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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 and the choice of film with appropriate characteristics. Then, in the darkroom, choose one of the dozens of developing formulas, dilutions, and times that best fit the image. (See How Film Works, below, for an explanation of this and other technical terms relating to film and processing.) Ansel Adams codified these techniques 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 brownish sepia to blue— along with the right paper developer.

(Adams devised the Zone System for the large-format view cameras he and most professional landscape photographers used, where each picture is a separate sheet of film. The exposure methodology works equally well with roll film, though the choice of film and developer is necessarily a compromise. There’s even an updated version for digital cameras.)

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 a third process, K-14, unique to the Kodachrome film that was discontinued in 2009.) If you use one of the few remaining slide films, what emerges from the processing machine is what you get.

With color negative film, printing machines use computers— which now most commonly means digital scanning and printing— 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. And while color printing paper comes in various surfaces, the contrast and processing are the same for all types. Process black and white film with a generic developer, and print it on generic paper on an automated printer, and you’ll get mediocre results at best. The original commercial prints of my Yellowstone pictures were so dull 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 a simplified version of color negative film that has only one color, a slightly purplish black. It uses the same C-41 process as any other color negative film. Any lab that handles color print film can process it. (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. 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. Although this film is officially rated at ISO 400, Ilford says it can be exposed at any speed rating (exposure index) from 50 to 800. Exposing at ISO 400 offers the best balance of convenience and grain, but lower exposure indices yield finer-grained images. I didn’t record what exposure index I used for the XP1, but the rather dense negatives suggest it was lower than 400. In preparing new scans of those negatives, I found that they had exceptionally fine grain and required very little of the noise reduction necessary for any film scan.

XP2 Super is now the only chromogenic black and white film. Kodak used to offer BW400CN, but they removed it 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 on standard color paper from the once-ubiquitous mini-labs, 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 organic chemical dye rather than microscopic grains of silver. For that reason, chromogenic negatives 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 fade away. But the silver in black and white film can endure undimmed over the generations as long as the film was fixed, washed, and stored 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 outweighs any 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 think it’s much better to start with a color image, from film or a digital camera. Besides the obvious option of color, using a color image allows you to control the shade of gray “mapped” to each color in a scene. 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 tool or program that converts the color image to black and white, or sometimes by using just one or two of the channels. Sorry, your browser can't display WebP images.

I originally made this picture in color with a digital camera. I converted it to black and white with Nik Silver Efex, a Photoshop plug-in for converting color images and simulating darkroom effects. The default settings for this plug-in rendered the rubber grip on the blue pencil nearly the same shade of gray as the red pen. Black and white film would do the same thing. To make a more interesting distinction between the two writing instruments, I adjusted the color settings in Silver Efex to brighten reddish colors and to darken bluish tones. Here’s a larger version of the picture that all browsers can display.

The right software can provide a good simulation of a darkroom, including different contrasts and paper tones, and dodging and burning in, but without messy or toxic darkroom 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. With a properly prepared image, color ink-jet printers can produce beautiful black and white prints using their normal color inks, as can laboratory machines that print on color photographic paper. Color printing is a necessity for warm or cold toned prints. But for true black and white aficionados, some professional ink-jet printers include multiple black and gray inks specifically for black and white prints.

Nerdy Note: How Film Works

This is a greatly oversimplified description of how black and white and color films work. It’s provided to help you make more sense of the preceding discussion.

All film, black and white as well as color, relies on silver halide, a light-sensitive compound of silver and one of the “halogen” elements, usually bromine but sometimes chlorine. A photographic emulsion contains microscopic crystals of silver halide suspended in gelatin. That emulsion is coated (in total darkness) on a big roll of clear plastic— the film base— that is cut (in total darkness) into individual rolls of film.

When black and white film is processed— something easily done in a home darkroom— the developer solution removes the halogen atoms only from silver halide that was exposed to light, leaving microscopic particles (“grains”) of silver metal. A fixer solution removes the silver halide that was not exposed to light. After washing and drying the film, the result is a negative image made of black silver grains. The more light that exposed the film, the more silver grains and the darker the image. With color film, processing replaces the exposed silver with colored dye molecules.

Chromogenic film includes dye couplers in the emulsion along with the silver halide crystals. When the film is processed, a color developer solution combines with the colorless dye couplers to produce a tiny “cloud” of colored dye around exposed silver grains. A bleach solution removes the exposed silver grains; fixer then removes the unexposed silver halide. Those steps remove all the silver, leaving an image made of colored dyes. (If you accidentally put a roll of conventional black and white film through a color process, you’ll end up with completely blank film.)

A chromogenic color film has three layers of emulsion coated on the film base. One layer is sensitive to red light, another to green light, and the third to blue light. Different dye couplers in each layer produce appropriately colored dyes when combined with color developer. Shining light through the processed film layers yields a full-color image. Color negative film has a built-in orange mask to compensate for imperfections in the dyes that would otherwise produce inaccurate colors in the final prints. The process for color slide film includes a reversal step that produces a positive color image for direct viewing or projection. That’s why you’ll see “reversal film” somewhere on the box.

A chromogenic black and white film has only one emulsion layer. The dye couplers in that emulsion produce a slightly purplish black dye when combined with color developer, a color that isn’t found in a color negative. Otherwise, it’s the same as a color negative film and is processed the same way. But Ilford XP2 Super does not have an orange mask because it’s designed to be printed on black and white paper or digitally scanned.

The word “chromogenic” (from the Greek for “color-forming”) initially distinguished those films from the earlier Kodachrome. Introduced in 1935, Kodachrome was the first practical color film that could be used for slides and home movies. It was “non-chromogenic,” essentially a black and white film with three emulsion layers. Processing dyed each layer individually with separate chemical solutions, a procedure that also involved shining special colored lights on the film. This complex process required a lab with industrial machinery under the continual supervision of a chemist.

With the introduction of chromogenic Ektachrome in 1946, there finally was a color film that could be processed in a studio or home darkroom. An improved version of Kodacolor negative film that users could process arrived in 1956. By the 1980s, automated mini-lab machines that could deliver prints or slides in an hour were ubiquitous. The need to send Kodachrome to a lab, combined with improvements in chromogenic slide film, led to continually decreasing sales of Kodachrome. Kodak finally discontinued it in 2009, after digital cameras had already sent the company into an irreversible nose-dive toward bankruptcy.

Now that all color films are chromogenic, the term is now mainly used to distinguish Ilford’s XP2 Super and Kodak’s discontinued BW400CN from conventional black and white films that produce silver-grain negatives.


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