Are You Brave Enough to Shoot in Black and White? Maybe It's Time for a New Approach

Are You Brave Enough to Shoot in Black and White? Maybe It's Time for a New Approach

Is there anything finer than a monochrome silver gelatin print shot on film? Should we even attempt getting close to that with digital? Black and white are either misused or underused in many genres, and it’s time for a change.

When color first appeared, it was considered crass. Black and white had dominated photography for around 130 years. But by the 1980s, it had lost its crown and become a niche art, reserved for those who ventured into the darkroom for either photojournalism or fine art.

Even now in this digital age, black and white are mostly used to create a more artistic feel to a photo. This has led to the mistaken belief of many a beginner that the value of a photograph is increased just by removing the color; it isn’t. Desaturation doesn’t instantly transform a bad photo into a good one.

Monochrome does lend itself well to street photography. Nevertheless, color still dominates in most genres. Only rarely do we see wildlife photography shot in black and white, and wedding photographers might have a few token images scattered thinly throughout their portfolios. Despite Ansel Adams' mastery of the landscape in black and white, that is predominantly a color-dominated field, where scenes are flooded by the golden lights of dusk and dawn.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in film photography. This is partly a rejection of modern technology and a corresponding wish to return to less sterile practices. Moreover, it's because digital cannot precisely match the fabulous look of the film. Consequently, people have been heading into the darkroom again — or perhaps for the first time — and discovering the absolute delights of seeing a monochrome image materialize in the developing tray under the ghostly red glow of the safe light. Besides the sense of being more in touch with photographic history, they feel that the extra work that goes into developing prints from the film gives analog intrinsic qualities that are unachievable with the digital process. There is certainly a greater sense of achievement.

Many use digital technologies to pretend that a photograph is something it isn’t. There are hundreds of Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions that supposedly emulate different film types. Although they mimic its tonal curve and grain, they fail to achieve the true nature of the film. I realize that this is my subjective view, but I find it tawdry. It also seems like some photographers are ashamed of their black and white images being digital and attempt to hide them behind an attempt at an analog look. I believe there is no need for that. Consider using film presets as a starting point, but forget what they are trying to imitate. Instead, adjust them until you find an appealing and unique result proudly that stands up on its own.

I do believe is that although photography should be influenced by what has come before, as with all arts, it should also be celebrated for its unique attributes and not pretend to be something it isn’t. After all, we don't try to make film photographs look digital, so why should we attempt it the other way around? We could consider the inability of digital to precisely replicate the look of the film as a good thing. Instead, digital black and white photography can and should be recognized for its own merits. After all, digital black and white images can look great.

Black and white photography is, of course, restricted to shades of gray from black to white. It is a form of reduction, removing a distracting element, color, from the image. The human brain likes that simplicity. Furthermore, it is another method of showing the world in a way that our viewers don’t usually see, which is one of the most important methods of making our images compelling.

Only practice will teach us how to “see in black and white.” By observing areas of strong shadows, mid-tones, and highlights within the frame, we become aware of the different luminosities of the world around us, thus discovering how to separate subjects from their background. One good method of learning this is to switch your camera over to black and white. The camera’s preview will give you a good idea of how the scene looks before it is shot. Taking a few moments with each shot, examining the image and its histogram, and assessing why it works is time well spent.

The camera’s software produces some fine black and white results. I always imagine a talented technician sitting in a laboratory in Japan tweaking the in-camera processing settings to create the best possible images. Good quality cameras allow us to make global changes to brightness and contrast. However, if we want to apply local adjustment settings, and we probably do, then we must consider specialist software.

I recommend avoiding black and white conversions in Lightroom and ACR. This is a subjective viewpoint, but I find the black and white settings in Adobe’s raw development tools are lacking. On1 Photo Raw does a very good job, as does Capture One, but Nik Silver Efex Pro still has the edge.

As I said at the start, black and white is used for limited purposes, especially fine art. But there is no reason why we should not employ it in other genres. Nevertheless, we can learn from fine art and employ its techniques and styles with other types of photography.

