black and white photography

Sooner or later, anyone who is serious about making good pictures is likely to start wondering about black and white. This is true whether they started their photographic careers with silver halide or digital photography, and this is a module for them.

Graffiti, Loches

 

As Geoffrey Crawley so perceptively pointed out, one of the great things about black and white is the possibility of making a picture where none would exist in colour. This picture by Frances, shot on Ilford XP2 with a Voigtlander Bessa-T and 50/1.5 Nokton (with yellow filter) is a good example. Imagine it in colour...

At the digital extreme, you simply shoot digitally and convert to monochrome. At the silver halide extreme, you can set up a full darkroom, or shoot black and white and have it both developed and printed commercially. In between, you can shoot silver halide; either have it processed commercially, or process it yourself; then scan and print.

In fact, there are still further subdivisions and permutations. Some digital cameras are very much better than others at capturing monochrome. Or, even if you decide to print your own negatives the traditional way, you may choose to have your negatives processed commercially. Then there are black and white slides, though these are so specialist we don't cover them here.

The underlying truth, though, is this. Black and white photography is surprisingly simple, and very forgiving: enormous latitude is built into the system, especially at the taking stage when it comes to over-exposure. At first, therefore, the only thing you need to think about (except with digital imaging) is making sure that the negative gets plenty of exposure. This is because most meters and metering techniques are biased towards digital imaging or transparencies, where the main concern is not to 'blow' the highlights to a featureless white; they also work adequately with colour negative, again because of latitude. But many of the best black and white pictures rely on deep, rich shadow detail, which in turn relies on plenty of exposure. You simply will not get this with many meters and metering techniques.

If you use a camera with a through-lens meter, seriously consider setting a film speed that is significantly lower than the ISO speed: for ISO 400, for example, ISO 320, 250 (probably optimum) or even 200, the last if you habitually rely much on auto-exposure. If you can't set film speeds manually, apply a correction factor instead: +1/3, +2/3 (probably optimum) or +1; again, the last for auto-exposure. Later, when you are more used to black and white, and perhaps have read the module on negative exposure, you may choose to modify this; but don't worry about such details to begin with.

 

Painter, HonfleurBlack and white is the classic medium for reportage and Frances used an elderly Rollei 35 compact to take this picture on Ilford XP2. Yes, you could probably get similar quality out of a digital SLR costing five or ten times as much -- or from a Japanese compact of the 1970s costing a quarter as much. In digital terms, each time you put a film into an old camera, you are upgrading it with a new, state-of-the-art sensor.

digital shooting

We find this easily the least satisfactory approach. For us, it's the difference between sliced white bread and a crusty loaf: a poor substitute for the real thing. The tonality is never the same as with silver halide, and tonality is what black and white photography is all about. Nor have you anything like the choice of different 'looks' that you have with film. And, to cap it all, a digital camera needs at least 12 or 14 megapixels in order to begin to equal the sort of quality you can get from a second-hand film camera and a roll of film. This is why we mention the all-digital route only in passing. If you are going to try this approach, though, look at the sections below about scanning negatives and about printers: your choice of printer is very important indeed.

Canon Racer

Black and white is ideal for a timeless look: after all, 'vintage' doesn't just mean 'Victorian sepia'. Today, this racer has a distinctly vintage look, even though it was new when Roger shot it in the 1980s using an M-series Leica and 21/4.5 Zeiss Biogon.

film cameras and lenses

As long as you can still get film for it, and as long as the camera is still working, you can use just about any camera ever built. Our oldest camera is a 12x15 inch Gandolfi that is probably close to 100 years old. Even though we had to order the film specially (from Bergger) it is perfectly feasible to use it.

Most people will use either 35mm or 120-size roll-film. The latter is also known as No. 20 and as B2 -- a size that was introduced at the dawn of the 20th century and is still in production today. A few may decide to go for cut film, like our old Gandolfi, though probably in a smaller format. We would strongly recommend that you start with 35mm, unless you plan on going the whole hog and setting up a darkroom. Getting anything other than 35mm processed and printed is just too much like hard work.

