Is Black and White film photography hard?

Discussion in 'Photographic Aesthetics and Composition' started by jernejk, May 1, 2017.

  1. jernejk

    jernejk Member

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    Looking at the photos I've recently shot on a family trip, most of them straight up suck. Actually there's only one I like, and to rub salt into wund, it was shot by my wife who's no photographer at all!

    Colors are very important for our perception, they attract us to details. They provide contrast even when the levels of luminosity are the same. In essence, they provide 3 independent dimensions/vectors compared to BW single one. On top of that, most man made objects exploit that fact, that's why objects/cityscape will be attractive in color, but when shot with panchromatic BW film, they will turn into mushy blob of greys with no interesting points. Similar goes for landscape, the contrast between green/blue is well perceived in color, but is lost in BW.

    In my experience, digital BW is more forgiving: "filters" can be in some degree applied in post processing, while RGB information is still there. Shooting BW film, you need to make it right right there and then, as you can only work with the information you stored on the film in the time of shooting. For portraits, I don't know why, but to me it seems like digital BW just works better "out of the box". Maybe I just suck and need to make and develop many many more portrait shots to learn.

    Anyway, some general mistakes I noticed in my photos:

    Lack of contrast / central point. Black and white cityscape with no filter results in mostly white/grey blob in place of sky, and the building are just shades of grey put on that white background. It makes no impression, no "wow" effect.
    Possible improvements:
    - use red filter to darken the blue sky and bring in some drama, however, that would not work with overcast sky.
    - night shots could create more drama, but would also lose most interesting details in the buildings

    Perspective. Shooting buildings from below without a TS lens/folding camera just doesn't work.
    Possible improvements:focus on interesting details, or really make extra effort to find a point of view which works.

    Portraits. I always seem to have problems with BW portraits. Either too much or too little contrast, skin tones seem off, and adding contrast to the photo only makes them worse. No clue what the improvements could be here.

    General notes: bring another body with color slide film, probably it's easier to shoot at least average color photos compared to BW.
     
  2. ozphoto

    ozphoto Subscriber

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    Tones, textures, perspectives (leading lines, rule of thirds etc) and as you've discovered, filters, are a big part of shooting B&W.

    I love shooting B&W over colour, but some colour images can be just as dull - using contrasting colours (eg: yellow on blue), leading lines and most important lighting is just important.

    Side light, rear 3/4, front 3/4 - all these things make for a great image and it takes practice to get it "right". Have a look at the shot your wife made and see why it works, make some notes and spend a day just shooting B&W to get a feel for its difference.

    Check out B&W photographs online or at a gallery to see what makes them "wow". I usually try to forget "colour" when shooting B&W, for me it's all about contrast, texture, light etc.

    It takes a while to shift from viewing scenes from colour as B&W, but once you get the hang of it, you'll find that it becomes a natural process and begin to shoot accordingly. It takes practice and yes, trail & error, but the rewards are IMHO well worth it. :smile:
     
  3. Leigh B

    Leigh B Member

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    For 30+ years I shot color slides and b&w prints, the latter for publication (newspaper/magazine/etc).
    I was pleased with all the results, but the b&w was strictly "business".

    In the 1980s I came to understand the artistic possibilities of b&w.
    I was teaching photography. One of the other instructors extolled the artistic aspects of b&w.
    He pointed out that when we view a b&w print, we're instantly transported to a different world.
    We know we're in an interpretive environment, divorced from reality.

    I've shot only b&w for the last 30 years. I really enjoy it as a creative tool.

    - Leigh
     
  4. Nodda Duma

    Nodda Duma Subscriber

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    B&W is different. Leigh's comment is spot-on.

    The biggest improvement I saw in my photos was when I picked up a book on basic composition. This was after having shot B&W for a few years, so I had already figured out how to use contrast to my advantage. I then spent the next year shooting with a 50mm lens so that framing a shot well became second nature. Not to say that I compose "by the book", but I'm aware now of what helps make a good photograph.

    You could do the same or, if you learn better in a workshop-type environment, take a class at a local art studio. Good composition is generally universal..Such a class or book doesn't need to be geared specifically towards B&W film.
     
