Some time ago, I decided to try shooting a black and white film roll for the first time. I must say, it was extremely difficult. Not the mechanical part of it, of course, as the type of film will affect nothing of the process of focusing and pressing the shutter. The terribly difficult part is trying to not see colors.
When you shoot with a digital camera, you basically always shoot color and then later, in post-processing, you may see a couple of photos that you think look good in black and white. With color film you can do the same, though I’ve personally rarely tried it – and never liked the results.
While shooting black and white film, however, there is no post-processing to make it colored later (I mean, it’s possible, but much more difficult). Thus, there is extra pressure to make sure that the photo actually works in B&W. If you shoot black and white film and a photo doesn’t work in black and white, the photo doesn’t work. Period.
I imagine that, back when color film was rare, photographers would be so used to shooting in B&W that they learned how to instinctively find the shots that work in black and white. Today, I believe not a lot of people can, especially people without any training in art/design/photography, like me. We see the world in color and we’ve become so accustomed to having cameras that capture color, that it becomes incredibly hard to remind our eyes to see in black and white. At least, that’s exactly what I felt when shooting this roll.
While I walked around town with Zoe, I kept being distracted by colors and I’d get the urge to shoot whatever it was. It took half a second, every time, to remind myself that what I was so eager to shoot wouldn’t be a good photo in B&W.
A bright red trash can against a vibrant green tree – wouldn’t work. Without the contrast created by the red and green colors, I’d just be taking a photograph of a trash can and a tree. A nun holding a pink umbrella while waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green – wouldn’t work. Without the unexpected pink contrasted with the black habit, I’d just be photographing a nun.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been able to take good B&W photographs of the trash can or the nun, but the reason that I was drawn to take those photos in the first place was because of the colors. And, worst of all, every time I reminded myself that I was carrying a B&W roll, I got disappointed for missing out on those photographs. I realized I needed to train my eyes to see in B&W, to evaluate the world around me in a different way than what I’m used to.
I’ve been told that, when shooting B&W, it’s necessary to focus on textures, rather than colors. So, I tried to visit places that I’ve considered too dull to photograph in the past. And still, most photos of those places turned out boring, because I was still having a lot of difficulty finding things that I felt would work in B&W.
I tried photographing strangers, as I thought people would be good subjects for B&W, but I forgot to remind myself that I couldn’t depend on color to make them stand out against the background. A person in a dark blue sweater against some green bushes in the shade will just look like a floating head, because the dark blue and the dark green will look very similar in B&W.
It was hard when I was shooting, and it was hard when I got the developed photos back. I wasn’t expecting much (I knew the photos wouldn’t be good), but it was still a bit disappointing to see the results. However challenging, though, it was also a very interesting learning experience for me. After all, it’s by doing difficult things that one learns and grows. And this was definitely difficult.
I think I’ll try to practice photographing in B&W with my digital camera for a while before I try it with film again. This little hobby is not cheap, and I definitely need to train my eyes a lot more before buying more B&W rolls. If you have any tips on how to shoot B&W film, please let me know, I desperately need them!