When I started out with a camera, an embarrassingly large number of years ago, I managed to scrape enough money to buy a basic Eastern Bloc SLR with TTL metering, but everything else was completely manual – aperture, shutter speed and focus. Nevertheless this was a big step up from a Kodak Instamatic (remember them?). However I was a bit pushed to pay for colour film (slides or prints) and the developing costs were very high too, particularly as I was still at school.
So it was that I came to shooting black and white film by default. It was much cheaper, you could buy it in bulk, load your own cartridges, process the film in your own darkroom, and even equip your own darkroom with a basic timer, chemicals and enlarger for not too much money.
Shooting in black and white was my life until well into my time at University, when I started to splash out a tiny bit on some colour slide film. But it taught me a lot of things, and in particular how to look for tonal contrasts in images. It also taught me a lot about how to use filters and what the effects of those magic squares of plastic might be on the image.
In recent year, concentrating on macro and wildlife photography, I have let my use of black and white slide a bit. However in recent weeks, I have re-ignited my love of black and white landscapes, which can be quite magical when combined with beautiful low, slanting winter light, and ever-changing skies.
There are some images where colour is important, or even crucial. But using black and white forces you to look at how light and darkness interact in each image: Where are the light and dark bits, how can the be linked together using pathways of similar or contrasting tone, what textures are there and how can they be portrayed?
I always shoot in RAW these days, now my computer is up to it, and then convert the image from colour to black and white afterwards. Shooting black and white JPEG in camera really does limit your options. I then process it, usually in Lightroom, sometimes with some tweaking in Photoshop. This allows you to change the colour balance and apply digitally the filters that I used to carry round in my camera bag – a red filter to darken the sky, a green filter to lighten the grass and so on.
If anybody hasn’t tried black and white, it really is worth a go. When you go back to colour, the sensitivity to the amount of light and dark in the frame will persist, and it will make you think about how to frame a photograph in a different way. You will also learn what scenes look great in black and white, and which ones really don’t lend themselves to black and white. I’ve started shooting a lot more images with the primary aim of conversion to black and white. I love the feel of these images. I hope you do to.