Look for other contrasts than lighting, such as simplicity and complexity, plainness and accentuated detail, differences in size, static and dynamic, and so on. Strong graphic elements work well and accentuating those with extreme processing of black and white can give good results. Unlike color, it’s not only perfectly acceptable to have large areas of pure black and white in monochrome photos, but it adds impact.

With color photography, pushing adjustments can result in unpleasant, gaudy results. This is especially noticeable on skin tones, where getting it wrong makes the subject look unwell as our minds are hardwired to expect healthy people to have skin tones that fall within certain parameters. However, exaggerating tones and contrasts in black and white is agreeable to our eyes as we are already showing the scene in a non-realistic way.

Finally, learn from the best. By that, I don’t just mean photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Adams. Watch black and white movies by filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed. Portraying melancholy moods works particularly well in black and white, and they were masters of that.

Do you shoot black and white in genres where it is less usual? It would be great to hear about your experiences and perhaps see some of your shots in the comments. Or is it something you want to experiment with and learn more? Maybe you are a dedicated user of film presets and disagree with what I propose. Do you get as good results from any presets as you would from film? It would be great to hear from you too.

In this article, I am only just touching the surface, but I hope you delve into the topic more deeply and discover the delights of black and white.

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28 Comments
Justin Sharp's picture

Not sure if I would have used the word bravery in this context. I don’t know if it’s an issue of creative courage as much as a willingness to re-examine one’s creative vision (I guess that might require a certain amount of creative bravery). I only shoot b&w film and make silver gelatin prints so it’s 100% bw for me. I also rarely scan/digitize so a photograph is always a physical object and not an image on a monitor. I’ve been told many times that I should shoot digital and use software to emulate the look of film. It would make it easier. However, the final image is only part of the equation. The process of creating the physical objects are almost as important as the final image. I realize that’s not true for everyone. If it were only about the final image, I probably would shoot digital, but the objects (the negative and print) are incredibly important to me.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I totally get that approach, Justin, and it is still an admirable and rare one in this digital age. The rarity of your analog images must also add value to them, and I don't necessarily mean monetary value.

Josh M's picture

I never really shot black and white or converted any if my images because I was never impressed with the result I could produce. Nothing stood out to me. I’ve always liked monochrome images but wasn’t happy with my own. So I started a series of sorts to force myself to attempt to learn how to produce better B&W images. They are digital conversions of close up portraits taken at a focal length of 16mm. I don’t mind the artificial method of some film looks for now but maybe as I improve and find a wider lens for my film camera I will shift more to shooting B&W film.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Those are fabulous, Josh. A very different approach to portraiture and for me, they tick all the right boxes: interesting, unique, and well-made. Thank you so much for sharing them.

William Fields's picture

My work is a blend of color, monochromatic IR and B&W. I'm an admin in a FB group called the Monochromists that is almost exclusively B&W work. We do on occasion permit selective color for a specific theme. Have to agree strongly with your positions on shooting in B&W, not just desaturating, and the very excellent conversions from NIK Silver. Here is one I did recently.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's great work, William. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Peter Mueller's picture

My experience doesn't include analogue film and print, but I have been doing a great deal of alternative printmaking in various siderotype chemistries. Monochromatic - i.e. cyanotype (often toned), carbon print; as well as color (gum arabic). More to the point, I don't particularly feel any of my digital photography is fully developed (pun intended) until I achieve an image in printed output. This has led to expanding my "portfolio" with B&W imagery/prints... and I have learned that a great portion of the development process involves the substrate/paper used for the final product. I will process the B&W image in PS while keeping in mind the characteristics of the paper I intend to print on, and I can assure you the digital image on the screen wouldn't pass muster by many critics if viewed on a computer screen, but are spectacular products in their final printed form.

I think I speak for many/most of us when I state we never experience the same impact or impression while looking at screen-presented images as opposed to standing in a gallery looking at prints. And if you are lucky enough to be in the print-making business (or hobby, that's more how I mean it - it's a passion), you'll know what I'm speaking of... the tactile, physical experience of handling a print, adjusting it to the particular available light, getting eyeball close and far, and so on.

I'm sure I would appreciate analogue developing and the whole dark-room experience, but I'm absolutely enjoying what I'm doing presently and probably for many of the same reasons.

