Developing an eye for black and white

I returned to film photography few years ago and from the get-go, I had a clear vision of shooting specifically black and white. Of course I encountered many surprises and after fifteen years of digital photography, I had to learn great many things the hard way. Now I’ve been shooting the past few years mostly just black and white film, and looking back at it, I can’t believe just how out of my mind I was in the beginning.

In case you’re interested in starting analog photography with black and white films, I can save you from at least some of the trouble, by sharing what I wish I knew back then.

Black and white is not necessarily good everyday all-rounder

Black and white film photography is a complete world of it’s own and quite possibly not the safest bet for an everyday all-round solution. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that it requires a very different mind-set compared to the casual smartphone shooting of every day snapshots. Black and white film almost requires one to tune into a specific image making frequency. When black and white works, it looks amazing, but when it sucks, it really sucks. That’s when it reveals just how demanding it actually is to do well. For this reason, it’s not a good option for every situation. It asks for your attention and consideration, because it is a specific approach for a certain kind of aesthetics.

I’ve seen many times people shooting black and white film like they would their smartphones and it usually don’t work the same. Maybe it is a good idea to keep the iPhone handy for goofing around and to save the film for the more specific shots.  

Black and white is not a filter

In digital photography, black and white is usually something that you do as a conversion from the original (colour) file. B/W film on the other hand is fundamentally monochromatic. You’d think it’s not a big deal, but it actually has a great impact on how you start to view the world around you. The entire thinking process changes, turning monochrome into a commitment instead of an option. 

Learning to recognise good black and white subject matters

Once you’ve tuned yourself into the monochromatic wave-length, you usually start to see world in monochrome, so to speak. Then it’s possible to start recognising much better black and white subject matters. After a bit of trial and error, it’ll be easier to see what will work, and more importantly, what would not. Since every photographer has their own vision, no one can tell you what the good or bad subject matters are, but after acknowledging that such a thing is a concern, you’ll start paying more attention to it.

↑ Spotting a scene like this is the perfect time to pull out the black and film.

Learning to recognise lighting that complements black and white

Black and white photography leaves the photographer only with surfaces and light. It is easy to forget that photography literally means drawing with light and that’s why just the right kind of lighting is so critical. 

Black and white photography is completely different compared to colour shooting. Some kind of light could work on colour but not on black and white. It is a complete fallacy, that you could turn any image into monochrome and expect it to look good.

The so called good light doesn’t necessarily mean more light. You don’t have to wait for the perfect summer day. In fact, sometimes a crummy weather might be just the perfect option for black and white shooting.

Better compositions

Black and white photography requires a bit more from the composition. All photos won’t work in both colour and B/W. Removing the possibility to utilise colour in the composition will put more pressure on for example figure-to-ground ratio. Background separation has to be done via tones, rather than colour-contrast. 

↑ An example of good figure-to-ground relationship. The figure (model) creates a distinct silhouette to the ground (background) that doesn’t rely on colour-contrast, but rather clear difference between the subject and the background tone.

Knowing when to push and pull

Push-processing is a huge buzz-word among film photographers, but it’s important to know when to push and when not. It should not be a default solution, because it has such a drastic effect on final image. When I got back into film, I was excited to push film, but over did it.

For further reading, may I suggest this quite recent article on the matter?

Developer selection

When I bought my first developer back in the day, the clerk asked me whether I liked grain. I said yes and a bottle of Rodinal was handed to me. I liked the results for the most part, but for my taste, it was ever so slightly too grainy. During those days, I didn’t yet know much about the characteristics of different developers. Rodinal was a good starting point, but I started experimenting after realising, that you could adjust the desired look with the chemistry and other developing methods. So far I’ve settled with Kodak D-76, which seems to do pretty much exactly what I’m after. 

I’d advice to do a bit of research in different developers to see which ones would match with your vision, because they will have an impact on the look of your photos.

Grain or not to grain?

I always used to associate black and white film with distinct graininess. I’ve learned how ever, that much like anything else, more grain isn’t always the better. Grain complements some subject matters, but not all. It is impossible to say when to grain and when not, because everything affects everything. In my own experience, I’ve noticed that a really gritty and grainy look will complement the subject matters in low contrast scenes with very diffused and perhaps even dim lighting. It will also go nicely hand in hand with classical and timeless aesthetics. I’m tempted to say geometric and modern settings are not the best matches with film grain. Grain likes natural textures, organic shapes, humanity and timelessness. A nice portrait with some classical architecture on the background will almost certainly look good on grainy film, but the same cannot be said of a photo of Toyota Yaris. But then again, you shouldn’t take my word for it. Just be prepared to occasionally stumble into shots that would’ve been nicer with less grain. I personally love grainy photos, but sometimes I have to admit that it just doesn’t quite fit a certain image.

Street photography on 35mm film

↑ Grit and grain.

Grain and bright lighting

When it’s bright, low grain looks the best. Fast black and white films will typically provide the most grain, but since there’s really no need to use them in bright summer days, a slow film is a more logical choice technically and aesthetically as well. Smooth and creamy look with less grain will look amazing on sunny days. 

↑ This photo was shot on Ilford Pan F 50, which is a very smooth grain film and looks just about perfect on sunny days (unlike my scanning).

Grain and bokeh

If you’re into bokeh, heavy grain and strong background blur doesn’t seem to go hand in hand too well. I rarely get that combination to work properly. If you’re into bokeh, I’d choose films with as little grain as possible.

Film selection and grain

Film selection is the biggest factor in grain management. The developer of choice will of course have an affect. Fast films are grainier than slow films. ISO 50 or 100 films are generally smooth as butter and the higher you go, the amount of graininess will increase. ISO 400 films are moderate in grain. Something like an Ilford Delta 3200 or Kodak T-max P3200 are practically sandpapers. 

I hope you found this article helpful. There are certainly many other things to mention as well, but these are the biggest topics in my opinion. For example, I didn’t get much into different kinds of film stocks in this article, so who knows, maybe I’ll write another one in the future. I definitely screw enough things up during my first year to cover another one of these!