I Learned About Photography by Shooting with Black and White Film

bicycle & stairs

iron rails


Red Crown Gas

white pillars

floral entrance

Brick doorway

Last week I wrote about black and white photography. From the comments I received I realized there are many other photographers out there very interested in enjoying the process of making black and white images.

While driving my noisy, old diesel truck (with my car waiting a replacement engine) I got to thinking about what it was like when I used black and white film. The drive was along a winding, valley road that we are so familiar with in British Columbia,  And although I attempted to listen to the radio, the static caused by the power lines running along the roads edge, the loud diesel engine and, of course, the worn out radio, left me to my own thoughts, and soon I was contemplating about film and shooting with black and white film.

Formerly, once the shutter was released on a camera loaded with film what one got was, well, what one got was what one got. There were no second chances as enjoyed today. One was left with only a memory of that moment in time until the film was processed and printed.

A friend remarked that photographers had to be better in those film days than they are today. I think that’s a nice, egotistical thought to comfort aging picture takers, but I don’t think its true. And in my not so humble opinion, I am going to say that modern photography is just different, evolving and different. Even in the days when film ruled there was a difference between those that filled their cameras with colour film and those, like me, that preferred black and white film.

I began using black and white film because that’s what my first college class recommended, then after a time I began to understand the medium and grew to like B&W.

We used a term called “previsualization”. Previsualization is attributed to Minor White.

While studying the subject a photographer predetermines how the final image would be processed and printed. Ansel Adam referred to that process as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”.

There was also the Zone System. American photographers Fred Archer and Ansel Adams collaborated on the technique for determining optimal film exposure and development that provided photographers with a method to precisely define the relationship between the way they visualized the photographic subject and the final results.

Those techniques were, at least in the way I applied them, to formulate or determine how I wanted the final print to look. Colour film had creative limitations and had to be printed in an almost lightless room, whereas my personal lab for printing B&W was quite bright because photographic paper is only sensitive to white light, not yellow, orange, or red. And that allowed me to fill the room with light and see the image and control how it would look.

With B&W film I learned to previsualize, and as I selected my subject I would think about how I would process the film and make the final print. I could alter the exposure rating, as with the Zone system, depending on which chemicals I planned on using and how long I would keep the film in the developer. I would select different papers and alternate chemicals to change contrast or tonal values in the final print.

Shooting with black and white film and managing the process of developing and printing the picture taught me that the camera and film (now the sensor) are just the starting point to making a photograph match my personal vision, and my personal vision is much more important than the camera’s.

Shooting black and white taught me to watch for tonal shifts from black, to mid grey, and finally, to white with detail. Studying how it would look became an intellectual process rather than an emotional one.

B&W photography is a matter for the eye of the beholder, the intuition, and finally the intellect. Of course colour is all that, but much of the time it seems photographers, overwhelmed by colour, just push the shutter seeing nothing deeper in a scene than the colours.

Black and white images, because they don’t attract with a play of colours, seem subtle and make me think about the tonal range and demand my close attention to composition, lighting, perspective, and the context the image is shot in as important factors.

I learned about photography by shooting with black and white film. I don’t use film anymore, and the photographic examples I have included are digital. When I am thinking in black and white, I slow down and that stretches me to creatively see, and show, the world differently.

I really appreciate any and all comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Some Thoughts on Portrait Photography

Model 2portrait by Enmanm

Photographers have been making portraits since the first camera was invented. In spite of the popularity of landscape, wildlife, and sports photography, I believe that most of the pictures that have been made, and still being made, are portraits of people.

Peter Bunnell in Creative Camera International Year Book 1977 wrote,  “There is no single form or style of portraiture. Portraiture means individualism and as such means diversity, self-expression, private point of view. The most successful images seem to be those which exist on several planes at once and which reflect the fantasy and understanding of many.”

I like that because I recall being bothered by my college photography instructor’s contention that we should always follow what he referred to as rules for portraiture. Guide lines possibly, but rules? When I examined the great portrait photographers like Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Bert Stern, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold, and Annie Leibovitz, to name a few, in my opinion they are anything but rule followers.

One might be able to recognize the photographic work of Penn, Avedon, or Leibovitz and casually use the words “that’s their style”. However, what marks their work, as Brunnell says, is “individualism .…..self-expression, (and a) private point of view.”  That is a lot to aspire to for mortal photographers as we struggle to make our portraits something more than mere documentaries.

When I approach portraiture I try to create portraits that are, well, creative. Sometimes everything works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I want something different in each.

Of course, one must be aware of how a person sees themselves and the circumstances and conditions under which the portrait is made, and I always (using a word coined by Minor White) previsualize the final portrait.  In Ansel Adam’s writings on photography he defined previsualization as, “The ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.”

I know that for a successful portrait the person I am photographing needs to be the main point of interest. I am aware that a way to capture the attention of the viewer one could fill the frame with the subject’s face so there’s really nowhere else to look.

Sometimes it’s the expression on a subject’s face that makes the image. And to get that expression the photographer and subject may need to experiment with different moods and emotions.  Portraitists spend much time putting people at ease and making them comfortable in front of a camera. I think it’s all about gaining a person’s trust that we are going to help them look the best they can.

Some photographers get stuck in a rut by only shooting either horizontally, or vertically, or always from the same angle. To them I suggest mixing up framing in each portrait session so there will be a variety of images.

The internet is packed with “How to” advice on portraiture photography. Some of it is worth thinking about and some is bewildering. Those serious about bettering his or her portrait photography will select what works best and is the most comfortable.

Everything comes down to one’s personal definition of what a portrait is. According to Wikipedia, “it is a picture of a person, a description. It can be a photograph, a sketch, a sculpture, but a portrait is so much more than that. It is collaboration between the subject and in this case the photographer.”  Collaboration is the key word for me in that description, and in my experience those portraits I have made that I think are the most successful, is because the person who was in front of the camera was willing to work, or collaborate, with me towards the final image.

Following up on last week’s column there has been lots of discussion by the photographers that attended the strobist meetup. What lens worked, thoughts and suggestions on the lighting, and on posing models. We have been looking at each other’s pictures from that day, and a good critique among friends on what worked and what didn’t is always welcome and fun.

As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com