The Orbital Strangers Project is an alliance between two highly sought-after photographers, Csaba Aknay and Gabor Kotschy. Despite of the fact that both artists built up their respective reputations as talented photographers in their own rights, they decided to collaborate and continue their career under the Orbital Strangers brand. Their similar outlook on photography and the professional attitude make this unique alliance work.
The Orbital Strangers Project is proudly collaborating with Fujifilm. Csaba and Gabor believe that this opportunity boosts their creative energy and opens up new ways both in applied photography and fine art.
The duo behind a photography partnership that spans Budapest and London, The Orbital Strangers Project, discuss why they love black & white photography and offer insight into how to master monochrome yourself
Csaba Aknay and Gabor Kotschy have spent 20 years building individual reputations as respected professional photographers and it was only relatively recently that they decided to combine their vision and creative energy by forming The Orbital Strangers Project. However, in that short time they have worked on many projects together, with clients including everything from magazines and advertising agencies to corporate and movie productions.
A significant amount of The Orbital Strangers Project’s work is in black & white. So, with Csaba and Gabor being undoubtedly masters of monochrome, we asked them about their process when making such striking images, as well as why they chose FUJIFILM cameras and lenses to do it. “There’s no better technique for expressing moods than black & white,” Csaba says. “That’s the reason why it’s ideal for conveying emotion or for portraying striking individual concepts. We photograph in black & white across a wide range of subjects and it’s an approach that’s suited perfectly to the way we work.”
The pair became FUJIFILM X-Photographers in 2017, but as with their fascination for monochrome, their history with the system began long before that. “From the very first time we had the opportunity to use the FUJIFILM X-Pro1, we were amazed by the way that FUJIFILM thinks about cameras and photography. For a while, we had been looking for a professional digital system with a rangefinder style design and traditional control,” remembers Csaba.
“And despite the original X-Pro1 being upgraded, it’s meaningful that Csaba still has that camera,” adds Gabor. “He decided to keep it, and not only for sentimental reasons. Through aspects like its emphasis on manual control, FUJIFILM’s cameras provide us with a traditional and a modern approach to photography at the same time, and this design concept perfectly fits our style and the way we want to make photos.”
As experts in black & white photography, the pair have plenty of advice to share. So, what’s the most important thing about making monochrome images for them? “Due to the lack of colour, black & white photography seems like it should be quite simple,” explains Gabor. “However, it’s a deceptively complex, ancient genre that can ambush an inexperienced photographer easily. The real trick is to start ‘seeing in black & white’. That all comes from practicing how to dismiss colours, but it can be harder than many people imagine.”
Why would they say this can be difficult? “Well, everything we can see around us carries colour information,” explains Gabor, “and that’s how we naturally perceive the world, so depriving our sight of colours is a very big change indeed. Since it’s an entirely different way of thinking compared to colour photography, this all starts with making a deliberate decision to photograph in black & white. This is the most important step in the process, and every further step is going to relate to this decision later.”
This idea of learning to see the world differently, and the fundamental change to your approach that’s required when making images in black & white, is echoed by Csaba. “The most common mistake that people make when photographing in black & white is sticking to a colour mindset, instead of switching their inner vision to monochrome,” he emphasises. “And since the original colours in a scene command limited influence when translated into black & white photography, other aspects become more important. For example, things like the rhythm of compositional elements, the shadows, the relationship between grey tones and the overall contrast in the photo, stand out more clearly, as you can see from the image below.”
While the pair ultimately prefer to create their black & white images in post-production using RAW files from their FUJIFILM cameras, Gabor says a monochrome preview displayed in the EVF or on screen can help photographers in the process of moving away from colour. “RAW files give us both quality and versatility, but switching the camera to a black & white Film Simulation mode can still be very helpful when it comes to the process of seeing in black & white,” he explains.
As an example of the way that working without colour can affect composition, Csaba describes the typical changes that would be seen in a monochrome image versus a colour landscape image. “The most spectacular difference is usually in terms of the sky,” he says. “The sky is pretty emphatic in most of the colour landscapes, but without colour, it’s more avoidable, and that influences composition. With a white or grey sky, there’s a chance to fill the image with something more useful, like trees. And while The Orbital Strangers Project’s natural habitat is the street, it’s interesting that images of the urban environment follow the same approach, as with the image below.”
What some may see as limitations imposed by black & white photography, Gabor instead sees as opportunities. “The chance of letting go of the burden of white balance or any other issues related to colour may open up a new frontier,” he explains. “Photography is a field of a billion solutions. Take the following image, for example. This shows how we can create a dynamic composition in a high-contrast environment. In images like this, contrast can be raised in a way that’s impossible in colour.”
One of the most important things, however, is not to expect that photographing in black & white can suddenly make an image a good one, and the pair are keen to stress this. “Some people think that a lack of colour can cover a lack of concept, vision or knowledge,” Csaba explains. “This is perhaps the biggest mistake that anyone can make when working in monochrome. Black & white is not the ultimate photographic tool and that means a portrait that’s made in black & white is not automatically artistically worthy or good.
“From that same point of view,” says Csaba, “we don’t think, for example, that black & white technique is automatically superior to colour in the street or documentary genres. Though the golden era of documentary photography spanned the 1920s to the late 1960s, and this was a time when monochrome film was the medium for it, since then technology has developed, and many amazing full-colour street and documentary photos have been created. But a black & white route can still be useful for photographers who want more room for manoeuvre. For instance, in extreme situations, colour photos can look forced or overdone, which is less likely to be the case in monochrome images. And a lack of colour can help when those hues are contrary to the composition or the mood that the photographer is trying to create. Black & white instead directs attention straight to the point.”
Just as they see black & white as a precise and specific tool to achieve their artistic vision, the pair feel that the specific advantages of their FUJIFILM cameras complement their own aesthetic outlook. “We don’t believe in multifunction cameras that work like Swiss army knives, because purpose always determines the equipment,” says Csaba. “However, we believe that FUJIFILM has found the perfect balance when it comes to function, design and handling. That’s the reason why The Orbital Strangers Project decided to use the FUJIFILM X Series.
“Throughout our careers, we’ve had the opportunity to use many camera systems, but there was always something missing until we came across the FUJIFILM X Series,” he continues. “Like monochrome, these cameras aren’t just blunt tools, but a precise medium through which we can more easily realise our ideas. We believe that the right camera can provide inspiration and help us unleash our creative energies. The feeling of being inspired is one of the most important values for us about FUJIFILM.”
Gabor nods in agreement, adding that build quality and reliability also allow them to concentrate on what matters. “With FUJIFILM, we don’t need to worry about our equipment, so instead we can keep our focus on completing our mission. In a word, FUJIFILM adds reassurance to our work.”