Some black and white film photography


I love color. Color is a big part of how I view the world, and the source of a lot of beauty and visual enjoyment for me. For all of my life, I shot in color, and saw no reason to ever shoot in anything but color. Why throw away color, when almost all digital cameras shoot color by default, and it’s easy to convert color to black and white but impossible to go the other way? So only occasionally did I make a black and white image, and it was only after viewing it in color first. While I could appreciate a nice black and white photo, it wasn’t something I really cared to explore more deeply.

However, back in September, I read Bruce Barnbaum’s The Essence of Photography, a book about the art of photography. Barnbaum has a lot of insightful things to say about both color and black and white photography, but I found myself especially intrigued by his reasons for black and white being special to him. Here’s one quote:

A black-and-white photograph is one step of abstraction away from a color photograph, and a further step away from reality. Hence, it affords greater flexibility. The black sky in Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 is perfectly acceptable in black and white, but would look extremely awkward—effectively unacceptable—in color. Yet the image is considered a realistic photograph, not an abstract one. In general, I feel that black and white offers far more artistic interpretation than color because of its inherent abstract underpinnings.

TL;DR: Black and white allows more creative freedom than color because you’re less constrained by viewers wondering, “Did it really look like that?”

Barnbaum also writes persuasively about the importance of having an end goal in mind from the time you press the shutter—meaning if I want black and white, I should just shoot in black and white, rather than shoot in color and screw around indecisively on the computer later.

These arguments felt pretty compelling to me. So since then, I’ve shot three rolls of black and white film—not very much, but it’s most of the film I’ve been shooting.

I started with a roll of Arista 400, a “student” film that I bought because it was slightly cheaper than the others, because I didn’t want to feel too invested in the results.

My friend Andrew and I went to photograph some BART trains one day after work, since it was the last week BART was running their legacy trains in regular service. I wish I’d pressed the shutter slightly later, but I’m happy with how I framed this shot:

Later that week, I used about a third of the roll photographing my friend Bobbie’s jazz band playing at a house party. However, I wasn’t super thrilled with the results—I brought an awkward lens, and the lighting was not great.

That weekend, we visited the Western Railway Museum out in Solano County. The museum was really cool, but I found myself more interested (photography-wise) by the many wind turbines scattered across the surrounding landscape. So we drove around the area a bit after seeing the museum, and I made these photos:

I like how stark and surreal the turbines look in these. I think that’s they felt to me, otherworldly intrusions on an otherwise idyllic landscape.

A couple of months later, I went back to the wind turbines with a roll of Kodak T-Max 100. I wanted to spend more time exploring, this time with a tripod and slower film for less grainy photos. Maybe because of the low sun, or the photo spot I settled on, I found myself focusing more on the shapes in the landscape rather than the turbines themselves.

I used a yellow filter for these shots to boost contrast against the sky, but I think the sky was too hazy to provide much punch.

I like all the dynamic shadows in those two above, but I also like the softer transitions in this one, post-sunset:

I had a few leftover shots on the roll of T-Max, which I used up during the following work week.

This past week, I shot a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 that my friend Paul gave me. This was homework for the darkroom class I’m currently taking at the Harvey Milk Photo Center. After procrastinating a bit, I had only a few days to finish the whole roll; I felt like I was running out of pictures to take around the apartment, but there are actually many shots I liked.

This is also the first roll of film I’ve ever developed myself, as part of that class!

Aside: On the previous two black and white rolls, I had a lot of scratches and dust/dirt on the negatives when scanning. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong when sleeving my negatives, but after discussing with my darkroom instructor Chris, it seems like it’s probably due to a combination of my tossing the completed film rolls into my dirty backpack + the lab not being particularly careful keeping the film super clean. This roll of Tri-X that I developed by hand was a lot cleaner, so I’m happy about that.

I really like how these came out. I’ve been enjoying shooting black and white a lot, so I’ll continue to focus on it for the time being.

I’m also really excited to learn to make prints in the darkroom. Maybe more to come on that later.