Some Notes on Black and White Photography

The art of black and white photography traditionally involves precise control of all its aspects, both in the camera and in the darkroom. First, produce a perfect negative in the camera through a systematic exposure methodology. Then, in the darkroom, choose one of the dozens of developing formulas, dilutions, and times that best fits the image. Ansel Adams codified this approach in his Zone System, to which its practitioners adhere with near-religious devotion. Finally, print the negative with careful technique of exposure, dodging, burning, and masking. Choose a paper of the appropriate contrast, surface, and color— the “black” in a black and white print can range from sepia to blue— along with the right paper developer.

Working with color film is comparatively straightforward. Color films use one of two standard automated processes developed in the 1970s: C-41 for negatives, E-6 for slides. (There used to be three processes. But Kodachrome became extinct at the end of 2010, when the one lab in the known universe that still processed it shut down its K-14 line.) If you use slide film, what emerges from the processing machine is what you get. With negative film, printing machines use computers— which now most commonly means digital scanning and processing— to determine density and color balance. Even custom printers who make enlargements by hand usually rely on color and exposure meters, at least for determining initial exposure and color filtration. Process and print black and white film with this kind of automation and you’ll get mediocre results at best. The original commercial prints of my Yellowstone pictures were so murky and flat that I filed them away and forgot about them for ten years.

If you haven’t got a darkroom but want to shoot black and white film, the simplest and most reliable way is to use a chromogenic film. This is an ISO 400 color negative film without the color. It uses the same C-41 process as any other color negative film. Any lab that handles color print film can process it, including the ubiquitous one-hour minilabs. (But you’ll probably have to order the film from a large mail-order vendor.) Like color negative films, chromogenic black and white films have so much latitude that no fussy Zone System is necessary (although a modernized version of the Zone System can help you optimize exposure and get the best results). You merely need to meter for the shadows, since moderate overexposure of the highlights will only yield a finer-grained image. I used Ilford XP1, the first chromogenic black and white film, in Yellowstone. Its current version is XP2 Super.

XP2 Super is now the only chromogenic black and white film. Kodak removed BW400CN from their dwindling range of films in August 2014. Kodak’s chromogenic film had an orange mask that made it look like a color negative. That made it easy to get neutral prints from a minilab on standard color paper, but more difficult to print on black and white paper. Ilford’s XP2 Super has no mask. It looks like a regular black and white negative. That makes it easy to print on black and white paper or to make digital scans, but prints made on color paper are likely to have a strange color cast.

Chromogenic films have finer grain than black and white films, but somewhat less sharpness because their images are made of overlapping “clouds” of dye rather than discrete grains of silver. Chromogenic negatives also aren’t as “archival” as black and white film. Although modern color dyes will probably outlast the photographer who takes reasonable care in storing chromogenic negatives, they will eventually deteriorate and fade away. But the silver in black and white film can endure undimmed over the generations as long as the film was fixed and washed properly. The same is true of prints. If you want important family pictures to pass down as heirlooms for centuries, use black and white film, print them on silver-based black and white paper, and store both in a cool and dry place.

If you’re scanning negatives, one advantage of chromogenic film probably outweighs all the disadvantages. Infrared dust and scratch removal doesn’t work with silver-grain black and white film, but it works well with chromogenic.

You can scan black and white negatives and post-process them with Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro just like color negatives. But I really recommend using color negative film (or a color image from a digital camera) for black and white images. Besides the obvious option of color, starting with a color image allows much more flexibility and control of the tonality in a black and white “conversion.” Serious black and white photographers carry an array of colored filters to emphasize specific tones. A green filter lightens foliage. A yellow filter increases contrast. And before polarizers were available, a red filter was the secret formula for adding drama to a cloud-filled blue sky. You can achieve the same effects digitally by adjusting the proportions of the red, green, and blue channels in the color scan before converting to black and white, or sometimes by using just one or two of the channels.

A computer can provide a good simulation of a darkroom, including different contrasts and paper tones, and dodging and burning in, but without the messy or toxic chemicals. As with color pictures, viewing well-balanced black and white images on a computer screen can provide detail, richness, and impact that you can’t get from a print. Color ink-jet printers can often produce beautiful black and white prints using their normal color inks. But for true black and white aficionados there are specialized monochrome inks available for some color printers.


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