Because you have some 80 years' worth of 35mm cameras to play with -- the first camera that will still accept modern, standardized cassettes was the Leica, introduced in 1925 -- you can choose any style you like, from ancient to modern, simple to complex. There are plenty of autofocus, auto-exposure 35mm cameras still on the market, both reflex and non-reflex, and there are still a few with no automation whatsoever, from the bargain-basement Phoenix SLRs made in China to the magisterial Leica MP.

If you want automation, by all means go for it, but equally, you might decide that you want the full 'retro' experience of a manual-everything camera without even a meter. You can use a separate hand-held meter; or a shoe-mount meter; or just guess the exposure, initially with the help of a 'crib sheet'. These used to appear on the leaflet that came with films, then later on the inside of film boxes, but mostly they don't any more, so here's one for ISO 400 film. It's rough-and-ready, and you will soon start to modify it in the light of experience, but it's a good enough start.

Outdoors, daytime, at 1/250 second

Indoors at 1/30 second

Kodak Retina IIa, c. 1954

We paid 15 euros for this in Luxembourg in 2003. With its f/2 Rodenstock Heligon lens and 1 second to 1/500 shutter it's still a very usable camera today.

Bright sun

f/11

Well lit room

f/4

Cloudy bright (clear shadows)

f/8

Normal office lighting

f/2.8

Overcast

f/5.6

Domestic lighting

f/2

Dull

f/4

Poor lighting

f/1.4

commercial processing i: film

There are no fewer than four possibilities here: amateur labs, general pro labs, specialist labs and C-41 chromogenic films. The last is, in our opinion, easily the best bet but it is worth looking at the others first. Also, as with digital, it is possible to shoot colour and convert to mono, so we shall look at that after C41 chromogenics.

amateur labs

Ever fewer amateur-oriented labs offer conventional (non-chromogenic) black and white processing, but this is no great loss. Of necessity, they adopt a 'one size fits all' regime when it comes to developer choice and development time. This means that slow films such as Ilford Pan F Plus are likely to be over-developed and contrasty, while fast films such as Ilford HP5 Plus are likely to be under-developed, flat and thin. Also, because they normally use 'seasoned' developers -- developers that are replenished to keep up their activity (see the Glossary) -- the effective ISO speed is depressed, sometimes by as much as a stop.

If you go for this option, your best bet is probably something like Ilford FP4 Plus or Kodak Plus-X Pan, because they can stand terrible abuse at the development stage. Rate them at around 2/3 stops lower than their nominal ISO 125, i.e. 80. If you can set speeds manually, do so, or dial in '+2/3' on the exposure compensation dial. This is in addition to the metering advice above, so the speed to set could be as low as 64 or even 50. The worst choices are 'high tech' films like Ilford Delta 100 and Kodak T-Max 100 (TMX), which respond very badly to inappropriate developers and development regimes.

pro labs

Non-specialist pro labs are a bit better, but once again, fewer and fewer offer conventional (non-chromogenic) black and white processing. They have two big advantages over amateur labs. The first is that you can talk to them and ask them what film and film speed they recommend: you will do better to follow their recommendations in this than to try to use some other film. If they are evasive or don't appear to know the answer, don't use them. The other big advantage is that they are likely to take more care of your negatives: they will be cleaner (less dust, fewer fingerprints) and they may well be washed better. They may however suffer from the other disadvantages of amateur labs, the ones consequent upon 'seasoned' developers and limited developer or processing time options.

