Educational

Black & White vs. Color Film

With the digital editing tools available these days, many wonder why the Leica M Monochrome or black and white film exist since black and white seems as close as a saturation slide bar away. In addition, standard drug store/megastore grade and better color film is easier to get and relatively cheap. Most black and white film is not C41 friendly and requires manual development. No big deal for those who choose to do it themselves and can technically shorten the shoot to negative timeline, but for those who have not yet committed to developing their own film (ahem. slowly puts hand up) this likely means more time and money to shoot black and white. With the exception, however, of Ilford XP2 which is C41 friendly. So easy logical choice then. Shoot color all the time and slide that saturation bar when the need arises, am I right? Not so fast. If photography needs to make sense, then you and I are probably not doing it right. The non-artsy fartsy logic based advantages of color are obvious.

It’s… color.

Color film is easier to find and cheaper to buy and get developed if you are not doing it yourself. My local camera shop of choice, Southeast Camera, can usually get a C41 roll of film turned around in a day or so, while black and white is done in small batches since they are done by hand, and typically take a week or more. It’s color! No one is buying black and white TVs and monitors since color became available… Hm. (Wonders if he has accidentally stumbled upon a hipster gold mine.) But there are also some artsy fartsy benefits of color film as well.

Just look at the raft of different color filter options presented before posting a photo on Instagram, Flickr or even Twitter and how some have their favorite ones. Imagine finding a color film that captures the world in a way that you generally find pleasing. And that is how it all started. The OG filter. Do you prefer vibrant or muted colors? Will you be shooting people and looking for warm skin tones or shooting things and looking for exaggerated colors? Leaning towards sharp images or grain in buckets? Shooting with film is akin to selecting your favorite filter up front and committing instead of relegating it to the last step in a posting process. It is great fun to shoot a scene with a preferred film and discovering later if your vision has come to fruition. I may only have one artsy fartsy reason for selecting color film. That will do.

So why shoot black and white then?

For the same reason, one of proper means and inclination might choose to shoot with a digital M Monochrome. Commitment. You see in color of course, but this inspires one to imagine in black and white. No odd color cast concerns. Never will an errant reflection off a nearby surface jack up an image by rendering an otherwise lovely individual’s face an unnatural hue not found in nature.

There is just something special about the look of a black and white image. Perhaps it is because color distracts from the emotional tone or feeling of a photo? Perhaps black and white inspires one to examine the lines of a building or a person’s face rather than be distracted by color? Can’t quite quantify why fully, but it is there.

Timelessness. Often without a visual chronological crutch, one would be hard-pressed to tell when a black and white photo took place. Recently there was an exhibit containing magnificent photos of an African Choir taken in 1891. What struck me right away was that these photos are so crisp, so clear that they stand toe to toe with any modern means of image capture, analog or digital today.

Gravitas. Black and white photos carry a sort of visual weight that no color photo can match in my opinion. For the most special occasions, I tend to shoot in black and white. One example is this family reunion photo shoot. I knew I would shoot on film and in black and white.

Both color and black and white have their benefits. Not trying to convince anyone to choose just one, but seeking to encourage others to try more. I bounce back and forth between many film types and my current film stash is all over the map. Color and black and white can evoke a completely different feeling even when the subject matter is the same. Below are shots from different scenarios w/ samples from both.

Portrait

Street

 

Candid

Still Life

Is one better than the other? No. Some may have their preferences, but I appreciate and shoot both color and black and white.

If you have not yet shot different types of color film and black and white film give it a shot. Ask the fine folks at your local camera shop what they recommend, like I do. For day to day and testing, I usually use drugstore grade multi pack film. Kodak Ultramax or Fuji Superia 200 for instance, will do for me. On a recommendation from Manu at SE Camera I have also ordered some Fuji Superia 800 film online that is very reasonably priced considering the higher sensitivity. For pricier color film I really like Agfa Vista 200 and Kodak Portra. Having said that, each type of film has its merits. But for traditional black and white film I really like Fuji Acros 100 and Kodak Tri-X. I also really like Ilford XP2 400 when I am looking for the convenience of C41 film. The Ilford really shines when shot as recommended to me by Dennis at SE Camera.  I set ISO to 200 and have it developed at 400 as marked and it produces some wonderful images without much grain at all and plenty of definition. There are so many other films I did not even get to list or have not yet tried. I plan on trying many more.

