I’ve written about film photography and I’ve written about black and white photography, so you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about black and white film photography. The answer is simple – there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. The effects produced and the parameters you have to work within is very different to that of any other type of photography and these produce some very interesting results – results that you may associate with a much older style of photography.
How you Shoot Differently on Black & White
In my post on film photography, I talk in detail about how shooting on film helps to hone your skill as you think a lot more about what you’re doing before you take a photo and waste a piece of 35mm film. This added pressure of not wanting to waste money on film and developing means that you become a much more careful photographer and you consider how else you might take the photo before you actually take it. Think twice, shoot once. Mistakes can get pretty expensive if you’re not sure what you’re doing with your film camera so this forces you to learn quickly about what you’re doing wrong.
Black and white film photography is all this and more. When I normally take black and white photos, I always shoot in colour first and convert it afterwards because it allows me more options in post production. You don’t have this option when you’re shooting on film so you really have to pay attention to what it is that you want to capture and how it’s going to look in black and white. You rely much more on composition, texture, shape and form to create a good photo, so you have to look for this before you shoot and not after. That is my favourite reason for shooting on black and white film; you’re forced to hone in on your skill much faster.
The Dynamic Range
The first thing you’ll notice when you get a roll of black and white film developed (particularly with the brand of film that I use which is Ilford HP5 Plus) is that the dynamic range is a lot worse to what you’ll be used to with digital and far worse than on colour film. You need to be really careful about this as you’ll find that even landcape shots don’t come out properly, let alone photos of people indoors. This really bothered me the first time I got my film back because I didn’t know about it before I shot so I hadn’t adjusted my shooting style to match it, but now I know better, I can use it to my advantage.
Advantages of the Dynamic Range
When you know how the film reacts to the light, you can use it as a creative tool in your photography. The light is harder to control, but when you expose the photo correctly, with the light in the right places, then the results can be much more dramatic. I would have shot the photo above on colour film and seen the subject with no problems, but when I shoot on film, I need to look where the light had illuminated the subject and work around that. Take the photo below for example, I knew at the time that I shot it, that the lefthand side of the photo was going to be underexposed and the right was going to be overexposed, but it actually worked out really well. I particularly like the back of the subject’s head and the light that’s shining on it.
One of my favourite parts about shooting on film is how good the skin looks, and black and white film in particular makes the skin look great. The natural grain adds a texture and detail, while the lack of colour emphasises the tone of the skin. That’s also one of the advantages of the poor dynamic range – the contrast on neutral colours in boosted.
35mm film and development is becoming increasingly scarse as some major labs are getting rid of their wet labs and only doing digital printing. That being said, there’s still places around that do it at a reasonable price and standard, but black and white is a lot harder to get done. My nearest lab that will actually develop it in house is about 25 miles away which isn’t really a lot of use as it takes a while to get done, so I take mine to my nearest major lab and they send off for it. This still takes about 2 weeks or longer, but I’m there on a regular occasion for printing anyway so it’s not too much of a problem for me.
I have noticed over the past 2 years that development is getting more expensive, longer to do and film is becoming harder to find, so if we take that as a sign of things to come, then it doesn’t look too good. I urge everyone to start shooting on film again as soon as possible, because there’s a good chance you won’t be able to experience it’s many advantages in the future.