  5. Ko.Fe.

    Ko.Fe. Member

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    BW photography is most fun, most forgiving type of photography I know. Portraits? Just make sure the face is under nice light. This is it. Sunny 16 rules. Street film photography is very liberating. If you like freedom. Bellows and T&S are shackles of creativity, IMO. Even 6x9 Brownie will give much more alive BW.

    [​IMG]
     
  6. Cholentpot

    Cholentpot Member

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    I shoot both color and b&w. I've not had issue jumping back and forth. Maybe it's my horrible eye sight but a nice shot is a nice shot either in color or b&w. I've found b&w to be easier due to the increased latitude over color and the options I can take during development.
     
  7. hashtagquack

    hashtagquack Member

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    I find that with black and white I would tend to be a lot more focused on the composition and quality of the light and less distracted by colors. Being able to learn as a black and white photographer, you can then apply your learnings to color photography making use of the extra color variable now in play.



    Lack of contrast / central point. The negs in your previous thread show decent contrast. Much detail in many of the best prints have been eeked out with liberal dodging/burning and other dark(room) arts.

    Perspective. If not happy with the building falling over look, just step back and use a longer lens. It wont make the lines perfect but certainly less dramatic that being 2 metres in front of the building.

    Portraits. This is about the quality of lighting used but also an awareness that skin tones will usually reflect closer to 1 and half stops more light than middle grey. So if metering purely for skin tone (without concern for the rest of the scene), you can meter the face and open up the lens by 1 and a half stops.
     
  8. Thomas Bertilsson

    Thomas Bertilsson Member

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    I would say that in general photography is hard, so whatever type of tool a photographer uses, a lot of practice is required to get good results.
    It also doesn't hurt to study the topics of visual and performance art to draw inspiration from how they use light, movement, shadow, composition, and the like.

    Keep the materials simple and consistent so not to clutter your mind with technicalities like film development and so on. Those things are best kept constant when learning to see in a new medium.

    Many mention that the quality of light is important, and I could not agree more. Use the quality of light to your advantage by learning how to benefit from different types of light. It's really hard to make flattering portraits on a bright sunlit day with the sun at zenith, but there are ways to get around that.
    Also, move close to your subjects. Very close. This can sometimes be impractical, but I think you'll find that the quality of particularly portraits will go way up.
     
  9. pentaxuser

    pentaxuser Subscriber

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    It might help us help you if you could show us the photos that suck. Then we can give advice as to what you might do differently next time.

    You seem to have made out a pretty comprehensive argument for yourself against the use of B&W. You may need to ask yourself how entrenched your views are. If deep down you have really made your mind up, then pursuing B&W might only lead to disappointment. It is not everyone's medium.

    pentaxuser
     
  10. Luckless

    Luckless Member

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    I wouldn't describe it as 'hard' in and of itself, but rather it has its own little quirks and elements to consider.

    The rather tricky bit about it that I've been finding weird to deal with has been the whole issue of such a narrow palette of colours to work with in a final image, but juggling a full spectrum of visible (and sometimes invisible) colours at the source. Getting from one to the other is a fun exercise in both art and science.

    Carefully going over black and white images that I do like has been a real help in improving my own photography. Breaking an image down and effectively talking to myself about why I like it makes it easier to visualize and process those ideas when I'm out photographing. Looking at the world and deciding what will be in the frame, and where the tones will fall is a skill that takes time to build up, but taking the photo is only part of a much greater system. Printing opens a wonderful can of worms, because an image is easily made or ruined based on handling in the post processing.
    - How much contrast? How much shadow is dropped into hard black? How much detail is kept in the highlight? Is any part of the final print to be handled different than another? etc.

    Personally I found I greatly improved with my photography in general, not just black and white -film or otherwise, when I started treating the action of pressing the shutter as one small step in a very long process. Getting into a mindset of studying and understanding your subject matter and medium is very important, and it goes hand in hand with developing a personal style and approach to how you make an overall final product.


