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.