What can black and white film teach you about the fundamentals of lighting?

If you want to understand good lighting, try shooting in black and white film. Important part of learning photography is understanding lighting. You can potentially get away with bad lighting when you have colours at your disposal. That is why it’s a good exercise to throw colours out of the window and practise with black and white film. You will have one tool less to build a good image. When colours can’t save you from bad lighting, you have to be able to get one step closer to the basics and recognise good light.

Fantastic light. So smooth and creamy.

Colour can totally compensate for poor light. If you want to separate your subject from the background (etc), you can get away with bad lighting, as long as you have good enough colour contrast between the elements — even though the lighting and tones might be flat. I’ve found that the tonal range should be wide enough to create the separation. The tonal contrast is more important than colour contrast. If the entire photo is flat grey, everything look as moulded in lead.

Same photo in colour and black and white. The tones are flat, which becomes apparent in the b/w conversion as there is very poor background separation. The colour contrast acts as the separating factor in this photo. Black and white version immediately reveals how bad the lighting actually is.
One of the weakest points of this photo is the flat light. The subject isn’t popping out in any way. It is instead almost blending into the background.

It was a hard lesson to get back my first rolls of black and white film and to realise that some of the photos just didn’t work, just because there weren’t good enough tonal separation between the elements. You will have to learn to see in black and white. We all see in colour and it can be counter intuitive trying to see without colours, focusing just on the tones. Visualising the image is a really good skill to learn.

Total tone fail from one of my first rolls. You can barely recognise the person, because there is no key light or tonal separation between the subject and the background. (One of the worst scans by the way too.)

When you learn to see good light, you can take the same principals to colour work, digital photography or any other visual creativity. I’ve utilised much of this knowledge in drawing and painting too, where the fundamental understanding of the light is key.