black and white photography

Photography has existed for hundreds and thousands of years. It is described in Greek books written some 2000 years ago, as a device by which one could watch the eclipse of the sun without damaging one’s eyes. And later, it was a much loved device among painters in the dark ages, used to create accurate copies, and exact portraits. All of this by way of the camera obscura, which was basically a dark room with a very small hole that allowed the picture to enter the room and be projected on the wall opposite the opening. It was only in the early 19th century, that pioneer photographers devised a way to print the image on a page. And though color photography came to this world at the beginning of the 20th century, black and white remained the standard till the 1960s, and many fine art photographers preferred black and white till the arrival of digital photography.

Since the invention of modern photography, there were many special effects that stimulated enthusiastic responses over the years, including cinema, color photography, 3D photography, and others. But the standard black and white photograph was dependable, relatively easy to use, and proved over the years that it could open a world of possibilities. Color and 3D were always in competition with reality. But black and white remained a parable, and as such, did not compete with reality as we know it. It reminded us continuously of the reality we saw with our eyes, but never quite touched it.

the window, on the northern shore of the dead sea

My own love affair with photography started in my youth and continued through my life. I loved the art, and the technology, and became a professional photographer, and had numerous periods in my life where I devoted myself to certain aspects, media, and equipment that are part of this occupation. I loved working with large negatives, which by their nature are able to hold enormous amounts of information. In the area of high resolution, large format photography, film is still able to produce results that are unequalled by digital photography, but it seems that digital equipment is fast catching up.

The image above, of the window, is an image that I fell in love with at first sight. And over the years, I have returned to that image and re-photographed it with different media, and different cameras. But this original picture still hangs in my dining room, and forever reminds me of that night, long ago, when I printed the first print of that picture with a very old fashioned enlarger, and trays of chemicals in a room illuminated by a red bulb. I have enjoyed some of the variations. The color version of this photograph, that was taken years later, became quite popular. I have done a panoramic version, and eventually a digital version too.

One of the advantages of black and white is that it has a longer life expectancy. Color dyes fade in time. Both on negatives and on prints. Digital media has a short life span too, from what I’ve heard. But I have printed negatives for the museum here, that were older than 150 years, and all of the information was there. And I was able to provide beautiful prints from the excellent negatives.

Up until the digital period, there were many reasons to consider if you were going to photograph in color or black and white. And once you made your choice, you already had a film in the camera, Many photographers found it easier to work with black and white, because one was able to use the red light to see, while printing pictures. When working with color, one had to work in complete darkness. I personally had a wide variety of tools and equipment, as well as a large collection of cameras, but aside from the fact that I could work with color without problem, and many of my customers demanded color for their industrial and advertising needs, I found myself often going back to black and white for any number of reasons, ranging from limitations that one found in artificial light, and all the way back to seeing the black and white as a parable, or an analogy. Often, it was more comfortable for me to work with it.

Now, in the digital age, one does not have to wait to put a different film in the camera. One can change from black and white to color and back again with each picture. One can change the sensitivity of the camera with each picture, or change the white balance. We have the advantage of much greater flexibility. On the other hand, it seems to me that the digital cameras are more friendly to color use, and one has to know more about photography in order to elicit the full power of black and white from the color camera.


55 responses to “black and white photography

  1. Interesting article, Shimon. I’m still in my formation time, and at first didn’t like black and white at all, and I’ve slowly begun to appreciate it. I love your photo of the window on the northern shore.

    • There was a time, back in the days of film, when I would have suggested to any beginner to start with black and white. But now, with very simple digital cameras, and the cell phone with camera, I don’t see that much reason to go to black and white, unless the photographer feels a real need to express himself in that way. I enjoy many of your photos. Thanks.

  2. Dear Shimon,
    That photograph is so attractive, pulling the eye in, making the brain think about what it is seeing. I can smell the chemicals used to develop film. My father did his own developing and enlarging and prints. Poor guy, the only place he had to do it was in our kitchen. It had three doors, and with seven kids at home, someone was always walking in and turning the lights on.

    I found this post really interesting. I had heard that Vermeer created his amazing paintings through the use of the camera obscura, but didn’t know it had been in use in ancient Greece!

