Black and White as a Photographic Medium

1. Cameras  2. Ghost town  3. Kamloops fence & hills  4. Quick turn at the rodeo  4.Chuck the rooster  5. Flower  6. Bailea  7. Monica  8. Church lantern  9. Headwaters

Lois Lane, Kelowna

Black and White as a Photography  has always been my favourite photographic medium. I recall when I first began pointing my camera at different subjects, and started making photographic prints, that I didn’t think too much of colour photography. Yes, colour was fine for documentary work as found in “National Geographic” magazine, or making snapshots of some family, but in the 1970s creative photographers seemed to be working in black and white, not colour.

Photojournalist Ted Grant, who is regarded as Canada’s premier living photographer wrote,

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

Black and white photographs always (and still do in my opinion) seem to create moods and convey an almost tactile quality.

During the period of film photography, photographers had to decide whether their subject would look best in black and white print film, colour print film or slide film and most photographers trudged around with at least two camera bodies weighing them down. However, today that decision to make a black and white image is best left to the computer and some exciting post-production software. And there is no need pack around another camera. (Well, unless one is worried about camera failure.)

Thankfully post-production is no longer contained to dedicated, darkened rooms. I still have an 11×11 foot room in our basement, complete with a six-foot stainless steel sink and custom cabinets. However, it’s mostly used to store photo equipment and for washing my chickens’ eggs. Now my lab is on the main floor of our home and instead of chemicals, the image and print production has become an intricate combination of computer programs, quality printers, and papers that easily rivals the quality of chemical-based, traditional, black and white photography.

A black and white photograph depends on its ability to communicate, it doesn’t need to rely on eye-catching colours for its’ visual presentation. Those B&W images that stand and pass the test of time combine attention to subtle changes in light, composition, and perspective. And it stretches our creativity and forces us to visualize our world in different terms. I remember a photographer once saying that he believed shooting in B&W refined one’s way of seeing. And I heartily agree.

In spite of the many modern photographers that don’t bother with anything more than just accepting what comes out of their camera, black and white photography is far from being left behind in the past, and, in my opinion, with the current processing software, updates in high quality printers, and the latest in printing papers, black and white image-making will continue to be an option for a host of serious creative photographers.

Those photographers that are good at black and white photography learn to exploit the differences in tonal elements in a scene and present viewers with successful B&W portrayals that make excellent use of shapes, textures, light and shadow, and the loss of those original colours becomes irrelevant.

For those that haven’t tried monochromatic (another word applied to B&W) image making, I will mention that it is easier than ever. Most digital cameras have a black and white mode available in the menu. I don’t really like using that, as it does nothing more than de-saturate an images colour data file, excluding control of the different tonal values that make up a black and white image. I suggest trying one of the many great programs available on the Internet that can be downloaded to test for free. Who knows, you might, like I do, really like black and white photography.

Readers by now must know how much I like quotes from famous photographers. So I’ll finish this up with some words from a turn of the century fashion and commercial photographer, Paul Outerbridge: “One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.”

I welcome any comments. Thanks, John

My website is at

On the Subject of Film

When the subject of film comes up my first impulse is to flippantly say something like, “Oh, film was nice, but no serious photographer would use film.”  Well, that’s not right. And should any of us be putting a definition on what a “serious photographer” is?

In my opinion, film, and those photographers that use it have positioned themselves in a new place among image-makers. These days most photojournalists and commercial photographers employ digital technology, but I think those that are interested in pushing this medium into a creative place are increasingly becoming aware of the unique characteristics of film.

A film purist can easily set up a home lab with an enlarger and complete chemical process, but there are also those that have embraced both digital and film and the results of the technological cross breeding can be exciting. Film has, in my opinion, a tactile quality that is different than digital capture.

Let’s not get into the boring discussion of film vs digital. That’s become wearisome. Film is different than digital. I think it depends on how one wants to show a subject to viewers. And as I wrote, I think the technological cross breeding of film and digital is exciting and rewarding.

The dialogue now may be about computers, monitors, and software. With film we wanted the best enlargers, and enlarger light sources. What lens was mounted on the enlarger was as important as the lens on our cameras. I had a cabinet filled with many different kinds of enlarging papers from around the world, and another stacked with a wide assortment of developing chemicals for both film processing and printing. All this is still available if one is willing to take the time searching out suppliers.

Serious digital photographers are faced with expensive computers and Photoshop’s steep learning curve. Those serious practitioners of film photography will still be dealing with lots of learning. However, quality film cameras, and quality film processing equipment is cheap and the required processing and printing equipment can easily be found languishing at garage sales. I think one needs to search out the best film equipment in the same way as the best digital hardware.

I don’t use, or even think about, film much, but in the last two weeks I have had several conversations with different young photographers that are making images with film cameras and starting to accumulate the equipment to process film and print pictures.  I will admit I enjoy talking about all that. I liked film cameras and same as with today’s photographers, I thought about and researched those cameras in my quest for what would fit my needs the best.

On the subject of using film photography and digital photography, this week has also found me reproducing a client’s very old photographs. (some easily over 100 years old) I photographed each image, loaded them into my computer, then using PhotoShop corrected the fading and discoloration, added contrast, retouched cracks, and finally sharpened and saved them on a CD.  Most photographs were over 40 years old will start to fade soon, if they haven’t already. And those boxes of family history may be lost as people move them to damp basements or garages when additional space is needed.

Making a quality digital image from the negatives or slides of those wonderful old family photographs and saving it on a space saving CD is ideal.  As I mentioned these two mediums work just fine together and a matching print can be made it the future.

I welcome the chance to exchange thoughts with those photographers who are using film in this day of digital technology. Many see it as a “retro” kind of thing, but maybe it’s not that at all. Including film in the creative and artistic process of photography is just one more factor in the continuing evolution of this exciting medium.

My website is at