Photographer and tutor Paul Sanders discusses how cutting through the clutter of colour helps him make uniquely compelling images
It’s sunset on the Pembrokeshire coast, and Paul Sanders is framing the curve of an inlet with his GFX100S. Flaming sunsets aren’t a usual draw for the monochrome photographer, but if Paul’s effort is anything to go by, opinions could change. It’s a beautifully executed minimalist landscape, that neatly sums up his approach to black & white image making – and photography in general.
“That scene was shot just outside a bed & breakfast where I was staying with my dad,” Paul explains. “I’d taken him away to do some photography in Wales because he’s very keen. We had enjoyed a great day, and I was happy and content at that moment. To be honest, the golden hour doesn’t really do much for me. It’s beautiful, of course – but working in monochrome, light can be good at any time. It was more about acting on the feeling that I wanted to make an image, inspired by the mood, as well as the shape of the bay and the light reflecting from the water. A feeling of calmness and joy.”
Paul’s uniformly square and elegantly composed images illustrate astute black & white skills, with a hard-earned approach to shooting in a mindful fashion. Once a working news photographer, and now teaching workshops with an emphasis on the ‘why’ more than the ‘how’, “mindfulness is about being present in the moment”, he explains. “Focusing your attention without judgement. It helps you see new images and get ideas, all of which can be accentuated through a monochrome approach.
“Above all, working in black & white is about simplicity,” he explains. “Once I’ve identified a subject, I don’t want it recorded in a cluttered photograph. I don’t like a cluttered life. And colour is a bit like clutter. It’s shouty and distracting. When colour is stripped away, images convey mood and emotion more easily. They become about texture, shape and tonality.”
So, by virtue of having less information, black & white images are more direct? “That’s right,” Paul says. “They can say more with less. Colour can get in the way and draw attention. It’s much the same with my minimalist compositions. Images become powerful because of their simplicity, and the viewer’s concentration is drawn to that. In monochrome, I would always urge people to work in as simple a way as possible.
“That said, of course colour is actually really important to black & white photographers, because every single hue represents a tone. So, you have to pay attention to how the colour in a scene will be replicated in monochrome.” An example can be seen in Paul’s delicate image of a fern. ”The difference in colour between the leaves makes all the difference. Here, yellow leaves appeared more strongly against darker greens, even with the colour removed. But that’s not always the case. For instance, a bright red and a bright green might both look like mid-tones in mono.”
Thanks to the features in his GFX System and X Series cameras, finding this monochrome balance is a lot easier for Paul. “I use ACROS red mode the most,” he explains. “It tends to look on screen how I want it to look in a print. Based on that, I set the camera to shoot in RAW+JPEG, and only use the former if I want to make more changes. But what’s really instrumental is the EVF view, which shows me ‘live’ how the colours are rendered in black & white.
“My love of Fujifilm mirrorless cameras has a lot to do with the EVF effect,” he continues. “It’s so important that you can see how the image will be made, and how it changes, based on your settings. That goes for exposure, as well as mono. I work in manual, and with the Pembrokeshire sunset shot, I was able to underexpose it, heightening the contrast between the water and shape of the coast. Again, the darker look simplified the textures and decluttered the scene.”
But he acknowledges that texture is a major factor with monochrome. “It’s certainly one of the biggest challenges to get right,” Paul says. “And is more difficult than shape and form, I think. I want a picture to show whether something feels soft, or hard. But while texture comes through more strongly in the absence of colour, I never want to overcook an image by adding too much clarity. If anything, I do the opposite.” Taking his floral shots as an example, it’s easy to identify them as gentle and natural, like the subjects should be – not hard, crunchy and over-processed, as sometimes happens when photographers layer on too many effects.
“That’s certainly something that holds photographers back in monochrome,” Paul offers. “The use of black & white as a tool to disguise shortcomings, rather than celebrate a subject. Any editing should be fine-tuning your original vision of the image, not fixing it. And that brings me to the most important aspect of my own photographic approach, which is intent.
“Essentially, intent is everything,” Paul explains. “The biggest challenge is to know why you’re photographing something, and why you want to do it in black & white. If you can answer those, you can move forward with an image that has meaning, and the technical side of photography – ironically, the one that people tend to labour over – becomes secondary. The attention should be on the former.”
Intent in his monochrome work also covers square format. “I started doing this on my original X Series bodies,” he says. “And still do on my GFX100S. I believe that images are stronger if you set an aspect ratio before going out. Sticking to it, I find the simplicity in a 1:1 frame gives me the results I want – and it makes a body of black & white work more thoughtful and consistent.”
Aligned with mindfulness, there’s also an emphasis on waiting in Paul’s photography. “If I make half a dozen black & white exposures on a shoot, I consider myself to have been a bit shutter-happy,” he laughs. “What’s important to me is being present. So, for an image like this one of a wave breaking off Beachy Head, it was all observation. I saw the calmness of the water, and waited for a solitary wave to bring movement into that space.”
That more mindful, less technical process is certainly helped by his relationship with Fujifilm cameras, says Paul. His experience of making images with X Series, and now the GFX System, has reignited his love for photography. “When I switched to the X-Pro1 from a full-frame DSLR, I had almost stopped taking photographs. My previous kit was heavy and not great to use. But the X Series brought the fun back, especially with the EVF benefits. The cameras just felt invisible, as they should, because photography isn’t about cameras – it’s about connection to a subject.”
For Paul, that connection can be found anywhere he takes his unique approach to black & white photography… whether it’s the dramatic Welsh coast, or the undergrowth of his garden. “The joy is in seeing, and that’s what these cameras help me do. It’s about finding the potential and beauty in something, then feeling the joy in capturing it.
“When you give a camera to a six year old, they’re just amazed they can photograph something and see it afterwards on the screen,” he concludes. “As adults, we lose that innocence of expression. We think everything has to be perfect. But if you go back and find that compulsion and fascination which comes from a connection to the subject, that’s where you’ll discover real monochrome satisfaction. As photographers, we’re explorers, and it’s our job to uncover these little gems – and you can only find them by being aware.”