When I was first studying photography in the ’80s, I only shot B&W film. There were so many benefits that I didn’t realize at the time. One was that it was cost effective. I only had to pay for the rolls of film and I processed everything by hand.
[All the above images were shot on Kodak's Tmax 100 B&W print film, high contrast copy film 5069 or Polapan instant B&W slide film]
Another long term benefit was that the process was a real process. I learned a lot about photography quickly and it had such a strong impact on my photographic style that it still affects it today. I had to take every step carefully and purposefully to be rewarded with a good range of tones in my negatives. If I screwed up the exposure or the development time, my image quality suffered. It was very exciting when everything turned out just right.
I also had to handle the wet negatives carefully so they would not get scratched or full of dust. I had a special dust proof hanging bag in my apartment where I could be sure the rolls of film would be left undisturbed until they were ready to be cut down and sleeved.
When I photograph in B&W I see my images in B&W. When I frame something in the camera I am only looking at the range of tones, specific design elements and the composition. If the scene is flat as in an overcast day, I know I want to underexpose and over develop my entire roll of film to boost the contrast a bit in all the frames. Many of these types of technical details are taken into consideration before the image is even made.
I also decide which film to use depending on the amount of grain I want in my photographs to help with exposure times and tell the story better. Most of the time I use Tmax 100 or Tri-X 125 but sometimes I love using Tmax 3200.
However, even though I can make adjustments before I make my image in the camera, I know that the vision of that scene I have in my mind can be enhanced in post production as well. Ansel Adams made most of his iconic images this way. He knew how he wanted the final image to look in print and would make even more adjustments in the darkroom by dodging and burning specific areas of the image. But he could not do this effectively unless he created the perfect negative first.
Since the inception of digital photography one can now literally shoot one frame in color and the next in B&W, adjust color temperature or contrast range from frame to frame and never worry about scratches or dust! It still blows my mind when I think about it and even though I love digital photography and the challenge of making a magnificent image is still the same, my heart longs for the substance of film.
However, when I am considering image processing for my current clients whom I shoot all digital for (it’s more cost effective for business), I always think through my conversions to B&W.
—I don’t convert all the color proofs from a session and show both color and B&W for images. Each image is specifically selected to be converted to B&W for a reason. You are the photographer and you should make the choice.
—I do convert an image to B&W if the colors are distracting to the eye or are insignificant to the final message.
—I don’t convert an image to B&W if the colors in the photograph are symbolic, powerful or are an important part of the story.
—I do convert an image to B&W if the design elements and the subject stand out better making the image stronger in B&W.
—I do convert an image to B&W if the session I did speaks to nostalgia or is photo-journalistic in nature.
—I use careful consideration in using the new “B&W film” type presets that are so popular now. They are fun to play with but I carefully select them for only certain clients and projects.
The following images were converted to B&W for similar reasons. I feel they are both much stronger as B&W images. The original colors tend to distract the eye, disrupt the mood and distract from the composition. In both images, I felt the color was not important and did not contribute to the story I wanted to convey.
The important elements (the heart being carved in the dirt and beam of light on the ground and the pool of water with boy and his shadow) are emphasized in the B&W versions of each. The elements that pop out to the viewer are white. White jumps out to the viewer while black falls away so the contrast makes the image more readable. This is how our eyes and mind read photographs.
There is so much more to consider when converting your images to B&W. I will be discussing this with other important style, story telling and visioning thoughts in my LOUPE Photography Workshop this May. Join me and other photographers interested in realizing their vision to find out more.