Cognac

Of course, black and white won't give you the wildly disparate colours that you get with artificial lights: yellow tungsten, green fluorescents, blue mercury-vapour... This means that it is much easier to unify a composition. Also, black and white films can be a lot faster than colour, though Roger didn't take advantage of this when he shot this from a hotel window with a Voigtlander Bessa-R2 and (as far as he recalls) 35/2,5 Colour-Skopar. He was about to wind off the roll of Acupan 200 that was in the camera and replace it with Ilford Delta 3200, but it made as much sense to shoot the remaining frames (at about 1/15 wide open) as it did to waste them.

specialist labs

Specialist labs are easily the best bet for conventional black and white processing as they will usually allow a (limited) choice of developers and they will usually develop your film for either the time they think best or the time you request. Fairly obviously this means that they are usually also the most expensive, though prices do vary very widely. At one extreme there are the top specialist pro labs in London and elsewhere; at the other, there are 'shamateur' labs, run as a sideline or in retirement by dedicated hobbyists, which can offer very high quality at surprisingly low prices. Incidentally, the rather odd term 'shamateur' derives from the 19th century sporting world and originally referred to 'amateur' sportsmen who were secretly paid to play; as far as we can tell, it was adopted in photography to describe amateurs who entered (and sometimes won) competitions with pictures which they had taken but which were printed by other people.

You may also be able to find someone at a local camera club who will process your films for you, for a fee, and if you already know that they produce top-quality work, this can be a good route.

chromogenic films

As their name suggests, these use the same technology as colour films -- hence 'chromogenic' -- and they are processed in the same standardized Kodak C-41 or C-41 compatible chemicals as colour films. They can therefore be processed by any mini-lab or pro lab that does colour film -- or of course at home. The C-41 process consists of a developer, which simultaneously develops the silver image and a dye image; a bleach-fix, which dissolves out the silver image and all the remaining silver halide; and an optional stabilizer, which mops up the remaining dye couplers. All current chromogenics are ISO 400 and very fine-grained for their speed.

There are two schools of thought on chromogenic film design, Kodak's and Ilford's. Kodak films have the same overall orange tint as colour films, and give remarkably neutral prints on colour paper. Ilford films look much more like conventional black and white, and are generally agreed to print much better on conventional black and white paper. Both scan about equally well, but we much prefer the tonality of the Ilford films: the Kodak ones, we find, tend to have runaway highlights. The Ilford films are sharper, but grainier: the Kodak films are are finer grained, but less sharp. Yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice, but Ilford win hands down for us. Ilford themselves described their XP series (currently XP2 Super) as 'black and white films with colour technology added, while Kodak's films are colour films with the colour taken out'. There is also a Konica chromogenic but the few rolls we have tried have been unsharp and tonally unpleasant.

Any good mini-lab -- that is, one that does not cover your films with crud, dust, hair and fingerprints -- can process C-41 satisfactorily but it is only fair to say that many mini-labs do not give a full water wash, but only 'stabilize' the films. We have mini-lab processed XP-1 from 20 years ago, and it is still printable, but there has been some fading and some of the films have gone very funny colours. We would therefore recommend that you find a pro lab (or a mini-lab, if possible) that does give a proper water wash, or alternatively that you ask mini-labs to return your films uncut and loosely rolled in a paper bag, after which you can re-wash them yourself. This is not difficult and there is (or will be) a short free module on archival washing and film drying.

 

Door, Loches

Tonally, this is one of Roger's favourite pictures of all time. He shot it on Ilford XP2 Super using a Voigtlander Bessa R and 90/3.5 Voigtlander Apo-Lanthar. The film was commercially processed at a one-hour minilab (in Loches, as it happens) and then printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone paper. In all but the deepest shadows there is still a hint of texture, and the tonality of the rest of the picture is gorgeous. An odd feature is the door handle in the cut-out. Look at it closely and try to figure out what it does. We can't, either.

conversion from colour

There have been conventional black and white printing papers that were panchromatically sensitized to allow printing from colour negatives. As is so often the case, the manufacturers' sample pictures were misleadingly good. With the right subject under the right lighting, these papers could indeed give excellent results, but often, both the contrast and (especially) the tonality were very unsatisfactory.