    • Many of us who did our own darkroom work remember colorful stories of those days. There were a few years when I could only work at night, because I couldn’t completely darken the room I was using. There was a time when I used the bathroom too, which caused other problems. But looking back, it was a good time. Glad you liked the picture, Naomi. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Aloha Shimon ….
    What a beautiful way to express the difference between working in color or in black and white. Black and white is a “parable” and doesn’t compete with reality. I like that.

    I have been a graphic artist for over thirty years and worked exclusively with a rapidograph pen in black and white. My work was harsh and stark, But I wrestled with the problems of rendering anguish beautiful. And only now realize why I chose the black and white. I didn’t want the competition of visual reality warring with what I had in my head. It worked.

    Your “Window on the Northern Shore of the Deaad Sea” is a perfect example of that parable …. in the spare lines supporting the contrast of shadow and light there is a clarity … and oddly enough, a sense of reality … which color would have sapped. I love it!

    • Very glad you liked that explanation, Nikki. When I first started drawing, still in my youth, I used a rapidograph, and loved it. I remember washing the pen out after every use. Later on, I used the same pen for writing numbers on negatives. Rendering anguish beautiful sounds very interesting. Glad you liked the window.

  4. I love reading your posts Shimon. I love this image and I can see why you do to. It’s beautiful and striking in its simplicity.

    • Glad that you enjoy the posts, Edith. I’m very impressed by the work you do with the phone camera. I do believe that any instrument can produce great work if one is aware of its personality and capacities. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Hey Shimon. This is something I have never experimented with but definitely going to give it a try. Thanks for your intersting observations on B&W photography. Have a good Shabbos.

    • I’m always for experimentation, Jacquie. But I’m not sure that B&W is so important these days. I see a lot of efforts on the net, that don’t seem really worth while. Color is a wonderful thing, and there are infinite possibilities, working with it. Shavua tov.

  6. I have to agree with you about B&W photography. It is beautiful, at times magical, and timeless. When you described working in a darkroom illuminated by a red bulb, I was taken back to the days when I had a dark room set up in the basement–the smell of the chemicals, the excitement of seeing an image emerge from a piece of blank photo paper; nothing like it! The digital age has changed all of that and made photography accessible to everyone, and while digital photography allows the artist in us to experiment and create fantastic images, there will always be something special about the B&W photograph that was created in a darkroom.

    • Yes, that is one of the great memories, shared by all who developed and printed by themselves… watching the picture come into existence on the paper. I used to love that moment. On the whole, though, I think that the digital age is a better one for photographers, and it makes me very happy to know that anyone who feels like it can make pictures whenever they want, and even improve them on the computer. In many ways, the computer has taken the craft from the hands of professionals, and given it to everyone. Thanks for your comment, Cecelia.

  7. Wonderful article dear Shimon. I am one of the lovers of B & W photography. It is more than colour for me… Standing so impressively… I loved your window, I can die for a view like that… Thank you, have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • I can imagine, Nia, that you would love a view like that… especially with all the action you’re getting these days from your window. I hope the destruction and construction doesn’t take too long. I wouldn’t say that B&W is better than color. It’s just another media, with a mystique of its own. A little like the difference between water colors and chalk. I worked with it for quite a few years, but love the ease with which I can work with color these days. We’re having rain again. Wishing you a very beautiful week.

  8. Wow, what a fascinating image. I can’t stop looking at it. I enjoyed this post very much.

  9. What a beautiful photograph, I couldn’t take my eyes off it, it’s absolutely haunting. How lovely that you have it on your dining room wall and remember the night it was taken.

    I would love to see that window in person.xxxxx

    • By the way, I took the picture during the day, and then developed it and printed it at night. I remember both taking the picture and the work on the film and the printing afterwards. It was a very good time, Dina. And yes, it was very exciting to find that window (in an abandoned building). Something very unusual. Thanks. xxx

  10. Wonderful reflection! … No matter if color or B&W, each provides something that the other can’t.

  11. A very interesting post! I love good photography, whether black & white or colour. I am limited in my artistic endeavours, just taking pictures of what catches my eye or interest. I respect artists and their art. I seem to be limited to words, and am thankful for that.

    • It seems to me that one of the characteristics of creative people, is to be more aware of their limitations… but in fact, we are all limited. Words are a wonderful vehicle of communication, and one I have special regard for. It allows us to enjoy vicariously, many different worlds. Glad you enjoyed the post, Ann.

