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Beach Huts
CREDIT: Iain Kitt

Seeing in black and white in Saltburn

By Iain KItt

Seeing in black and white in Saltburn, an RPS Landscape Group Workshop with Mark Banks by Iain Kitt

A good motto for a photography workshop, it seems to me, would be to expect the unexpected.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised when on a workshop with Mark Banks, entitled ‘Seeing in black and white’, we started off looking at possibly the most colourful line of beach huts that I’ve ever seen.

The workshop took place in Saltburn, a small seaside town on the East Coast of England.  Described by the Yorkshire Tourist Board as “a delightful coastal town (which) bestows plenty of Victorian charm and thrills” and, unlike many coastal resorts, it continues to be a thriving and vibrant place.  Amongst its attractions, it boasts the oldest water-balanced cliff railway in Britain that is still in operation (although it hadn’t yet opened for the season on the day we were there).  This links the town with the “last remaining pier in Yorkshire” (although it is actually in Redcar and Cleveland).  And, of course, it has the beach huts.

It turned out that the purpose of looking at the beach huts was not so much to photograph them but to use them to learn how to see without colour.  Instead, we had to think in terms of luminosity.  Mark introduced us to Ansel Adams’ zonal system.  This divides a scene into 10 zones on a tonal scale ranging from 0 (black) to 10 (white), with zone 5 representing 18% or middle grey.  Every zone differs from the one before and after it by 1 stop.  Using this, we were asked to assign a zone to each of the colours on the huts and then check how they actually appeared on our camera screen, with that in black and white view mode. 

The results were quite surprising, as the following photos illustrate.  So two very different colours, in this example, blue and red, when seen in monochrome, have very similar tonal values, whereas the same colour in the light or shade can have a very different one.  In other words, we needed to think not in terms of colour but of luminance.

Blue and red

Or is it grey?

With that message lodged in our heads, we headed (sic) off to a car park to take some photographs.  But not a car park full of cars.  Instead, one used to park fishing boats, and the tractors used to take them in and out of the sea.  Here we were tasked to produce some black and white abstracts, bearing in mind that we were looking for sufficient contrast between different elements as measured using the zonal system.  Here are some of the results.

Rope (© Ken Bladen)

Tractor engine

After lunch, we transferred our attention to some woods.  On the face of it, a wood in winter can appear rather monochromatic to start with.  But looking at it on a black and white screen showed there was significant contrast to be seen.  Also, seeing in black and white highlighted the importance of texture as a compositional consideration.  Who knew ivy had such photographic potential?

Bark and root (© Yvonne Chicken)

Trees (© Rod Dawson)

For the final session of the day, we returned to the coast, where Mark took us through the technicalities of taking long exposures.  I’ve tried this before but never quite managed to get a successful result, but Mark’s excellent tuition made it all seem surprisingly simple and produced, in my view, the best photos of the day. 

No weather for surfing

If you look closely, you can just make out the ghostly figure of a surfer.

This marked the end of the workshop, but I couldn’t leave Saltburn without taking some photographs of the pier.  Several years ago, the pier hosted an exhibition of large-scale timescape photographic panoramas of all of Britain’s remaining 54 piers taken by Lawrence George Giles.  Stretched out along both sides of the pier, the effect was stunning.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the pictures were ever published, and there seems to be no record of them anywhere online.  I couldn’t hope to replicate that effect, but I am rather pleased with this one.

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside

This workshop has certainly helped me better understand what makes a good black and white photograph.  Armed with this new l knowledge, I shall undoubtedly be producing more monochrome work in the future. 

Practicalities: Saltburn is on the east coast of England, a couple of miles east of Redcar.  It is easily reached by road with plenty of car parking in and around the town.  A half-hourly train service runs from Darlington on the East Coast mainline (55 mins), and Middlesbrough (25 mins).  At present, the seafront car park is closed, and there is a steep climb from the seafront up to the town, but the cliff railway is due to start running from Easter.  

Thanks to Mark Banks for running the workshop and his expert tuition, which helped me produce the images in this article, and Yvonne Chicken, Rod Dawson and Ken Bladen for agreeing to share their pictures.

All images © Iain Kitt except where stated

This article was first featured in the RPS Landscape Group Newsletter, May 2022.  


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