    On a totally different note.
    One point that is far too frequently left out of a discussion focused on a creative medium: Maybe it just isn't your thing?
    - If you are looking to create artistic works, then never forget that there is nothing actually forcing you to use a specific medium for your creations. Never fear asking yourself "Is this actually for me? Is this helping me create things that I like?"

    That of course isn't to say that you should give up and walk away at the first sign of trouble, but just that you shouldn't forget to include it in an internal discussion on your artistic vision and how you can improve. It is entirely possible that the way you improve your black and white photography is to stop doing it and follow a field that fits your style better and makes you feel like you're gaining more traction and making progress with. Nothing says you can't come back at some point in the future with new ideas and a fresh perspective on it to give black and white film another go.

    Or maybe a radical change in subject matter is in order?
     
  11. ic-racer

    ic-racer Member

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    B&W film photography is hard, but it is easier than digital because you don't need a lot of electronic equipment.
     
  12. tedr1

    tedr1 Member

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    How are the B&W prints being made? Are you making them yourself? Camera exposure is the first part, making the print the second, and there are a lot of creative choices available when making a print yourself, size, aspect ratio, cropping, contrast, manipulation, these are great creative choices.

    Soak in some of the work of other photographers, go to galleries, buy books, find a group.
     
  13. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

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    A lot of good advice above!

    Since nobody directly addressed your first paragraph, please allow me. I understand; it happens to me too. Some people are born with a good eye and some need to work at it harder. My wife consistently shoots better images with her phone than do I with. As she says, my fancy pants cameras.

    I think it's because she's more relaxed and much less critical of technical flaws. Try all of the above and also try to relax more. And when you figured out how to relax more, please teach me!
     
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  15. markbarendt

    markbarendt Subscriber

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    One of the biggest problems I see with photographers is that they get too interested in how they take a photo. People like your wife typically only care about content of the photo.
     
  16. Ko.Fe.

    Ko.Fe. Member

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    First paragraph is kind of "tongue in cheek". Because one who could take photo which doesn't sucks is a photographer. :smile:
     
  17. alanrockwood

    alanrockwood Member

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    No one would mistake me for an expert, but yes, black and white is harder, at least for me, for many or the reasons you noted. Of course, color is hard too. I figure if I get two or three good shots on a roll of film I am doing well.

    Interestingly, I once saw some color photos by Ansel Adams. Maybe it's just me, but they just didn't have the same "pop" as his black and white photos, and I liked the black and white photos better, so maybe it depends somewhat on the photographer.
     
  18. jvo

    jvo Subscriber

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    every b+w photographer came to the same point you have at some point in time. it's a natural evolution/awareness. i have to say tho' you have arrived there with a lot more knowledge to move to the next step - and other folks have provided the rest you need.

    just remember it all about the light... and enjoy!
     
  19. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    hi jernejk

    good advice you have been given so far !
    i only have a few things to add .

    go to the library or book store and browse read take out, look at other things
    like painting or drawing or rent movies and look at the composition. in wim wender's
    classic wings of desire ... miyazaki films like my neighbor totoro or spirited away.
    every single frame of the film is like an impressionist painting.

    regarding is it hard or not so hard .. i think it really depends.
    there are people ( the internet is FULL of them ) who love to do complicated things
    they test and calibrate exposures. they have special development times
    and dilutions and methods for getting negatives and then they have exotic pin registered
    contrast and sharpening and unsharpening masks and they truly make remarkable images.
    others .. box camera and from the hip. 1 developer + 1 time for everything
    the trick is to practice and pay attention to what worked or didn't work

    good luck!
    john

    ps setting the bar low helps too.
     
  20. OP
    OP
    jernejk

    jernejk Member

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    Attached are two images which are not something I'd really hang in my living room.


    No, I do have images which I like, but most of them were created in more controlled environment, e.g. "studio". But most of my cityscape in BW just doesn't work. I do have some examples which I find interesting, but now that I think of it, they are not "documentary", but rather have a surprise element, e.g. reflections, nightshots etc.

    Well, that is an interesting thought, almost a challenge - in a positive way.
    You see, I work with computers. And I really, really don't want to spend MORE time in front of a computer! I like everything about the traditional BW process (almost everything... is it just me or did the paper prices jumped through the roof!??)

