Morning Light, Badlands National Park in Black and White

Black and White Film in a Digital Color World

The digital photography industry has been booming. It has grown in leaps and bounds and is constantly being updated with new and better technology. But why consider black and white film in a digital color world? For years, we were told that black and white film photography was obsolete, but now we see that there is a growing interest in it again. So, what exactly is going on? Is black and white film photography really back? Or is it just another trend? In this post I will explore why photographers are increasingly beginning to take an interest in it again.

1. What is black and white film photography?

Black and White image of Conkles Hollow trail, Hocking Hills Ohio
Conkles Hollow Gorge Trail, Hocking Hills, Ohio, Chamonix 45F2 4×5, Illford HP5+,

Black and white film photography is a form of photography that takes advantage of what some would say is “old school” photography methods. Film has a cellulose base which is coated with a layer of silver halide crystals. In the development process after the silver halide is exposed to light, the silver halide turns to metallic silver. This blocks light to varying degrees based on the luminosity of different tones of the subject photographed. This will show up as degrees of black on the negative, which when printed will produce a positive image based on the differing densities of the metallic silver. The result is a print devoid of any color but simply shades of grey.

2. The rise of black and white film photography

Hanging Hemlocks, Conkles Hollow, Hocking Hills, Ohio
Hanging Hemlocks, Conkles Hollow, Hocking Hills, Ohio, Chamonix 45F2 4×5, HP5+

The rise of black and white film photography has many people asking the question “why black and white film photography?” Well, the answer is pretty simple. It is all about the process. With the rise of digital photography, people are less inclined to think about the process of taking a photo. People are more concerned with the way the picture looks, rather than the process of taking it. Black and white film photography is a reminder of the process. It is the reminder of all the steps that go into “making” a photograph.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it”

~Ansel Adams

The process of black and white film photography is a lot more involved than just pressing the shutter button. You actually have to think about what you are doing and what you are capturing. It also helps you to be more creative and deliberate when you are shooting in black and white.

3. Digital vs Film

Digital photography has definitely taken over the world of photography, but it is not without its drawbacks. Film photography may seem expensive, but it offers a tangible experience that cannot be reproduced with digital photography. The cost of digital photography may seem much cheaper than film photography, but eventually digital photography can cost a lot more.

Drought Mausoleum, Elmwood Cemetery, Independence, Missouri
Drought Mausoleum, Elmwood Cemetery, Independence, MO Chamonix 45F2, Caltar 150mm, Illford D-100, ISO100, 1sec, f22

I am currently shooting black and white using a Pentax 67 medium format and a 4×5 large format camera. (I’ll address why shortly). These cameras have been around for decades. The Pentax 67 is no longer produced but with a recent surge in interest in shooting film, they have come into a much higher demand. While there are a number of medium format film cameras to choose from, I prefer the Pentax 67, as it is much like an SLR on steroids. But I digress. The point is these analog cameras don’t need an upgrade every 2 years or so like the modern digital cameras. Yes, film is expensive, and with digital there is no film cost. But once you figure in the continuous pressure to upgrade, chasing technology, you might find that shooting film may be less expensive.

What is another benefit of shooting film? Well, the fact is that each time you press the shutter it does cost you money, i.e., the cost of the film and processing. How can this be a benefit, you ask? Well, it will tend to make you more deliberate in your photography. You will slow down and evaluate all elements of the image you are about to make, including composition, light, contrast and more. You certainly will not be practicing the “spray and pray” strategy, as I’ve heard it described.

4. Scanning negatives vs wet darkroom printing

Scanning film negatives vs wet darkroom printing is a debate that has been going on for quite some time now. While both methods have their advantages, there are some key differences between them that need to be taken into consideration when making a decision about your process. Scanning film negatives allows one to quickly and easily make adjustments to their images without having to go through the lengthy process of wet darkroom printing. Additionally, scanning also provides photographers with more control over the final product, as they can adjust tonal contrast, and textures levels at will. Moreover, once you have completed your adjustments, your master image file allows for repeatable printing outcomes.

Zone VI 4×5 View Camera, Tri-x, ISO 400

Some darkroom printing enthusiasts would argue that wet darkroom prints are of higher quality. However, today’s high end photo printers, combined with some great fine art photo papers on the market can produce prints every bit as beautiful as any darkroom print, in my honest opinion

5. The future of black and white film photography

In recent years, there clearly has been a renewed interest in film photography. Despite the digital revolution, increasing numbers of photographers are turning (or in my case returning) to film for its unique characteristics and qualities. Arguably, film photography is far from dead, with a growing number of photographers embracing this medium.

Some photographers still prefer to use black and white film for its unique qualities. The older generation prefers black and white film because it does not have any unwanted noises that digital cameras produce. However, the younger generation is more attracted to digital photography because it can be edited in ways that black and white film cannot. However, these days there are increasing numbers of photographers who prefer to shoot in black and white, and increasingly with film because it allows a chance to be more creative with the images they capture. Black and white film capture is seeing a rise in popularity as photographers are looking for a unique style of photography that is not as common in today’s digital world, and because it allows them to show the world in a way that they have never seen before.

6. Conclusion.

As digital photography continues to dominate the market, there is still a renewed interest in black and white film photography. Despite the advancements in digital technology, many photographers are still drawn to the classic look of film. This has led to a resurgence in the use of film cameras and an increase in demand for film stocks. As a result, it appears that black and white film photography is here to stay.

I would love to hear your comments below

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4 thoughts on “Black and White Film in a Digital Color World

  1. Well written and represents other your views and the reality of digital vs film. One aspect of this difference that you might have added is that film has a much better dynamic range than digital.

    Ramon Magee.

    1. Quite true, Ramon. And one can further refine by pushing or pulling development and considering film type for desired intent. This would be part of the pre-visualization decisions in making your image.

  2. There is an argument between control and art with both wet printing and digital imaging in monochrome. A wet print is the classic way to produce an image. Even Ansel Adams admitted he could not make the same print twice. As an example his classic, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941” printed the year it was taken, and then compared to the gallery prints Ansel made for museums in his later years, show marked differences in tone and taste.

    Had that been a digital image, it could have been reproduced exactly as he envisioned it, time after time, with no tonal variation or loss of quality at all.

    So the art of the print is just that in traditional darkroom produced prints- an art. It varies with skill and mood of the printer. It is less mechanical and more magical. Indeed, watching an image come up in a tray was the magic that got me hooked into this profession!

    The older generation has something the younger among us don’t have yet- age and life experience and some would say, wisdom. We have seen both methods, and many of us have the space in our homes for a wet darkroom. There is considerable commitment to both ways of achieving an image.

    Immediacy and multiple frames per second work if you are chasing wildlife with a long lens. Patience and vision, contemplation and execution are demanded under the dark cloth in pursuit of the dramatic light of a landscape.

    The absence of color is replaced by the tonality of the imagination on the part of the printer and the viewer of a truly well executed black and white print. “Slow photography” if you will, is a forced discipline to take the time to appreciate what you are doing, from beginning to end. A chance to see the possibilities in the field and in the dark. I think it is the appeal to craft and the desire to get better through practice that appeals to both older and younger photographers who are turning and returning to this highly disciplined form of thoughtful image creation.

    1. Very well stated, Christopher! I too remember the magic of watching a print come alive in the developer. Many young photographers have not had the benefit of that experience. And I like your comment about “slow photography” and forced discipline in image creation, a perfect characterization.

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