Somewhat better results over a wider range of subjects can nowadays be achieved by scanning colour negatives, converting them to black and white, manipulating the files in Adobe Photoshop to adjust the contrast and tonality, and printing from that, but we remain to be convinced that this is anything like as successful a route as shooting black and white film to begin with. It's a lot slower than using black and white, and we also believe that you need to plan a picture as black and white or colour and shoot accordingly. Shooting in colour, with the option of black and white later, may seem like a good idea but you may find that it results in pictures which fall between two stools, fully successful neither in colour nor in monochrome.

commercial processing ii: printing

Once again, there are surprisingly many options. The most basic is running a chromogenic film through a mini-lab and having them make reference prints on colour paper. As already noted, Kodak films print better this way than Ilford, but they are still a fairly poor substitute for 'real' black and white prints.

A considerable improvement can be effected by printing onto a specially designed black and white paper which is again compatible with mini-lab chemistry, but this has probably disappeared along with the rest of Kodak's black and white paper line-up. Paradoxically Ilford XP2 Super prints better on this stuff than Kodak's own films.

The third choice is a mass-market automated black and white package from an amateur lab. As with mass-market film processing, this is becoming rarer and rarer, though in 2005 in the UK Ilford reintroduced their develop-and-print service for their own films and others, including C41, with a nominal 5-day turnaround. Even with the best automated printing, though, there needs to be some human intervention to compensate for unusual subject matter, bad exposures and less-than-perfect development. The more human intervention, the higher the cost.

This leads us to the fourth and fifth choices, which are hand-made prints from pro labs and (once again) from the 'shamateur' labs run for hobbyists (usually) by hobbyists. The biggest difference between the two is likely to be the price, though there is no doubt that the very best pro labs are home to some of the finest printers in the world. The major problem here is cost, with a single print costing anything from a few pounds or dollars to several hundred.

Cross and elephant grass

We have tried printing this both conventionally (which is what you see here, on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone) and by scanning. The scan is more than adequate for web presentation -- at least as good as a wet print -- but we have yet to produce a digital print that we like as well as the wet print. Roger shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus with a Voigtlander Bessa R or R2 and 50/1.5 Nokton with weak (2x) yellow filter from B+W. Yellow filters often improve the tonality of black and white films but we generally prefer a slightly stronger (2.8x) yellow or a weak (2.8x) orange. Others swear by green.

film processing without a darkroom

Processing film at home without a darkroom is remarkably easy. After all, the vast majority of film processing tanks for 35mm and roll film are designed to be used in broad daylight (or at least, bright room lighting) and you can even process sheet film up to 8x10 inch in a Paterson Orbital processor, effectively a developing tray with a light-trapped lid. All you need is some way to load the film into the tank.

Enter the changing bag. This is simply a lightproof enclosure with holes for the arms and a light-trapped zipped opening for introducing the film and tank. The most basic version is a black cloth bag sometimes known as 'granny's knickers' for reasons which become obvious as soon as you see one. More advanced (and expensive) versions may have supports, like miniature tents. These are more comfortable to use, especially in hot weather when your hands can get quite clammy inside a changing bag.

Changing bag, film and tank

The film goes onto the spiral on the upper left; it is best to practice initially with a scrap film in daylight. The spiral goes in the tank, right; then the inner, light-trap lid (beside the tank); and finally the waterproof lid, front, which allows you to invert the tank without leakage. This Paterson tank is just one of many designs available. The scissors are to cut the film off its central spool: you can just tear it, but trimming is easier.

Once the film is in the tank, you can process it in daylight. This is extremely simple. You need two solutions (developer and fixer); a measuring cylinder; an accurate thermometer; and a timer. You dilute the developer to the required strength, according to the instructions on the bottle or its accompanying leaflet: typically anything from 1+4 to 1+9 (1 part developer + 4 parts water, e.g. 100 ml developer + 400 ml water or 2 fl. oz. developer + 8 fl. oz. water, the exact amount depending on the size of the tank) and adjust the temperature using a water bath: if you are wise, you will already have mixed the water to the right sort of temperature before you use it to dilute the developer. Fixer is diluted similarly: again the instructions are on the bottle or in an accompanying leaflet.

Pour the developer into the tank; tap the tank smartly on the table to dislodge any air bubbles; then agitate (shaking the tank or turning it upside down) for thirty seconds solidly, then five seconds every thirty seconds. After the prescribed time, tip the developer out and and tip the fixer in. The times will be in the instructions again, anything from 5 to 20 minutes in the developer and anything from 2 to 15 minutes in the fixer, depending on the film type, developer type and fixer type.