    That being said, I have a handful of family photos done with traditional BW which work. Most don't. Slides work way better, but honestly, digital works the best. Maybe that is something to reconsider!
     

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  21. BrianShaw

    BrianShaw Member

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    Isn't it. :laugh:

    My wife denies being a good photographer, which often results in an argument. Bizarre but true.
     
  22. hashtagquack

    hashtagquack Member

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    For the first image, the strength I feel would have been in making the image symmetrical. Adjusting your position by standing dead centre could have helped with this. For the second, there is plenty of detail in the sky that could be burned in to give more texture. IMHO of course:angel:
     
  23. Luckless

    Luckless Member

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    One of the worst things one can do for the enjoyment of a hobby is to try and force it in conditions where it doesn't really work for them.
    Film is a wonderful medium to work in, but it doesn't mean we have to try and apply it to all photography work we do. Film is just another tool in the set of tools available for imaging purposes, and trying to shoehorn it into being the only tool you use might not be the best option.

    Maybe adopting black and white film as a special tool for specific events or tasks may help open it up for you to get better results? Keep the digital around for the kind of things you find it works best for in your style of shooting, and then bring the old film camera out for those special event times where you expect to have the subject and lighting that works for you.

    Something that helped me was to make plans to experiment with it and use my film camera for specific test cases on a "Lets see if this works" basis, rather than a "I'm going out to take nice photos" basis. I personally found it far more freeing and flexible when I stopped leaving the house with the goal/hope of making good photos. I worried far less about my photography that way, and I found I was able to learn more in less time even if it meant that I often came home without a single photo I was happy with on a roll of film.
     
  24. pentaxuser

    pentaxuser Subscriber

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    I'll risk acting "thick" here. I am still not sure if its the content that sucks or if its the actual production of the print that sucks in your opinion i.e. you think the scene is OK but you want more detail in the sky etc.

    I don't find the building scene particularly eye-catching but that's just me. I don't think it would be any better in colour. The canal scene is fine but there could be more detail in the sky and that's achievable with burning. This might be a record of a scene that means something to you. If it does and it includes everything that sums up the scene and memory for you then you have achieved your objective.

    If it lacks the vibrancy of colour for you then we are back to the question of whether B&W will ever really get you what you want. If something is "missing" for you then unless it something that can be fixed in the darkroom I am unsure what advice anyone can give who wasn't at that scene at the same time. Even if they were there, what they might include/exclude may not be what you want.

    We can and will all give you advice because that is "good fun" and our thoughts may help us to decide what we'd do if we are ever there such as wait for a boat to approach us and persuade the crew to wave jovially because this scene needs to convey movement and carefree travel on water but whether this kind of thinking on the spot on my or anyone else's part will help you is debatable to say the least.

    Best of luck in your quest

    pentaxuser
     
  25. Sirius Glass

    Sirius Glass Subscriber

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    Lack of contrast / central point. Yellow or orange filters are not as extreme as the red filter and the sky will not be black. No filter improves heavily overcast skies. Sunny bright days and late afternoon shadows increase contrast for cityscapes.
     
  26. Gerald C Koch

    Gerald C Koch Member

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    A few random thoughts. First, the difference between a color photograph and a B&W one is that color is the subject in the first case. You may have noticed that fashion photographers have moved away from color. Why, because it detracts from the model and what is being sold. What marketing wants the public to see is the coat, or the car, etc and not a particular shade of blue.

    Second, B&W photography is not particularly difficult at least technically. But as Ansel Adams pointed out you do need to be completely familiar with your materials. Now I am not recommending the endless testing that some people love to perform. However you do need to be familiar with how a particular film responds in a certain lighting situation.

    As to whether B&W photography is artistically difficult then most emphatically yes. Some people have the 'eye' but most do not. It's not something that can be taught. To use a musical example Mozart was writing very creditable symphonies at the age of three. You can't teach someone to be a genius. I do reserve the right to distinguish between artist and artisan. In the first paragraph above the fashion photographer is an artisan not an artist.
     
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