Given that the oceans can be the brightest, most colourful places on Earth, loading mono film into your underwater camera seems about as sensible as buying a black and white TV. As Ken McDonald shows here, don't be fooled
Black and white is... different. Free from the realism and conformity of colour, it allows you to record the underwater world as you see it, rather than as it actually is. Long before Eastman launched the first Kodak camera in 1888, photographers were already dissatisfied with merely recording what was there, and were experimenting with styles and techniques in attempts to "interpret" their subject matter. And the same can be said of the creative underwater photographer today.
You don't need state-of-the-art equipment or any great expertise. Black and white has been around for so long that it is not only user-friendly but also very forgiving. Two stops (apertures) out either way is generally printable.
For most underwater photographers, equipment means not only a camera but an acceptable flashgun to go with it, so that colour lost and absorbed by the water at depth can be restored and enhanced. However, with black and white you are not concerned about colour, only with light, and providing there is enough of that to create the image you are after, that's fine.
Even when light is scarce, black and white films are flexible enough to be "pushed" to compensate for most situations, so you can keep things nice and simple. You don't need a flashgun or the added encumbrances of its various supporting arms and brackets to take good underwater black and white pictures. In locations where space is tight and currents strong, the freedom and greater manoeuvrability this allows provides an obvious advantage.
Taking good black and white pictures is not so much about technique, more about imagination. It's about capturing what you have in your mind's eye.
If you accept that photography is an art form as well as a method of recording events and images, you're two-thirds of the way there. The other third is having the ability to see the potential in an image and what you feel the image is conveying in personal terms, and translating that feeling into shades of grey.
If this sounds a bit arty-farty, it's not meant to. The point is, as individuals we all see and perceive things in unique ways. Images, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.
Some knowledge of black and white film, although not vital, can help to enhance your results and creativity. Most photographers tend to play it safe and stick with medium-speed films (ISO 100-200). ISO 100 is probably the most popular, and will give high-quality results with virtually invisible grain and excellent sharpness, but you will need very good natural lighting conditions. Providing you have a steady hand and your subject matter is predominantly still life, these films are hard to beat.
Fast films (ISO 400) and ultra fast films (ISO 1600-3200) are ideal for taking pictures in poor lighting conditions or in situations where you wish to freeze movement without the need for flash. Uprating to the higher ISO will make the grain far more obvious, and although film-makers spend small fortunes trying to make it finer, grain adds texture and style and can be used to produce very evocative pictures.
For me, no other medium conveys atmosphere or mood in quite the way that black and white does, especially sombreness and darkness. The blackness of the black part of the film can be used to great effect in emphasising loneliness, seriousness, or any other inhospitable aspect of a scene.
Wrecks are tragedies, often associated with great loss, either of the vessel or the lives of the crew and passengers that once sailed with it. Even popular, "colourful" wrecks such as the Carnatic and Thistlegorm in the Red Sea have exacted their fair share of human suffering, a fact often forgotten by the hordes of divers who visit these sea graves every year. Without wanting to sound morbid, black and white can be a very effective medium to portray the dark side and eeriness one sometimes experiences when swimming along empty companionways, or through the silent and dimly lit voids of such wrecks, especially in poor visibility conditions.
Wrecks, by their nature, are a natural choice for black and white photography, but there are numerous other facets of the underwater world to which it can be applied. All you need are ideas and imagination.
Many of the ideas I get for possible black and white pictures come from colour photographs. I'll often see a picture in a diving magazine that begs for transition to mono, and even "mundane" subjects such as divers on a shotline or schools of fish are full of potential. Black and white photography forces you to look beyond the first glance to pick out light, shadow, shape, form or some other aspect of the subject matter that will make it interesting.
At the end of the day, your photography is what you make it and what you get out of it. Next time you take your underwater camera for a dip, forget about guide numbers, f numbers, the Rule of Thirds and the advice of countless guru phototechnocrats. Just load up a roll of monochrome, set your camera on automatic and concentrate on the fundamentals of natural light, mood and composition. Who knows - you could become a guru in your own light...
Appeared in DIVER - September 1999