After fixing, wash in running water for a few minutes or use the rapid washing sequence described in Hints and Tips. Dry the film in a dust-free place. Cut it up and put it in sleeves (we use Print File but many brands are available). That's all there is to it: your films are now ready to be printed conventionally or scanned.

Obviously this is an abbreviated summary of a subject on which whole books have been written, but the important points are:

  1. It's not difficult

  2. You can get far better results than all but the best (and most expensive) commercial labs can deliver

  3. It's quick (quicker than taking the film to a lab and picking it up, or even mailing it

  4. It's cheap. After a very modest investment in equipment (changing bag, tank, graduate/s, thermometer, some or all of which may well be found second-hand) the cost per film is trivial.

setting up a darkroom

The free module Our Darkroom(s) says most of what needs to be said. All that is worth reinforcing here is that for most people, the limiting factor is likely to be space rather than money, especially if they buy their darkroom equipment second-hand -- and even space limitations may be more easily overcome if you go for a Nova Tent, which we first used in the garage of Frances's parents' house in California and have since used in two other houses in Britain and France.

Nova Tent (courtesy Nova)

All that you need, in a space just 110cm/42 inches square

scanning negatives

We have to confess that although we do this, we still prefer traditional 'wet' processing. The very best digitally produced black and white prints (scanned and printed with a dedicated black and white ink-jet printer) rival the best 'wet' prints for quality, but they simply do not look the same. Yes, they have rich, velvety blacks and delicately differentiated highlights; they are superb. But 'wet' prints are equally superb, and, to be honest, we find them easier to produce. Partly this is the result of close on 40 years' experience on Roger's part and over 20 years in Frances's case; partly it is that we find mechanical/chemical systems easier to operate and (above all) to correct than electronic; and partly it is, yes, sheer personal preference. With this in mind, we would offer the following advice:

First, if you are going to scan 35mm, use a good-quality dedicated scanner. No flatbed that we have yet encountered can offer the same dynamic range and sharpness as a dedicated scanner. Our first was a Nikon Coolscan II. When that wore out, we replaced it with a Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400II, which apart from the absurdly long name is absolutely superb. With larger formats you can use a good-quality flatbed but you may not see much improvement next to the dedicated scanner despite using a larger format.

Second, be aware of grain aliasing, which makes grain appear bigger than it does in a conventional wet print. This is one of those complex phenomena where the information available is equally split between those who clearly know what they are talking about, and nerds who have latched onto a few key phrases such as 'Nyquist frequency'. Essentially it deals with the interaction between the scanner resolution -- the mechanical placement of the sensors -- and the film grain. It is akin to Moire patterns in visual patterns and to phase interference in sound, where two signals interact to produce 'false' peaks and troughs. A classic example comes from aircraft with twin piston engines, where the engine notes are very close but not identical (because, of course, the engine speeds are close but not identical). As they go in and out of phase, the engine noise gets rhythmically louder (in phase) and quieter (out of phase) -- a sort of whummm... whummm...WHUMMM... whummm...whummm...

Because grain aliasing is an interference effect, it doesn't depend solely on grain size. Consider three films, ISO 100, 200 and 400, where the grain size is proportional to the speed. It is entirely possible that in a scan, the ISO 200 will have worse grain than either ISO 100 or ISO 400, simply because its grain size may be of exactly the right size (or more accurately, the wrong size) to interact with the scanner in use -- and, of course, the scanner may work better with one film than another.

Film manufacturers are working very hard to try to minimise grain aliasing, and Applied Science Fiction offers a 'GEM' option which appears to be anti-aliasing software, but if you have a problem with big, ugly grain it is well worth trying a different film. By way of control, have a large wet print made (or make it yourself) to make sure that it really is grain aliasing and not just big, ugly grain.

