Why I (often) shoot in black and white

Recently one of my techie friends borrowed one of my cameras and noticed that it was set to shoot in black and white. He was puzzled by this and asked why I did it? It seemed irrational to him that I should voluntarily throw away information. After all, if I wanted a B&W image I could always get it by de-saturating the image in post-processing. And if I were really finicky I could use something like SilverEfex not just to desaturated but even to replicate the grain structure of iconic B&W films like Tri-X.

And of course at one level he’s right. But what he’s ignoring is that when you’re shooting in B&W your photography changes in subtle ways because you are forced to see things differently. Some scenes may not work in colour because it may overwhelm or swamp what’s important in the scene. Or it may reduce the intrinsic drama of a situation.

Since we see in colour, B&W is, by definition, an abstraction. As someone put it in a blog comment, “Black and white is a fantasy. When someone sees a B&W photo, they know they’ve been transported into another place and time”. Once B&W was an unavoidable necessity — the only way we could record images on silver halide. And for a time after colour film appeared shooting in B&W was a pragmatic choice, based on economics: monochrome was cheaper. But with the advent of digital sensors, that logic evaporated: there was no longer an economic reason for eschewing colour. It became an aesthetic decision. Which is a long-winded way of explaining why I shoot in black and white.

We won’t be beaten on price, just on Amazon

This photograph of the Cambridge branch of Jessops on its last trading day is rather melancholy, given that this particular high street chain was synonymous with photography for millions of Britons for so many years. Two things did for it — the switch from film to digital; and the rise of online retailing and especially Amazon. In the end, Jessops shops were reduced to serving essentially as places where consumers could see and handle cameras which they would then go out and buy from Amazon. With hindsight, perhaps the chain could have turned this from a problem into an opportunity — in the way, for example, that the John Lewis chain has. But for that to have happened, the management would have had to appreciate the importance of making the switch “from place to space” in the late 1990s. Like many bricks-n-mortar retailers, they didn’t. Pity.

LATER: Good post “The High Street is Dying. Did the Internet Kill It? No, it took its own life”. HT to Magnus Ramage for the link.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, one of the most gifted and interesting lads I’ve ever encountered, has committed suicide at the age of 26. At the moment, nobody knows why, but the obvious suspicion is that it might have had something to do with the fact that he was being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts for “wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer, in relation to downloading roughly 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR”. If convicted, he would have faced a potential prison term of up to 35 years and a fine of up to $1 million. His motive for doing this was his belief — shared by many of us — that scholarly publications should be in the public domain.

All suicides are complicated and it’s possible that Aaron’s reasons may have been unconnected with the prosecution. But whatever the explanation, the fact is that the world — and the Internet — has lost one of its best and brightest stars. If you’ve never heard of him and wonder what the fuss is all about, then I suggest that this post from his blog will give you some idea of why we mourn his loss.

May he rest in peace.

LATER: Lovely obit by his friend Cory on BoingBoing.

Advice to a prospective student

Wonderful letter from Philip Greenspun to two college-age children of a friend.

Your dad says that you’re applying to college. Remember that nearly all careers in the U.S. now require a graduate degree. Nobody will ever ask where you went for undergrad. It is not especially helpful to go to a prestige university undergrad because the professors won’t know who you are and won’t be persuasive about getting you into grad school. Economists found that people admitted to Ivy League schools who chose to attend state schools instead ended up with the same income. Being smart enough to get accepted to a top school has some value but actually attending the top school doesn’t have any value compared to U. Mass. And the most prestigious schools are research universities (e.g., MIT, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). It isn’t really even part of a professor’s job to teach undergrads and, in fact, they do very poorly at teaching. Check my analysis of a lecture by one of Yale’s top professors within


You need a bachelor’s degree, of course, but don’t succumb to the undergraduate admissions industry’s efforts to convince you that your whole life depends on what happens in the next few months. I was an undergrad at George Washington University and MIT. My fellow students at MIT were smarter/more interesting. My professors at GWU were much more interested and engaged with me. I wouldn’t say that MIT was vastly better than GWU or vice versa.

I’m always amazed by how American families subscribe to the myth that just because an institution is a great research university then the tuition is, by definition, better. One of things that really marks out Oxbridge (and some of the other leading UK universities) is that they remain committed to providing good undergraduate teaching as well as to doing frontline research.

The ipad Mini: horses for courses

I’m trying out the small iPad, following a rave endorsement by Jason Calcanis, who claimed that it had left his big iPad for dead. That’s not quite the way I see it: my big iPad is doing just fine. But the Mini would have left my Nexus 7 for dead if it hasn’t been dead already. (It went blank a few days ago after running out of juice, and all attempts to resuscitate it have failed. So it’s going back whence it came.)

Even if the Nexus had stayed alive, however, it was doomed in my eyes, mainly because of the shape. For while it did fit easily in a jacket pocket, I found the aspect ratio hopeless for reading web pages. Some things worked brilliantly on it — Gmail, for example (hardly surprising since it is after all a Google device). And I liked the way Evernote is integrated into the Android environment. But the virtual keyboard was — for me at any rate — almost unusable. And I found that the touchscreen was erratic: there were times when it took umpteen taps to get it to do anything. The battery life was also inadequate compared to the ten hours that the iPad consistently delivers.

The iPad Mini seems, therefore, an improvement. Its most noticeable feature is the weight — it feels much lighter than its big brother. And, objectively speaking, it is: 308g compared to 662g. This matters when using it as an eReader — and I read Kindle books on iPads much more frequently than I read them on the Kindle itself. The big iPad is just too heavy to use as an eReader in bed. For many people (Nick Bilton, for example), it seems that the weight difference is the critical factor.

Some reviewers have complained that the Mini’s screen is significantly inferior to the Retina display of the big iPad. Well, it is certainly inferior in the sense that it’s a pre-Retina technology, but actually for most of my purposes (with one big exception — see below) the display is fine. And strangely, I find the smaller screen keyboard easier to use than the bigger one. Can’t explain why, but my typing on the Mini screen is much more accurate.

My other requirement — for a device that can fit into a pocket — is mostly satisfied by the Mini. At any rate, it slips fairly easily into most of my suit jackets. This is often useful because although it’s only a Wi-Fi model I use my phone as a modem and therefore don’t need to carry the bag that my big iPad necessitates.

In comparing the two iPads and reading the online arguments about which is better I’m struck by the thought that the answer will be different for each individual. It depends on what you use these devices for. In my case, I use the big iPad a lot for writing, and with the Logitech keyboard cover it’s very good for that. And I also use it for intermediate processing of photographs before uploading them to Flickr or sending them out, and for that purpose the Retina display is simply wonderful.

But really the physical properties of the device are only part of the story. For example, one reason why I found the Nexus unsatisfactory (in addition to my problems with the virtual keyboard and the touchscreen) was simply that I couldn’t reproduce on it the software ecosystem that I have built up round my Apple devices. I need that ecosystem for the work that I do, and it works just fine on the Mini. Sad but true: I’m pretty dependent on the services provided in my (luxuriously-padded and skeuomorphic) Apple cell.

So, what it comes down to is the old adage: horses for courses.