A photographer’s musing on Black and White photographs

beach fog Chase Falls Coast silhouette

This week there were two things that made me start thinking about black and white photographs. The first was a discussion with a fellow that stopped by my shop, a film shooter, who announced that, in his opinion, the only way to get high quality photographs was to use black and white film and to make prints with chemically processed, black and white photographic paper.  The second was a notation in facebook advertising an exhibition that for some reason selected out black and white photographs as their own medium separate from photography, i.e., two exhibitions – a black and white exhibition and the other was photography.

I don’t agree with those long time photographers’ that belief that only film produces high quality images. That is now a discussion long past its time, the technology has changed, and in my opinion, for the better with improvements in camera sensors and programs like PhotoShop.

When I used to spend hours in my black and white printing lab I had the best enlargers and enlarging lenses that I could afford, and searched and researched the different manufacturers’ chemicals to obtain the most control I could get over contrast and density of my negatives (film) and printmaking paper.

I would work for hours in a darkened room to make the final images more than they would be if I just printed the straight negatives, as they were when they directly came out of the camera. These days I search out computer programs that give me the most control over my digital files and instead of expensive enlargers and lenses, I have a computer and 30 inch monitor. And I still work, although no longer in a darkened room, to make my final images more than they are directly out of the camera.

I know most modern photographers like to talk about cameras, lenses, and of course sensor megapixels. Not much has changed. It seems like only a few short years ago that photographers were talking about cameras, lenses, and film. And many of those that I spent my time with were discussing how to get the best image out of a black and white roll or sheet of film.

A few short years ago I thought all this had been lost.  Digital technology arrived and with it a new and exciting way to produce my personal photography, but I was disappointed with the quality of printmaking, especially black and white.  I believed that manufacturers were only interested in selling mega pixels and cheap inkjet printers.

Colour photography was getting better and better, but not so with black and white. I was disappointed with the in-camera presets for B&W images.

Many photographers, and I include myself in that group, wanted to produce black and white photographs that matched those we used to print in our chemical based darkrooms. That took a bit of time for software makers to catch up, but these days I am seeing lots of excellent black and white photographs.

An understanding of PhotoShop is important, and with program’s like NIKsoftware’s Silver Efex, producing those film-like black and white images of time past is relatively easy and if one has a pigment ink printer, making a high quality B&W print, once only available in a chemical lab, is now absolutely possible.

I like black and white photographs and to me there are some pictures that just look better that way. When asked, I’ll say something like, I like the mood created by processing this image as B&W.  Now we can look at different versions of any picture and choose the one we think says the most about our personal vision and has the best impact on viewers.  I think a photograph is a photograph and don’t agree with those trying to describe B&W as a different medium than colour. I suspect those may be the same people that like to say any image that has postproduction work is not a “real” photograph.

Some pictures look better as B&W and some look better as colour. It depends on what the photographer is trying to say about the subject. As for B&W, I admit that lots of my images end up as B&W.  I’ll finish with a quote by famous Canadian photojournalist, Ted Grant.

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”

I always appreciate your coments.

my website is at www.enmanscamera.com

6 responses to “A photographer’s musing on Black and White photographs

  1. I’m beginning to think that everyone should be modifying a few of their pictures to B & W, simply to see the perspective of the picture itself.

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  2. In the film era, I decided I was interested in colour so I printed Cibachrome and very seldom black and white. In those days it was very easy to produce a black and white print but a really good one was another matter. These days the digital darkroom has brought me back to mono. Simple compositions often work well in mono even if you didn’t originally think of them that way. And you don’t need to preconceive filters and tones. It’s probably easier and certainly I think much more powerful than the fume room era.

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    • Hi Mr. Foote, I also used Cibachrome for making prints from my slides. Actually I included it for printmaking when I taught photography in college all those years. I will say here that I regarded my self as a very good B&W print maker and actually printed exhibition quality photographs for photographers. I really liked and enjoyed working in B&W – and built a pretty exotic lab at my home. (Just a room in my home with a big sink these days)

      I still really like B&W and thanks to programs like SilverEfex I still can stay in a medium that I sometimes prefer. And I actually “do,” think B&W with some subjects, before I release the shutter.

      I do agree with you “It’s probably easier and certainly I think much more powerful than the fume room era.”

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and give me your well thought out opinion and I appreciate your experience.

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  3. I love working in the darkroom and shunned digital for several years but, I am now taking the view that the two work very well together. I just did not like all the technology that went with digital – coming round slowly….. 🙂
    You are right, I am amazed at what can be achieved with Photoshop; some almost unprintable negatives (for that read lots of work under the enlarger) can produce exactly what the minds eye envisioned with ‘relative’ ease using Photoshop.

    David.

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    • The film lab was great when that was how we did things. Mine was always my escape… Now things are different and I am so pleased you are embracing the technology. I am sure you, like me, will apply the same energy with digital as film.

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