'It’s all about the subject': Pearls of Wisdom from The Mono Awards judges

Comments Comments

Every year, we ask our esteemed judging panel from The Mono Awards to share their tips for capturing more impactful black and white photos.

So with the 2023 edition of the competition underway right now, we've gathered up these pearls of wisdom to give you some food for thought before you submit your best black and white shots in the competition this year. 

You can find out more about The Mono Awards here, and more about our judges from last year right here. 

Ask yourself what you can bring to your next set of images that adds some more interest to the work. Is there a lighting technique that you can explore, or a slow shutter speed, or panning method that could make your images more engaging? Can you be using multiple exposures and adding textures into your image, or can you simply be making more use of foregrounds and backgrounds to tell a story? - Anthony McKee

The simpler you make an image, the easier it is to read. - Mike Langford

If you want to become a better monochrome photographer, you will need to put in hours of camera practise every week along with dedicated time to review your results and learning from your mistakes and successes. - Jackie Ranken

An ideal photograph to me is one where the photographer has clarity around what they wish to communicate, and they give the viewer half the story. This can be achieved through careful curation about what is and isn’t included within the scene. Leaving some of the narrative to the viewer’s imagination allows an image to last, be a conduit for discussion, and be viewed time and time again. - Matt Palmer

The Mono Awards 2022 People category runner-up, Precision by Brennan Finighan.
The Mono Awards 2022 People category runner-up, Precision by Brennan Finighan. "This image was created in my studio with the assistance of two amazing models, one of whom is a circus performer and the other an athlete. They posed on a mirror to capture the reflection in order to add an extra dimension to the geometric style. The most difficult part of creating this image was achieving symmetry in order for it to be aesthetically pleasing."

Ultimately, it’s all about the final print. There should be one black, one white, and a host of greys in between. It should be skilfully made without the use of gimmicks or distractions. If it’s a bad print then no matter how great the composition or how strong the image is, it will fail. Check out The Zone System and The Print by Ansel Adams for some advice on how best to create the perfect print. - Adrian Cook

Images which convey a sense of place or tell a story are always the most eye-catching. - Alex Cearns OAM

If you can afford it, buy yourself a reasonable monitor and do your post production work in a consistent environment, away from broad variations in daylight. For the best results, you need to be able to trust that what you see on your computer screen is what your audience are going to see as well. - Anthony McKee

As one who used to enjoy experimenting with toners in the darkroom, the lack of toned black and white images entered into competitions surprises me. There are so many options available. - William Long

Think in black and white when photographing. When using a digital camera, set your screen to monochrome. Ideally, don’t look at your screen until you are back at your studio/home. Photographing in black and white is a very different way of looking at the world. When one “looks’ and “sees” in black and white, the world reveals itself in a different visual language than colour. Not looking at the screen while in the shooting stage allows one to be deeply involved in the creation of the images. This develops and sharpens one’s intuition. - Sophie Howarth

The Mono Awards 2022 Places category winner, Tebani Slade, Matera 2. Matera 2.
The Mono Awards 2022 Places category winner, Tebani Slade, Matera 2. Matera 2. "This image was taken in the town of Matera in southern Italy. It is claimed to be the third oldest continually inhabited settlement in the world. It has been home to someone for at least 9,000 years. There are many layers to this ancient town and I wanted to show that. So, I made an in-camera multiple exposure of four images to create this photo."

It is not enough to just execute cleanly and competently. Images with a sense of narrative, sophistication, and layers of interest are required to resonate to the next level. This energy allows the image to gain momentum and subconsciously encourages the viewer to stay longer. - Lynton Crabb

Emotional attachment to the viewer is important. Does the image appeal to the viewer and speak for itself without the need of an artist statement to explain the work? - Adrian Cook

Allow things to happen and don't be afraid of “mistakes”. It may lead you to a great surprise. - Michelle Mossop

Editing an image, beyond in a traditional style, doesn’t necessarily enhance an image. Be mindful with why you are editing, the purpose, and the aim. Sometimes a minor adjustment on your blacks and whites is all that is needed. You can keep it simple and still have impact. - Jayne McLean

When editing, don’t be afraid to play around with HSL tools, curves, and split toning. These are my favourite tools for achieving a moody look. - Marley Morgan

The Mono Awards 2022 People category winner, Marty by Karen Waller.
The Mono Awards 2022 People category winner, Marty by Karen Waller. "My portrait of Marty was captured on his front veranda at his home in Adelaide. It is a place where he often spends time watching the world pass by and connecting with his community. Meeting Marty happened by chance, and I sensed that he would be an intriguing portrait subject. When I captured his portrait, he shared the story of his life and was very open with me. This portrait captures a moment in our conversation, as Marty recounts a tragic story of personal loss. He was unapologetically emotional when sharing his story. In that moment, it was simply about documenting the emotion as it unfolded. My aim in this portrait of Marty is to reveal his humanity and vulnerability which may counter our immediate perception of who he is."

One of the most useful tools for editing monochrome images are the adjustment brushes in your RAW conversion software. They can be used to brighten, darken, and add contrast to even the smallest details in a scene, be it a face or a street sign, and because you are working with the RAW data, the exported file should give you the smoothest of tonal gradations in the finished image. If you find yourself doing too much tonal adjustment to the image in Photoshop, go back to the RAW file; that’s where the good tones are! - Anthony McKee

Being captivated by the content within the photographic frame is fundamentally more important than the technique that was used to make that image. But without a thorough base knowledge of technique there is no control. If all we see when looking at an image is the technique then that is a kind of failure, too. - Jackie Ranken

Animals category winner, Steve Nicholls. Pelican on the Defensive.
The Mono Awards 2022, Animals category winner, Steve Nicholls. Pelican on the Defensive. "As the afternoon came to a close at Woodman Point in Western Australia, this pelican stood alone on a large rock overlooking a small rocky pool. I positioned myself low to make sure the pelican rose completely above the horizon line, and stopped down my lens to bring focus to the industrial buildings on the other side of the bay. With all the elements in place, I had to wait for something interesting to bring the image to life. A small group of seagulls arrived on the scene, and one began harassing the pelican. As the gull flew in the pelican raised its beak to fend it off, and I clicked the shutter."

It’s all about the subject. Let technique be invisible. Perfection can be hollow and cold. - Michele Mossop

Know the story you want to tell when you capture the image and follow this throughout your editing stage to ensure your vision becomes a reality. Include darker tones for a more dramatic look, but also ensure your highlights in a darker image are where you want the viewer to focus on. - Jayne McLean

comments powered by Disqus