When to use B&W Film?


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Jun 20, 2021
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I'm looking to take my first forays into B&W film (HP5) and was wondering if there was any guidance on offer as to when B&W is best suited?

I've been doing some research and high contrast scenes seem to be one indicator (which makes sense to me I think) but then there are contrasting (no pun intended) views like 'grey weather means B&W' and 'bright contrast day means loading up the B&W!'

Any help, advice or suggestions on things to look out for compared to colour film shooting would be much appreciated.
I think it's like drawing & painting, where beginners are first taight to draw with charcoal or pencil, then move to color after they've grasped the basics. B&W can be used to learn the basics of exposer and composition without the added element of color theory. Also, IMO, it is a lot easier to learn developing at home with B&W film, should you decide to go that route.
You might try Ilford XP-2 Super, a chromogenic b&w film with huge exposure latitude that's processed in C-41 chemistry.
Thanks for the advice - C41 would be ideal as I have that already for the colour film, was looking at the df96 monobath which I can get here for the Ilford.

Comments noted, much appreciated.

Will post up a couple from the first roll when done.
"When to shoot BW" is a very hard question for me personally to answer other than to say I shoot way more BW than color. BW is very technical and I have set up certain cameras with certain films to produce a high tonal range. I also still only print my BW in the darkroom, color is now for scanning as I have no wet room to print RA-4.
I carry one of several Pentax M body's everyday and they are loaded with a couple types BW film. When I shoot any of my folders it's BW. Over the last 30-35 years color for me is for when I shoot sunsets, car shows, vacations, my "paint with light series".
The df96 monobath is great for the beginner. Just make sure you have stood in the space where you will load film for a minimum of 10 minutes to see if there are any light leaks. XP-2 is a great alternative as "cgw" said.
When ... whenever you want.
I shot B&W for almost everything ... and I also shot colour slide film, of the same subjects/places ... it just depended on what I wanted to show.
For me, black and white is all about patterns - texture, shapes, shadows, contrast. Those are the things that capture my eye, so that's why I tend to prefer black and white. I only consider color if I see an interesting pattern that is created by or broken up by color, or if the mood is explicitly enhanced by the color.

Ultimately, I think it depends on what you want from the photo. What do you see in your mind? What are you taking a picture of and what is necessary to create the image the way you want it to? What are the important elements?

For example, I couldn't imagine this shot in color. It was all about the graphical shapes of the shadows and the texture of the wall and then the pattern being interrupted by the chair. My eyes saw it in color but in my mind, there was no doubt that it had to be in black and white.

Chairv2 by limrodrigues, on Flickr

This picture, however, wouldn't have the same mood if it were in black and white. The pale colors of the sky that are then reflected in the water show the dying light, just past sunset, and it sets the mood for an evening swim. I think that subtlety gets lost in black and white.

Night swim by limrodrigues, on Flickr
For example, I couldn't imagine this shot in color. It was all about the graphical shapes of the shadows and the texture of the wall and then the pattern being interrupted by the chair. My eyes saw it in color but in my mind, there was no doubt that it had to be in black and white.
Many thanks - I have begiun to understand this also - several pictures have been transformed when I switch them to mono in post - from bland and flat to suddenly having real atmosphere. I need to improve my experience though as I'm still caught out and surprised which photo's transform well. Will keep in mind your comments on patterns, textures, shapes and contrast.

In fact I need to learn this for general use - have found it quite fascinating seeing shots like your photo of the shadows and chair above, I need to train my eye to pick these things up!
I am sure you have seen @Tuna work that he has posted ... he also does shoot colour ... and as @limr mentioned, when you want to show colour as the subject you shoot colour film.
B&W is great to show off things that are not colourful ... like stone on stone.


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I love HP5. It is my favorite B&W film. I liked it better then PanF 50. I haven’t used XP2 but plan to. C41 B&W does act differently then normal B&W films.
DSLR scanning of 120 b&w negatives works for me. Never bother with C-41 film.
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Hi, wobe. Your question has potentially many aspects to it, as some of the replies so far indicate. As a devotee of B&W for many decades, perhaps I can clarify a few of them in a way that will be useful to you as you get started.

My first suggestion would be to look at the work of really accomplished B&W film photographers. I’ll list just a few below. If you have favorite subjects, such as landscape, portraiture, still life, etc., look for photographers in the same area, though you can learn plenty from broadening your view as well. Because the web is full of everything, including tons of advice and creative productions from people who are not, shall we say, very expert, it can be difficult to get a bearing on any subject. It’s always best to see original photographic prints, of course. Lacking that, check your library for what books it may have, and look into interlibrary loan. I have read/viewed many books this way that were not available locally and that I could not afford to buy.

HP5 is also my film of choice for most of my work; my reasons may not be yours. I have used it for photojournalism, portraiture, still life, landscape, and other subjects. It’s a good one to start with. Because it is a fast film, it has larger grain than most slower films. You may eventually choose one with finer grain, but this is a matter of what kind of result you are trying to achieve. If you plan on making 11x14 larger prints from 35mm negatives (some would set the limit But don’t fret about it quite yet. Get to know the film first.

I have not used monobath processing, but while it may suffice for getting started, you probably will want better control over your development as time goes on. The monobath is a kind all-purpose, one-size-fits-all approach, which may not yield the kind of negatives for optimal printing of your images, because it’s designed, in effect, to compensate for errors so that at least useful results can be obtained. “Useful” is not always what we want.

Let me elaborate on that a little from another angle that goes back to your original question. The classic example of the difference between color and B&W photography is photographing an archetypal red apple with its green leaves. In color the contrast is bold, because red and green lie on opposite sides of the color wheel; complements, as they are called. However, the red and green in this subject tend to reflect about the same amount of light, so, in B&W, the gray of the leaves is similar to the gray of the apple, which can be both surprising and disappointing to the photographer new to B&W. There are various tools in the B&W photographer’s bag that can change this: Greater contrast may result from the lighting conditions (e.g., direct sunlight casting dark shadows and creating sparking highlights), longer film development, choice of film developer, choice of paper contrast when printing, as well as others.

What this comes down to, is that successful B&W photography requires us to learn to “see in B&W,” that is, to recognize the actual brightness values in our subject and mentally imagine how they will translate to the film and print in B&W. Depending on your experience and level of skill, that visualization may include the effects of some of the above tools and techniques that you will use after exposing the film. If you have ever heard of the Zone System, that’s what it’s about.

For these and related reasons, it’s difficult to answer your question both simply and accurately. One photographer may choose overcast days and produce impressive results while another advises never to waste time shooting B&W under such conditions. B&W photography offers a wonderful world of possibilities, just as color does. Here are a few masterful B&W film photographers with different interests. I’d be happy to help you more if you have questions.

Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Kristophoffer Albrecht, Doremus Scudder, Mary Ellen Mark, Elliot Erwitt, Sebastiao Salgado, Rodney Smith.

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