Black, White, and Primary Colors

I’ve been looking at a lot of black and white pictures lately. It’s not really deliberate, I’ve been looking through art catalogs and news images from the middle and late 1900s (which is funny to say, but it the century ended 17 years ago) and a lot of those images are in black and white. It’s not just those either. I’ve been looking at modern street photographers who are using film (since I have an interest in film), and they are also shooting in black and white instead of color.

Now, I do like a good picture, regardless of whether it’s in color or black and white – and with modern digital cameras you can choose color or black and white pretty much at any time (with color film you can switch to black and white in post, but is it then still a film image? Then again, if you post it online is it still film? I guess that’s a question for another time). So why all the black and white?

Well, for the news photographers, it was mostly a question of money and and their final product. Images in most print newspapers were black and white, and back then black and white film and processing was less expensive (it was why I learned how to do black and white in High School, it was about half the cost according to our teacher). Glossy magazines could afford color, and paid more for color images, but that was a pretty small percentage of the market, back then.

Now, color is everywhere. Black and white film and processing is more expensive than color, even if you process at home. But there are still people who say it’s “better,” and many street photographers are still using it as their film choice. Why?

They answer I see a lot online is the increased grain and created flexibility of black and white. If the image is under or over exposed, recovering it is simpler. You can also under or over expose whole rolls and “fix” it while developing the negatives (something which is much harder, but not impossible, to do with color). You hear the word “grain” mentioned a lot too, as well as “deep blacks,” which true black and white film (in their opinion) is better with.

Personally, while I do occasionally use black and white film (I have a roll of Tri-max 400 and Delta 3200 in the fridge as I write this), I think shooting in color is better. It more truly represents life (which is actually offered as a bad think by black and white enthusiasts – colors detract from the image (which I don’t think makes sense, if you use the colors correctly)). And we see in color. That should matter.

I do know one thing I really like about black and white, especially when I am shooting street or landscapes. If the light is bad, no golden hour or overcast or foggy, changing to black and white will take a mediocre picture and turn it into something worth looking at. Not always, composition does matter, but often enough to make me wonder if shooting black and white can let the photographer “cheat” a little with the quality of their lighting.

Of course, great photographers will take good images no matter what their medium. Some never got the change to use color, so who knows what they could have done with it. Personally, I am going to keep taking mostly color images on film, and if they don’t work out I will try to work out why and learn.

Unless I have to sell it to someone. Then all bets are off.

So Many Cameras

So, when I was in High School (that was a long time ago, but not so long that cars hadn’t been invented yet) I studied photography. It was fun, some of the most fun I had in class during that somewhat turbulent time of my life. Later on, when I was writing for various school papers, I got to take my own pictures. As my writing continued, I took fewer pictures, and when I was done with school and out in the “real” world I stopped entirely.
I suppose that isn’t an uncommon story, film wasn’t free, after all. So, my first few motorcycle trips in the early 90s have no pictures, not a one. I don’t even have a picture of my first motorcycle, a blue SR250 a friend called “The Yammer Hammer.” I remember those times, but pictures would make it all seem more real.
Today, there are digital cameras. In fact, you probably have one with you right now, on your phone. When I took off to ride around North and South America I did have a dedicated camera. It was a small Point and Shoot from Canon, and it took most of the pictures I have from that trip. It wasn’t the best camera for that trip, and it stopped working from time to time. The wet, the sand, the cold – it just wasn’t meant for that kind of abuse. And, when I was back home and finally upgraded my smart phone, the included camera took better pictures anyway.
This led to years of traveling with just my phone – it handled all my electronic needs. Pictures and video (and editing), entertainment, email – I even wrote on it. It was easy enough to carry everywhere, and much easier to keep charged on the road than all the separate things would have been.
Then, in 2015, I decided I wanted to have a “real” camera again. Because I’m cheap, I bought an old Nikon D70S on Craigslist. At a whooping 6mp it wasn’t going to compete with my 12mp phone camera – but it did. And it was fun to have a camera again. My wife (she wasn’t my wife yet, we didn’t get married until January of 2016) saw how much fun I was having and bought be a modern DSLR, again a Nikon but 24.1mp and wireless features. Now I could take a picture, get it onto my phone, and share it online or in a blog within minutes.
I traveled with the DSLRs in 2016, unsure how I would like them on the road. I had to admit I was getting better pictures than I would have gotten on my phone, but I didn’t always like having to carry the camera around. It got in the way.
One thing I learned while traveling is that cameras form a barrier between you and the rest of the world. Sometimes you can get around it. Sometimes, once you’ve taken the camera out, the dynamics of the people around you change and never go back. It was something that bothered me enough that I didn’t always take pictures when I was enjoying myself – the picture didn’t seem worth losing the moment. Phone cameras didn’t always have the same effect. Something about it just being a phone, the commonness of phone pictures – I don’t know. But the DSLR, even the smaller modern one, brought those barriers down in force.
In late 2016 I was camera shopping again. There were features on the D70s that the newer camera (A D3300 by the way) didn’t have and I missed. And there were a lot of cool digital cameras out there. While looking, I read about the full frame/crop sensor debate. This is a long-standing argument over whether you need a “full frame” sensor (which is the size of a 35mm negative) or a “crop” sensor (about 2/3 the size). Someone pointed out that the difference between the two sizes was actually pretty minor, especially given the sizes of negatives used in film.
This got me thinking about film again. I still owned three 35mm cameras. A Kodak Pony from the 1950s, my father’s Pentax K1000 (he passed away in 2007) and my Minolta X-370. I quick interest search showed the Pentax was actually still in demand, and both the Pentax and Minolta still had film in (from who knew when), so I carried them around to see what it was like to shot film again.
Fun. It was fun to shoot film again.
But it wasn’t fun to carry a film camera and a DSLR. Along the way I’d picked up a few jobs using the DSLR cameras, so I couldn’t really get rid of them (and they were better for some things). Since I didn’t want to use film for just any old picture (film, especially on eBay, is cheap – but it’s still not free. Even with home developing there is still a $2 a roll total cost), I started taking more phone pictures again.
So, now it’s 2017. I have a iPhone 6s with a 12mp camera and an off-phone flash (because phone camera flashes are awful). I also carry the Minolta (which I just like better than the Pentax) around in my daily-carry bag. I’m actually taking fewer pictures, but I’m liking the ones I take better. And, since I have three very different tools (phone, D3300, film), I have a lot of options when I go to take pictures of things. Options are good.