Why black and white film photography is great!

Black and white film has the ability to inspire creativity. But so does digital, so what is the big deal about black and white film photography?

Film photography has been in my blood since childhood. I was given a Kodak camera when I was eight years old and have been shooting film ever since. I built a darkroom in my parent’s attic and spent many a day experimenting with processing and printing negatives.

Having used, and still use, digital cameras, I think there is something very different about the results from film photography. Black and white negative film offers creative opportunities that digital and colour can never do. Here are a few of my reasons for shooting with black and white film.

Firstly, it is about mindfulness. I know, mindfulness is a much-overused word now, but this is a definite aspect of film photography that I think is the most important. Although the digital photographer has to think about composition, light, contrast etc, there is nothing stopping him taking tons of photos to find the one that looks just right. On the other hand, the film photographer has to really concentrate on getting the image in the camera right the first time, because each shot costs money. Getting the image right involves much more deliberation and concentration, a very mindful experience.

Film photography is about anticipation. You never really know what you are going to get until the film is processed and scanned or printed. I process my own film, and the sense of wonder is compelling when the film emerges from the developing tank, especially when a quick look reveals some really nice negatives.

Film photography is about challenge. There are so many things that can frustrate the photographer. Dust, scratches on the film, uneven development or even light leaking into the camera are all possibilities when shooting with film. Yet, even with these factors to consider, film offers the opportunity to accomplish skills that the digital photographer will never master. The challenge is definitely worth the frustration!

Colour is great, but it can sometimes confuse the viewer. A colourful image tends to hide patterns and shapes. When these elements are important features to communicate, black and white can win hugely over colour. It is almost like the analogy of the forest and the trees. Seeing a huge forest is great, but sometimes the overwhelming view of a forest hides the most important element, the trees. We can overlook the detail when overwhelmed. Colour can often have the same effect, while black and white lets the viewer see the detail.

Many people who give film photography a try can be disappointed with the results because the final image can look very different from a digital comparison. Film can have a grainy look to it and it definitely has a subtlety of its own. And, different films have different characteristics. For example, I use Ilford FP4 and Delta 100 for most of my work. Although both are rated about ISO 100, they behave quite differently. Delta is more contrasty while FP4 has a slightly better dynamic range. Working with film means learning the characteristics of the material and how it will behave. Almost like working with colleagues – you never really know their real character until they are pushed a little!

So, frustration, challenge, and never really knowing what you are going to get are some of the aspects of film photography that make it a special craft to master. By turning those challenges into a positive, film photography, especially black and white, offers amazing opportunities.

Have you given film photography a try? Let me know how you get on.