As winter draws near and the leaves are fleeing their branches, I've been struck with the desire to shoot more black and white film. I figure as the landscape grows more stark and monotone, black and white film could be particularly well suited to the task. There's just something about a well composed scene on black and white film that can be particularly stirring, which leads me to our first reason to shoot black and white film.
Black and White Film has a Timelessly Classic Look
Black and white film can provide a stirringly classic aesthetic to your photos. In a time where photographers are clamoring over the latest tech, looking for the cleanest image quality, and obsessing over which brand provides the best color science, black and white film provides a calming return to simplicity. The classic grain of certain film stocks can certainly add to the feeling of a photo. The smooth gradation of tones from deep blacks to bright whites provides a simple, yet effective pallet on which to compose wonderfully interesting scenes.
Black and white film also provides that certain magical element that is hard to put a finger on. Perhaps it's nostalgia or possibly it's just the simplicity of the medium, but sometimes a strong black and white photo can be much more powerful than its colorful counterpart. There are times that the timeless mood of black and white photos provides that extra feeling of raw connection to the subject that is hard to replicate.
Black and White Film Forces Thoughtful Composition
I often find myself looking at scenes more carefully when I shoot black and white. I start looking for light and shadow, patterns, and contrasting elements. While these things are all important in color photography, black and white shooting calls more attention to what is important in a scene. Without color being a possible distraction in composition, I find myself much more focused on the fundamentals.
The above photo is a fine example of such a situation. The reflective light on the foreground building created lovely texture and interest. The stark highlights on the building in behind contrasted with the dark windows and shadows immediately bordering it also add a great deal of interest to this scene. When shooting digital, I'm not sure if I would have taken note of all of that, nonetheless shot the photo.
Black and White Teaches
Due to many of the reasons listed above, shooting black and white film can be a great teaching tool. It can really put a photographers skill to the test. Are your compositions strong enough to stand on their own in monochrome? Can you make visually interesting or beautiful photos without color? What about Ansel Adams-esque landscapes? If you're looking to try something different and really give your skills and inspiration a push, load up a roll of black and white film and go shoot!
The constraints of shooting film are often cited as reasons to slow down and think about photography when compared to digital shooting. While there is debate on that premise, I do find it holds true for me, especially when shooting black and white film. It feels different knowing that no matter what you do, your photo will be monochrome. I find myself seeking out photos that would be strong without color. I ignore things I would normally be attracted to like a moth to a street lamp. When I return to my digital camera and/or color film, I find that my compositions typically seem stronger.
Black and White Film is Crazy Fun!
Perhaps the best reason to shoot black and white film is the fact that it is hugely fun! There is so much one can do with black and white film. There are tons of different film stocks out there to try. From Fuji Acros to Ilford HP5+, Kodak T-max to JCH400, Ilford SFX200 to Lomography Earl Grey, the choices and experiments one can try are nearly endless. I may be strange, but I love researching different film stocks. I enjoy seeing what characteristics are prevalent in what films, and shooting them all in varied situations is a blast.
If that isn't enough for you, developing black and white film is also a blast. The initial investment into developing equipment can seem a little overwhelming at first, but it pays for itself rather quickly. Once you get the idea of how to process your first time, getting from camera to the scanner with black and white film is really quite simple. Beyond that, it also is another opportunity to get creative and hone in on a style. Different developers have their own characteristics, just like the film stocks. Some deliver finer grain, others chunkier. Changing your agitation routine, developing times and temps, and pushing and pulling your films can all affect contrast and tonal transitions. The experimentation and creativity surrounding black and white film shooting is simply amazing.
While all of that may sound daunting to someone new to shooting film and considering developing their own film, it really isn't all that complicated. Hit up your preferred app store and search for "Massive Dev Chart." While I seem to remember the app being paid, it is well worth the money. This app allows you to enter the film you shot, the developer you're using, and the ISO you're developing for, and then it spits out timers for each individual step. The app will countdown for you, tell you when to agitate your film, and even when to go from one step to the next. This thing is the black and white developers best friend!
Go and Shoot Some Film!
So what are you waiting for? Black and white film offers a classic and timeless aesthetic, strengthens your compositional thinking, concentrates on fundamental aspects of photography, and is an absolute blast to shoot and develop. With so many great reasons to get out there and shoot a roll of black and white film and so few reasons not to, why not give it a shot?
Don't have a film camera? Hit up eBay or Etsy and look for some 1990's 35mm SLR cameras. My Pentax SF1n is one of my favorite cameras and I only paid $15 for it. Too gun shy to jump into home development right this moment? No problem! There are still a ton of labs around that will process your film for you. Bedford Camera and Video and The Darkroom Lab are two of my favorites when I'm out of chemicals or time.
In the end, if you're at all interested in film or black and white photography, you owe it to yourself to get out there and give it a shot. I hope you do and I hope you love it!