Third, chromogenic films often scan far better than traditional silver halide films, simply because of the grain structure. This is partly because of aliasing problems and partly because chromogenics exhibit no Callier effect, where the image scatters the light as well as blocking it. The more highly collimated the light, the worse the Callier effect, and many scanners have highly collimated light sources. A further advantage of chromogenic films is that they should be susceptible to both Digital ICE and GEM from Applied Science Fiction. The former cleans up dirt and the latter, as already noted, appears to be an anti-aliasing algorithm. Neither works well (if at all) on conventional films. If we were taking the scanning route, Ilford XP2 Super would be our automatic film choice for 35mm.

 

Holly

An unexpected option is scanning large format negatives. Roger shot this picture of Holly Lewis on 8x10 inch Ilford FP4 using a De Vere monorail and 21 inch f/7.7 Ross lens from around World War One. The tiny depth of field gives a real 'Hollywood' look and just about any scanner ever made offers sufficient resolution with an 8x10 inch negative: even a very modest 600 dpi scan allows a massive 16x20 inch (40x50 cm) print at 300 dpi.

photo printers

Ink-jet printers are the automatic choice of the vast majority of photographers who make black-and-white prints by routes other than traditional silver halide, and far and away the best ink-jet prints are made with dedicated ink-sets in 'photo quality' prints. Although in theory you can switch between colour and mono inks, in practice it is a great deal easier to dedicate a printer just to mono. Even with dedicated ink-sets you need to watch out for metamerism, the way in which the print colour changes under daylight and tungsten light: typically, if it looks neutral under the one, it will look greenish or magenta under the other. Some inks exhibit very much worse metamerism than others, and the only way to find out which are best at any one time is to try them. Our own suspicion is that this problem does not occur to computer nerds because they never see daylight anyway: the light balance with which they are most familiar is best described as 'under a stone'. Even so, the best ink-jet black and white prints are very good indeed.

Easily our favourite ink-jets are those made with the Cone Editions Piezography inks . They really are stunning, but they look very little like conventional black and white prints. They are perhaps closest to bromoils, but really, they are more like an 'alternative process' than anything else.

One more possibility is to take the electronic file and use it in a 'paper writer' (in effect, a reverse scanner) to create an image directly on silver halide paper. This delivers excellent traditional quality, with the only disadvantage that the writers are so expensive that they are beyond the reach of any but the very richest amateurs: this must remain a 'bureau' option for the foreseeable future.

visualizing black and white images

One last point lies in the question of how best to visualize black and white images, and a very simple, very old trick is to use a so-called 'PV' or 'pan vision' filter. This is used by the photographer, in front of one eye, to re-creates (allegedly) the spectral sensitivity of panchromatic film -- hence the name. An olive green is the usual colour, though if you are simply trying to reduce colours to tones, orange is surprisingly successful though it obviously lightens reds, yellow and oranges and darkens blues and greens. Even so, an orange sweet-wrapper is better than nothing.

Most PV filters are also very dark, as this further reduces the influence of different colours and makes clearer the distribution of light and dark tones. Photography is inherently a short-tonal-range medium, and many of the best pictures amplify a relatively short brightness range. PV filters are available from a number of sources of which our favourite is SRB Film Service of Luton in England; theirs is illustrated on the left. You just hold it to your eye.

 

the bottom line

Like so much else in photography, black and white has been surrounded by a false mystique. It really isn't difficult. How could it be, given that it was the amateur's snapshot standard from the 1880s to the 1960s? For starters, buy a roll of chromogenic film; stick it in your camera; and shoot. We'd recommend Kodak to begin with because you will get better colour in mini-lab prints, even though Ilford XP2 is sharper and gives better results with black and white paper. Take it to a mini-lab. If you like the results, start to get serious. There really is no more to it than that.

Boy on wall

You have to look quite hard to see that this was taken in the 1990s and not the 1890s: that's how timeless black and white can be. Frances shot this on Ilford XP2 with a Nikkormat FTn and 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 macro lens, then printed it on Ilford MG IV and toned the print with a proprietary sepia toner (Fotospeed).

 

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last updated: 5 Nov 2005

© 2005 Roger W. Hicks