In many ways black and white is the simplest form of photography, as well as the most worshiped for its timeless beauty and perceived artistic value. It’s strange then that so many of us are reluctant to shoot black and white film these days. For those of us whose analogue journey began in color, black and white can be intimidating. We might dip our toes in and shoot a roll of black and white film every few months, but devoid of direction we often don’t stick with it long enough to get decent results, and ultimately end up back in the safe world of color.
So for anyone who is eager to embrace black and white, but is unsure how to begin, here are a few quick tips:
Firstly, Prepare to Be Frustrated . . . A Lot.
After years of shooting color film, switching to black and white can feel like a handicap. It’s like trying to write with the wrong hand, something doesn’t feel quite right. Suddenly you feel like a beginner again, unsure of how to compose a scene, or even what subjects to photograph.
There will be times when you curse the fact that you don’t have color film in your camera. You will turn a street corner and be confronted with a vibrant scene that any photographer shooting color photos would dream of. This has happened to me a few times already and once or twice I snapped some photos anyway, but without color these pictures just didn’t amount to anything interesting.
But hey, every day is a school day, right? These small setbacks and failures are part of the learning process that can teach you to take better photos, not only in black and white but in all photography. So embrace the frustration!
Experiment With Different Film
This may seem obvious but not all black and white film is created equal. Even just looking at Lomography films, each one has its own unique features and the results will vary widely depending on which you choose to use.
Lady Grey B&W ISO 400 has a beautiful softness in its midtones, while the Kino B&W Family have stunning and dynamic contrast. Do you prefer your photos smooth and sexy, or full of characterful crunchy grain? The best way to find the right black and white film for you is to get your hands on a whole bunch and see the results for yourself.
Abstract Is Interesting
With black and white photography ordinary objects can be made to look strange and otherworldly. Form, composition, light, shadows and unique angles can be used to create stunning abstract images that could never be achieved in color.
As the photographer Jack Antonoff said, “Black and white creates a strange dreamscape that color never can.”
Try Using Filters
If you do any research into black and white film photography you will see advice from photographers everywhere saying, “you need to use color filters!”
While we don’t agree that you “need to” do anything just because others do, it certainly can be worth playing with some filters and seeing the different results. This way you can develop your style in black and white and start to understand the look you favor. If you’re unfamiliar with why the use of color filters are popular for black and white photography, here’s a quick rundown:
Yellow filters are the most popular choice for “serious” black and white photographers. This is because it increases the contrast between dark and light parts of the image, most importantly blue skies and white clouds. An orange filter will have the same effect to a greater degree, and a red filter will be even more extreme and darken skies dramatically. Green filters are also often used when photographing nature as it lightens the shadows of dark green objects.
Try Shooting at Night
If, like me, you struggle to rewire your color-trained brain, taking photos at night can be a great way to simplify things. At night our view of the world is much closer to a black and white way of seeing and everything is brought back to the basics of light and shadows. When we see our surroundings in this way it can be much easier to understand what makes a successful monochrome image.
Black and white images can look chaotic and confusing when there is too much going on. So think about composition and everything that will be included in the frame, as well as how you might use depth of field to create a separation between the subject and anything else in the scene. Some of the most effective black and white photos are also the simplest and depend on the contrast between light and shadows.
Think About Why You’re Taking a Photo
In color photography our reasons for taking a particular photo are often as simple as, “wow, that looks cool.” This is not so often the case in black and white photography, because what we’re seeing with our eyes and what we’re capturing is not so close to being the same thing. We’re therefore forced to think more about what we’re photographing and why. As we come to understand the answer to this question “why?”, we can take better, more intentional and affecting photos.
Remember the Lomography Golden Rule Number 10: Don’t Worry About Any Rules
Don’t forget to experiment and approach photography with playful curiosity. If you feel restricted by thinking too much about these tips or any others, then shake them from your mind and just have fun. Find your own methods for producing awesome black and white photos, and don’t forget to share them with us!
Did we miss anything? If you have any tips for shooting black and white film let us know in the comments below.