographer using Lightroom was very much the impression I came away with.

The Friday workshop was a review of  Andy’s techniques in general, in Photoshop and in Lightroom. He covered all the nitty-gritty about monitor and printer calibration which is essential for colour as well as monochrome. He then talked about the most important file you will ever see and confounded Douglas Adams’ assertion that the answer to life, the Universe and everything is 42. For Andy there are 2 answers – 6 and 92 and these make more sense than 42 but you’ll need to visit his website to find out why.

Throughout Andy was clear and thorough in his explanations and very generous with his advice. The accompanying book is possibly the most practically useful guide I have seen of digital photography from camera to print. Direct, pragmatic advice on the technicalities and let the accompanying photographs speak for the art seems to be the approach and it works very well indeed.

So thank you Andy Beel for being such an entertaining and informative speaker. Whether you share Andy’s view that monochrome imagery is the “Senior Service” of photography and regardless of whether you practice the “Dark Art” yourself this was an exceptionally helpful presentation.  All in all a great end to a successful season of presentations.