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The Ultimate Guide to Black & White Film Photography for Beginners

You can easily transform any photo to black and white these days with the touch of a button, but there is a certain allure to actually shooting with a black and white film roll that will only produce black and white photos. Just because it is alluring doesn't mean that it is easy, though, especially if you are new to black and white film photography or to film photography in general. But that is not a reason to be discouraged!

Read on as we delve into the fundamentals of black and white film photography and provide you with some key tips and tricks to ace your next b/w shots.

Why shoot in black and white

Like any good murder mystery would ask - what is the motivation here? Why shoot in black and white in the first place?

Some may think that black and white photos look boring or underwhelming. Arguably, it can also be more difficult to grasp what is happening in the photo with the lack of colors. While this simplicity cause some to give these photos no more than a quick glance, it may also encourage viewers to take a deeper look to try to better understand the photos. Indeed, in the absence of colors, every other aspect about the photo becomes even more important. So if you want to put a spotlight on the composition, light, texture, or emotion on your photos, shooting in black and white can help you do so.

There is also, of course, the vintage aspect of black and white photos that pulls people in.

Photos taken in black and white tend to have a classic, timeless feeling to it. Film photography is vintage as it is, but add a black and white film roll and you've got yourself a bundle of vintage joy.

Key considerations when shooting black and white films

So you're convinced to start your journey in black and white film photography, what now?

As previously mentioned, black and white film allows you to accentuate certain aspects in the photos. These are, in fact, the very same key aspects that you should consider when shooting in black and white.

1. Light, shadow, and contrast

There is simply no overstating the importance of light, shadow and contrast in black and white film photography. So before you take your shots, consider the lighting conditions, direction of lights, and the absence of it -- shadow.

The direction of the light exposes one side while casting a shadow on the other side, creating an interesting shot.
The direction of the light exposes one side while casting a shadow on the other side, creating an interesting shot.

Black and white photography also relies heavily on contrast to create impact. If this is your aim then you might want to look for scenes with strong light and shadow to enhance contrast in your images. Having backlight in your photos, for instance, can make your photos look more dramatic.

It's important to experiment, especially when you are just starting out. So don't be scared to shoot during different times of the day.

2. Texture & shape

Every object has a texture and shape that will often interact with light. These interactions, and the combinations of the different textures and shapes, are some of the most important aspects to producing a great shot.

To illustrate this, see the below photo. Here, we have a contrast between the textures of the soft, flowy fabric curtain and the solid wooden floor. Similarly for the shapes, with the curtain hanging just above the wooden floor creating somewhat of a squiggly shape and the wooden floor with its smooth, flat surface.

A contrast of textures and shapes between the curtain fabric and wooden floor.
A contrast of textures and shapes between the curtain fabric and wooden floor.

The combination of various shapes and textures results in this shot of an interesting-looking building.
The combination of various shapes and textures results in this shot of an interesting-looking building.

Here is another shot I took of an interesting-looking building with various shapes and textures. You'll notice two walkways stretching horizontally across the frame, adorned with railings. Additionally, on either side of the image, there are the main buildings featuring geometric shapes. Some parts display rough, course edges, while others appear flat and smooth.

It might be a bit difficult at first to visualize how different textures and shapes would look when combined in a shot, but leave that for later! Start by simply noticing these different aspects in your objects and try to capture the different combinations. Over time you will start to develop a sense of what works for you and what doesn't. Perhaps that entails contrasting different textures and shapes: smooth and rough, organic and man-made, old and new. Or, perhaps just a single textured subject over a blurred background. The key here is to experiment!

3. Composition

To tie together the concepts we've previously discussed, namely light, shadow, contrast, texture and shape, is composition. Luckily, a number of techniques already exist to help elevate your composition game:

  • Rule of Thirds

  • Framing

  • Symmetry/asymmetry

  • Leading lines

Don't worry if these sound foreign to you! If you like scrolling on Instagram as much as I do then you probably have seen these techniques in action, but were just never aware of their names and how they work ;).

Reading up on these techniques and many others will surely help if not to educate you, then to inspire you. However, try not to take these techniques as gospel, and definitely don't let them stop you from taking your shots. The techniques are there to guide you, but who's to say you can't stray from them or develop your own? You can even decide to post-process your photos and edit your film scans, albeit less than an ideal option for some, of course.

4. Feeling, emotion, and movement

In the simplicity of black and white film lies the ability to expose the subject's emotions and feelings. To elevate your photos, try to explore the different emotions that your subject might be feeling, be it the joy of reuniting with a loved one after not seeing each other for a while, or the anger and frustration you see in a demonstrator fighting for a dear cause. If you can put yourself in your subject's shoes and feel their emotions then you are already one step closer to capturing those on camera.

Wherever there are people (or even animals), there are feelings and emotions, and while people show their feelings and emotions in different ways and intensities, the bottom line is that they are there, so you only need to pay attention. Aside from face expressions, emotions can also show through movement and body language, so keep an eye out for those on your subjects. Maybe it's slumped shoulders, or raised hands, whatever those are, they help to convey an emotion.

Despite not being able to see their face expressions close up, we can tell the two men are relaxed, yet engrossed in a conversation, based on their body language.
Despite not being able to see their face expressions close up, we can tell the two men are relaxed, yet engrossed in a conversation, based on their body language.

If you want to practice capturing emotions in your photos, a good idea would be to go to places where emotions tend to run high. The airport, for example, will allow you to witness the many emotions people go through when having to leave their loved ones, or reunite with them. A music concert will likely bring you many subjects that are excited and happy to be able to sing their hearts out to their favorite artists. The list goes on, so pack your camera and get going!

5. Film types & grain

Last but not least is virtually what defines film photography - the film roll. Your choice of film stock can play an important role in how your photos turn out. For instance, if you want to make your black and white photos look more modern and edgy you might want to consider using film rolls that are known for their fine grain and high contrast. These include options such as the Ilford Delta and the Kodak T-Max. On the other hand, if you are going for a more classic and nostalgic look you might want to consider film stocks with more pronounced grain and softer contrast, like the Ilford HP5 Plus and the Kodak Tri-X.

Also keep in mind of your film stock when planning for a day of photo-taking to maximize the results. For example, if you are planning on taking photos at an exhibition of contemporary art and architecture, it would probably be best to load a film stock that would maximize the modern and edgy look you are likely to fine at the exhibition. At the end of the day, this is of course your choice, but it is nonetheless good to be aware of how the different film stocks may affect your resulting photos. If you are relatively new to film photography and black and white film in specific, I would recommend to first explore as much as possible before you settle on a favorite film stock and start shooting more with it.

Well, there you go, folks! Now that you are aware of the key considerations when shooting black and white, you are ready to journey deeper and start taking your shots in the many shades of grey. It might not be easy, but embrace the challenge, celebrate the small wins, and above all, keep experimenting. Remember that as any other form of art, photography is subjective, and while it can be handy to follow these principles, ultimately, you are the one holding the camera so you decide what you capture and how you capture it.


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