Justin Sharp's picture

Yes, I can definitely relate with this. Its the physical object and the image that exists on that physical object. I find immense satisfaction in the object and in the process that goes into creating this object.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I thoroughly agree with that. There is something magical about having a carefully processed image printed onto good quality paper that defies any rational explanation. Thank you, Peter and Justin for sharing your thoughts,

Sam Sims's picture

I shoot (digital) black and white and started doing so as I got frustrated trying to find a satisfactory signature colour palette - and one that doesn’t look like an Instagram filter. Saying that, I love black and white, especially for street photography and shots of buildings. Of course for the composition to work it has to be taken with black and white in mind. I love quite contrasty and dark and moody black and white with strong black tones (think of the nightime shots in the film The Lighthouse) and will look for contrasting tones every time I go out with my camera. I don’t ever use presets or try to fake the film look in digital as it always looks terrible. The look of film, things like the amount of grain are determined by a few factors, like iso and available light. Being able to set any grain levels in digital really goes against that and never looks right anyway, imo. One day I will explore colour but for now I am enjoying black and white photography.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Sam. That's a fabulous comment that reflects the sentiments of others who have commented here. it's great to hear so many people are dedicated to shooting in black and white.

John Taylor's picture

An excellent article Ivor, my early photographic experiences were with black and white film, usually processed by myself.
However today I shoot mostly "digital colour", but still go through periods of only "black and white" as I find there is something very "basic" about it and it makes you think more of tones, shape and form.
I agree with you regarding trying to match film "types and looks", I find the biggest advantage processing black and white digitally, is superior contrast correction and textures.
Regards John Taylor.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you John for the kind comment. It would be great to see some of your work.

Zdenek Malich's picture

if you understand color contrast and contrast in general there is actually lot harder to create appealing color image then B&W image...I wont even use "monochrome" as a word in this context as monochrome image could be in any color representation...blue, red, green....i mean one color....single color ......its all about the tonal values and understanding of it....zones... in Adams world ;)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes, I agree with that, Zdenek. Strictly, monochrome means one color. Thanks for the super comment.

Marko Danek's picture

When a photograph is devoid of color, special attention is paid to the play of light and shadow. I usually use natural light or any available lighting. But it was interesting to get a second opinion.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Marko for joining the conversation. Please feel free to share your photos. I would enjoy seeing them.

Jon Kellett's picture

I shoot digital and in colour. Sometimes when visualising the photo I see it as BW, but it's still shot in colour.

I have no love for film, except for the smell of it. I doubt that I'd ever go back to 35mm film - It would simply prevent me from achieving what I want from a technical viewpoint. Which leads on to the aesthetic viewpoint.

The qualities of an image shot on BW film are determined by the film, the paper and the development processes. To have larger grain, for example, we could use faster film or push slower film, to have less grain we could use slower film (for better or worse). The aesthetics are in large part defined by the technical decisions. We're specifically ignoring content for the sake of argument.

When I'm creating an image, I may have a look in mind or I may be open to options. Should an image look like it was shot on 35mm ISO 400 pushed 2 stops, or ISO 25 medium format or like neither of those, is defined by the look that I want from a creative and aesthetic viewpoint.

My love of BW images is for the artistic intent, execution and impact - Not because it may "look like film".

I respect the author's love of the medium, but was disappointed by what I saw as a disparagement of non-analogue approaches to BW production, as for me it's about the resulting aesthetics not the tools, mediums and/or restrictions in place. I can agree that representing a digital production as an analogue one breaks a certain taboo, but have to wonder how often that actually occurs.

All in all I hope that this article encourages more exploration of BW.

Sam Sims's picture

Your point about how the qualities of B&W are determined are exactly my thoughts too, only you said it much better.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi John, that's fascinating, thank you. I am always interested in hearing others' approaches. I actually welcome digital black and white, and I didn't mean it to sound as if I didn't. What I am hoping for is authenticity in its digital production, and not a poor approximation of film. I feel that black and white digital photography can go much further if photographers explore it unique merits. I appreciate this is a subjective point of view, and if others prefer trying to reproduce the look of their favourite Ilford film, then I can't argue with that.

