The Basics Of Shooting With Black And White Film

If you are new to film photography, chances are that you will get into shooting black and white sooner or later because you have been inspired by the masterpieces of great geniuses. But before you become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson or Sebastião Salgado there are a few things you should know.

Seeing the world in Black and White is the main struggle for everyone in the beginning but like with everything else, it can be learned and practiced with a simple understanding of how colours are translated into B&W. The human eye can distinguish approximately 500 shades of gray (some are limited to 50 but that’s another story!) but on the other hand, the scope for colors is almost unlimited.

Why are some colors identical when turned into BW?

Imagine a bus with only 50 seats (and no stand-up space) that has to carry 200 hundred people at the same time. If they all want to get in, some people will have to share the same seat. That’s essentially the same with colors turned into B&W. There are too many to fit into those 500 shades of gray so they must be compressed to all fit into the bus. To demonstrate this visually, I’ve converted the 6 basic colors into gray so you can see how they translate in BW.​

/Vincent Moschetti

We can instantly see that some colours share the same seat. Look at the yellow and orange, they are identical so forget sunset pictures. Another interesting comparison is the red and green: they are almost identical which makes pictures of a poppy field look like a muddy gray landscape. How disappointing!

/Friederike Hiepko (https://goo.gl/EQJghC)

Does that mean that I can’t take a good BW picture of a poppy field?

Hopefully not! There are solutions to change the way B&W film responds to colours. For this, you will have to rely on coloured filters. Let me briefly introduce each of them:

Yellow filter:
The classic among black and white photographers. Blue skies are darkened which helps to increase separation with the clouds. Other colours like green, red, orange and yellow will appear brighter.

/Friederike Hiepko (https://goo.gl/EQJghC)

Orange filter:
This comes right after the yellow in terms of strength. Blues will become even darker for a more dramatic effect. Most warm colours will also present brighter than greens.

/Friederike Hiepko (https://goo.gl/EQJghC)

Red filter:
This one is the strongest. Reds will turn into whites and foliage appears very dark. If you want your poppy flowers to pop out, this is the one but pay attention to the background. We can see at the horizon the light green has also turned also white. It works best with darker shades of green like in the foreground.

/Friederike Hiepko (https://goo.gl/EQJghC)

Green filter:
The polar opposite of the previous filter. Red will turn darker and green brighter. It’s not very popular because of its limited span of action though it can provide very interesting effects when used on the correct scene.

/Friederike Hiepko (https://goo.gl/EQJghC)

Blue Filter:
Another uncommon filter but if you want to brighten blues it’s the one! Warm colours will be darkened and reds turned into black, which can help to separate elements in a mixed coloured scene. It also increases fog and haze, which can help to emphasize a moody landscape.

/Friederike Hiepko (https://goo.gl/EQJghC)

One important thing about using filters is that they all reduce the amount of light by one or more F-stop. So you must compensate this loss of light when exposing. It varies depending on the filter, so refer to your manufacturer’s product information.

Contrasting Opinions

Now that we know how to manipulate each colour, the other element to consider when shooting B&W film is contrast.

Depending on which style you are going for, contrast will play a major role. There are no colours to define the mood of your image, so the type of light available is probably the most important element to create the ambiance you want to achieve. Direct sunlight can be a nightmare for colour photographers, but not in B&W. If you want to shoot street photography, for example, it’s exactly what you are looking for as it will create contrasting harsh edges in your images. It will help to detach subjects from their environment and re-enforce your composition.

/Vincent Moschetti

If you prefer a softer ambiance, look for an atmosphere of low contrast. Cloudy or foggy days are perfect for these types of images. The light is evenly distributed which result in a more mellow ambiance. It’s also traditionally been seen as the ideal situation to shoot female portraits as it makes skin looks softer.

/Vincent Moschetti

Another crucial element that affects contrast, is the type of film you shoot with. All B&W films don’t react the same way and it’s important that you choose the proper one based on what you are looking for. This is really a matter of personal tastes and there is no right or wrong film here, just the one you like. If I want to go for a contrast heavy image, Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X are my go to films. If I prefer a softer image, Fomapan 200 or 400 is the one I prefer.

“There are so many films, which one is the best?”

Choosing film can be overwhelming when starting out so if you are not sure about which one you should use, check out the “Film Dating” quiz I have created. It helps to find the right film for you in just a few clicks.

The last point that will influence the result of your images is the development technique or chemicals you use. There are many ways to go when developing and the combinations of film/developer can completely change the look of a negative.

I’ll take the example of stand development as that’s the one I’m the most familiar with. Depending on the film and developer you are using, it can completely change the contrast of your photo. I have tried this approach with Fomapan 400 (low contrast) and Kodak Tri-X (high contrast).

/Vincent Moschetti

When developed using the “stand” technique using Ilfotec DD-X developrFomapan 400 turned into a super contrasty film. On the opposite, Kodak Tri-X (which is known for being contrasty) turned into a flatter image with this process. These are just examples and combinations are infinite when developing. The best idea is to get acquainted with the chemicals and films you have at home. If you want more information about developing time for each film and chemical, check out the Massive Dev Chart.

We’ve seen how many factors can influence a BW image but the most important point is your ability to see the world in monochrome. That’s what requires the most practice but with experience, you’ll become better, it’s just a matter of training your imagination. If you are new to this, forget about everything else and just concentrate on imagining a scene in B&W. Once you have gained more experience it will be easier to apply what you’ve read above.

Vincent Moschetti worked exclusively with digital equipement until he had a revelation and discovered the beauty of shooting with film cameras.If you would like to learn more about his work, you can visit his websiteFacebook, and Instagram pages. This article was originally published here.

Images Used With Permission