With old film cameras of all types at such fantastic prices nowadays it is really a great time to grab some good old vintage gear and get yourself a nice cross sampling of film and get shooting. With patience, practice, and care you will very likely capture some great moments and have great fun along the way.

Here you can find a gallery of film photographs taken with many different cameras, film formats and films.

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12 comments

  1. For the year 2012, I shot exclusively using B&W film. Kodak BW400CN, was my general purpose film for getting it developed locally with C41 machines. I did use traditional B&W films also. I shot over 60 rolls that year.

    1. Committing an entire year to black and white is very impressive. Personal projects like that are one of the many reasons I love photography. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Interesting article. I develop all my own film and, simply because it’s easy to develop a single roll, I mostly use black and white film. All kinds, but most commonly Kentmere 100 and Ilford HP5 Plus. Nonetheless, I do shoot color film but I batch process this as the reconstituted developing chemicals have a limited shelf life and the process is a little more involved, requiring a water bath for temperature control. So I usually do 12 rolls of color at time – and that’s interesting because some of those rolls can be months old. Close to the ultimate delayed gratification. Again, all kinds of color film, but mostly Lomography color stock. As you point out, both color and black and white films have their virtues.

    1. Awesome information Richard. I do intend to begin developing my own film at some point and these details regarding your workflow are very helpful. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for a good, intelligent overview. One suggestion: Perhaps our discussions need to drop the “vs.” format. We see too much of it, whether film vs. digital, B&W vs. color, large format vs. small, etc. etc. Art isn’t a football game (or war), and these false dichotomies set up conflicting, defensive camps where the “other side” is dismissed out of hand. Rather, let’s just ask whether our images sing, whether they come from the heart, and speak the truth. Technique and equipment should be about the best means to reach that goal!

    1. Agreed. The title was an editorial request meant to be shorthand for comparative rather than adversarial but your point is well taken. I personally rail against choosing and find merit in all formats and own most you mentioned.

  4. For me, black and white photos — especially portraits (love that photo of your wife)– cut to the chase. The person, the connection. Black and white detaches us from reality as our reality can only be experienced in color. Ultimately, Black and White Photography is our roots as photographers, we cannot escape it.

    1. Wilson,
      Excellent take on the virtues of black and white film.

  5. Great article and I fully agree with all observations. It seems however that you decide on using for b/w mostly on the general subject matter of the images. I would in addition like to offer (as I did in my post http://www.mantenphotography.com/blog/2017/10/black-and-white-versus-color- in photography ) that also other considerations might lead to selecting b/w above color: texture and patterns, contrast, and where and how the image will be displayed.
    Also an excellent observation by Bud: although I did the same in my post, we really should drop the “versus” when comparing color and b/w photography.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Excellent article. I really like the five factors you identified. A few dashes had made the escape in your link above so I will add the full link here in case anyone else would (and should) like to review your work http://www.mantenphotography.com/blog/2017/10/black-and-white-versus-color-in-photography . And Bud definitely had a good point.

      1. Eric, thanks and thanks for fixing the link!

  6. Eric,

    I see color photography as a Recorder – capturing the Moments of the Present Time so they don’t completely disappear. I use a digital camera for that (Canon G1x) and find the experience to be enjoyable especially for sharing with my family.

    B/W photography is about seeing an image, out of the Present time context. B/W images describe time, its passage or absence….the visual equivalent of trying to achieve what JSBach via G Gould (1981) aurally accomplished with the Goldberg variations…one hears (or sees) the essence of time as a succession of moments and the impact of its absence.

    I can’t do that with digital, it’s not sufficiently magic. What camera I choose, which film, how the film feels loading the reel, the 30 or so minutes at the basement bench playing with chemicals, followed by printing contacts and then the printing or scanning … there is a sublime process that requires time to pull out the image from one’s imagination.

    I’m very soon going to try C41 at home, the chemicals just arrived a few days ago.

    What will color be then?

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