Victor Chirkin's picture

Ivor, Thanks for the article and the reminder of the simplicity and beauty of B&W photography. I think, at times, color can be a distraction. Shooting in and/or delivering a photograph in BW allows the viewer to focus on the composition and the “story” behind the photograph. I use the monochrome setting on my mirrorless to help compose the scene without the influence of color. At times this has been effective while other times not so much. I shot a photoseries on the plight of the homeless in Northern California and monochrome was perfect for expressing the mood and challenges that the subjects encountered. All you need to do is view the work of James Nachtwey,and/ or Sebastiao Salgado to see what an incredible medium it is for pulling the viewer into the story. But, BW can also be used effectively for portraiture and even beauty. I agree that Silver Efex Pro is still one of the best post processing programs for BW.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Those are superb, Victor. They certainly show how black and white photography can be used powerfully and sensitively without the distraction of color. Your toning is spot on. Thanks for sharing them.

Lorin Duckman's picture

Way out of date, Ivor. Printing requires space, time, and equipment, not to mention liquids. One needs strength and space, not to mention the smell and waste. Is the print so much more beautiful? Who knows? And why do you think so many give up photography after a high school or college class? It's because you don't have control over the finished product, yet alone the capture. And did I mention that you need to buy film, store it correctly, load it in darkness or ship it out for processing? What else did I forget, OH, HCB didn't print his own stuff. Not many did. Many of the women photogs of note started in the darkroom, berenice and imogene, for example. arbus had printers, though she loved her darkroom. Hey, if you want cool images, emulate Daguerre.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Lorin, Thanks for the comment.

I'm left wondering whether you understood the article, either that or I don't understand the point you are trying to make. I don't say that film photography is easy. I know because I sometimes convert my kitchen into a darkroom. Nor did I say it was cheap. Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in analogue photography and developing film, so much so that production of film, papers and chemicals are increasing. Similarly, the price I am getting for second hand film cameras has doubled in the last year. So I disagree with you about the article being out of date as the evidence suggests otherwise.

I stand by the idea that the extra work does add a unique intrinsic value to the print, although I accept that is subjective. I also think that it is a view that others hold, It's the extra work that goes into creating it that adds that value.

But, it's not for everyone, and digital black and white photography is an art that can stand up on its own and doesn't have to, and should not, copy film.

You are right about Cartier-Bresson, he did move away from doing his own work in the darkroom. Similarly, many top photographers these days let others do their photoshopping for them.

pato rodriguez's picture

Gracias por el aporte! regresé a la fotografia en byn despues de muchos años del color, encuentro, nuevamente, el atractivo de la simpleza, de la profundidad, de la contemplación, en el monocromo! En esta era de inmediatez, de efímeras miradas, de redes sociales, que contribuyen, pero también gravemente afectan a la calidad de imágenes por doquier... el bw, es a mi sentir, un oasis en eset desierto furtivo de colores muchas veces invasivos, una invitación a la introspección, un encuentro con la imaginación. como aporte, recomiendo experimentar con sylver efex pro, de los más estables softweares para edicion bw. si alguien pude sugerir más experiencias, son bienvenidas! saludos cordiales

Ivor Rackham's picture

Gracias por tu contribución. Tengo que usar Google Translate para responder, así que espero que esto sea comprensible. Me alegro de que hayas encontrado útil el artículo.

charles hoffman's picture

1. the "resurgence" in film photography is as widespread as the resurgence of crank-starting automobiles.
2. Black-and-white or sepia monochrome prints are an art form that allows the artist to concentrate more on form and contrast.
3. The best b&w prints can be produced with manipulating a Raw file. The file is "pre-fiilter", and the color and intensity of a filter can be determined for every image independently
4. That's the best way to gain complete control over the output

Ivor Rackham's picture

Well that made me chuckle. The range of black and white negative film options now available at B&H stands at 108. Crank start cars being produced is limited to, erm... (I've actually owned a crank start car.)

It would be interesting to hear which raw manipulation software you use for black and white converions. I'm always looking for different approaches.

DxO who make one of the best raw softwares available sell Silver Efex Pro because of its superior black and white results. There is, of course, more than one way to achieve an end. So, if your personal preference is for, say, ACR, then I respect that opinion even though it might not be a universally accepted one.

Thanks for adding to the conversation.