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Super High Contrast Black and White Images

Ever wonder how photographers like Edward Weston were able to get super high contrast black and white prints? It wasn't all in the printing, it wasn't all in the negative, and it wasn't all in the camera. You need all three and a wee bit of mathematics.

Anyone can achieve those super high contrast black and white images with a little bit of mathematics, some understanding of light and the chemicals involved in developing film. Okay, I just reread what I wrote and I think I made it sound harder than it is. Here is the basic technique: underexpose your shot and overdevelop your film. It helps first to compose a scene in interesting light. The two images attached to this tip were taken in bright sunshine beaming in on a porch. The light was coming in from the south and shining directly on a chair in one corner of the porch. There was a lot of shadows on the rest of the porch as it was late afternoon. I decided to underexpose the shot but wasn’t sure how much I needed so I took two shots, the first shot was underexposed by two f/stops and the second by 3 f/stops. Underexposing means that there will be a lot of blacks and very little whites—a dark shot, too dark. But that’s okay because you can bring back those whites while developing the film.

When black and white film is developed the blacks develop first and stop developing after the first two or three minutes, the whites keep developing as long as the film is in the developer. So depending on how much you underexposed the film will determine how long you overdevelop the film. Since I underexposed by two to three f/stops I overdeveloped by half. For example, using Sprint developer, Kodak TRI-X 400 needs 10 minutes, so I developed it for 15 minutes instead to bring out the whites that were underexposed. You get a very thick negative which requires longer processing. If you do not develop your own film you will need to explain this process to whomever you use and hope they understand. There is some risk involved. If you don’t develop the film long enough you’ll get flat negatives and flat photos. If you develop too long the highlights (whites) will be blown out with no details. If you scan your own negatives you can adjust your image. But remember you cannot bring back details that don’t exist.

I love high contrast photos especially for still life. They work great for nudes and portraits as well. Good luck and let me know if you give it try. I’d like to see the results.

written by altprocess


  1. eyecon


    Especially the second shot is quite impressive! A good tip that will make it in my little notebook!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  2. adi_totp


    love it!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  3. grenoouille


    Great tip! Thanks a lot!!!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  4. kirri-joy


    oh brilliant. only just started developing my own black and white, so this tip is perfect. :D :D :D

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  5. vicuna


    That's a great technique and the 2 shots are stunning!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  6. migueld


    this is amazing, thanks for the tip!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  7. lomosexual_manboy


    I will try this for sure. Just got some b/w film so once my LC-A is empty it's on.

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  8. mandashitley


    I don't develop my own film but I appreciate the post.

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  9. rater


    Great tip, photos look great!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  10. adzfar


    nice tip!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  11. larslau


    Nice tip! Great photos!!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  12. breakphreak


    great material. the name of the technique is missed, however. It's called either "high key" or "low key" - I just can't remember which one.

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  13. panelomo


    wow.. great tip! thanks!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  14. stouf


    Very interesting ! I am actually testing E6 process at high temperatures (around 39°C instead of 38°C) and the colours are getting supersaturated, along with higher contrast !

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  15. strangelilgirl


    breathtaking photos and what a great tip! one of the best I've read on here, so well written and easy to follow!

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  16. ipdegirl


    These shots are beautiful! Thanks for the tip. I was always curious how and why that worked. I'm going to try it soon.

    almost 6 years ago · report as spam
  17. sibu_sen


    Does 'overdevelop' mean the same as pushing it? Want to try this, great tip!!!

    over 5 years ago · report as spam
  18. marielou

    Fabulous pics, great tips, thanks!
    about 5 years ago · report as spam
  19. pangmark


    Fantastic! Didn't know about the over developing part. Watch this space!!!

    over 4 years ago · report as spam
  20. bheirman


    amazing shots nice work!
    over 3 years ago · report as spam
  21. rye

    And you had a great model too
    over 1 year ago · report as spam