  12. A very interesting post Shimon and a fabulous image.

  13. Rembrandt is one of the very few artists that has been found not to of used some type of copying device. He would paint without sketching. Just start throwing globs of paint on and move it around. A phenomenal talent. So few people know about the ingenious way artists copied their patron’s likenesses.

    Great article. I love your image. Composition is superb. I think black and white really defines beauty as it presents simplicity in its finest splendor. Composition can never be over emphasized.

    I remember the first time I shot a roll of black and white, it was a huge let down as I had not taught myself to look at tones. One of the greatest learning experiences I have had. Very eye opening to just how little I was really looking at my subjects.

    I tell people that come to me for photography classes to shoot in black and white with their digital cameras to learn to see the play of light. Look for shadows and contrast!

    Love your thoughts on photography and hearing of your experiences.

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, BoJo. I’ve encountered so many surprises when working with a new media, or a new tool, over the years, that I made it a rule, always to play with something new for a while before using it in my work. There is always something new to learn… and how painful it can be to learn it when doing some critical work. Always good to hear from you. Thanks for the comment.

  14. Very thoughtful. I shoot digital in black and white quite often and like the expressive power that removing the distraction of colour can create.

  15. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    I love your photos, Shimon – excellent photos, most especially that window. Yet your reflections too. You really are an interesting man.

  16. “…this original picture still hangs in my dining room, and forever reminds me of that night, long ago, when I printed the first print of that picture with a very old fashioned enlarger, and trays of chemicals in a room illuminated by a red bulb…” – yes those were the days, dear Shimon – we remember well (me as an amateur, my wife as a professional photographer: she lost many summers, working in a dark room with one red bulb…)

    • Yes, we seem to have had some experiences in common, Dietmar. You’re right, those were the days, and I remember them very well, with affection. Thanks for your comment.

  17. Really interesting entry! Leica does a black and white only digital camera doesn’t it? And maybe there is a fuji one. I do love black and white I have been returning to it more, recently. That image is beautiful.

    • You bring up a very interesting subject, Emily. I’ve read about the black and white Leica, and it sparks a lot of curiosity. But not enough to tempt me to spend $7000. I do have the feeling that the digital cameras get better results from color. But with proper lighting, I think you can get very fine B&W too. Glad you liked the picture.

  18. Black and white is essential for this photograph. Imagining it in color, I would probably think it was a sparkling photo and move on. Perhaps not, but I believe so.

    • I first shot it in black and white, and loved it. But then I came back again and again, each time in a different mood, sometimes with color film in my camera, and a desire to see things in color. There were numerous different takes on the same subject, and there were some good ones among them. In my experience, it’s always been better for the photographer to choose one, and show it, than to let his clients or friends see the different views and have them choose. Thanks, George.

  19. Thank you for an informative article, woven through with your personal story, and the really striking, timeless image that clinches the story.

    • Thank you very much for coming by, and for your comment, bluebrightly. I visited your blog and was very impressed by your beautiful photography, and by some of your thoughts found interspersed between views of nature,

  20. Really interesting article, Shimon. I absolutely love the picture – it’s beautiful.

  21. Shimon, how true is what you said. I love black and white pictures of all kinds, portraits, landscapes, cityscapes… Color can be beautiful, but to me, it is rarely as touching and thought provoking as black and white. And I love, love that picture of yours. Would be so happy to one day gave a large print if it hanging in my living room…

    • Ah, what a surprise to find you here among the comments, Pavel. I am so glad you like the picture. I have been seeing quite a bit of B&W photography lately, taken with the digital camera, and it’s made me think about the medium… though I admit, it is hard for me to go back to B&W now. I am enjoying color so much. Thanks for the comment.

  22. Black and white photography has always been my favourite. So does Black and White thinking … compromise scares me … on the other hand I do enjoy Colour as well, but don’t have a clue on how to use them … for instance when painting or regarding clothing … so should we ever meet, look for the girl in blue jeans and white Tshirt … 🙂

    • I can understand what you’re saying, cat, about thinking… though when it comes to thoughts, I like the subtleties, the different grays, and the color too. And I must say, that though I am an extremist by nature, I have learned to appreciate compromise too. Always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for your comment.

  23. Shimon, I liked your explanation of black-and-white as a parable: “It reminded us continuously of the reality we saw with our eyes, but never quite touched it.” There is something dream-like about the absence of color. For me, anyway.

    • Yes, there is something more personal about a picture that doesn’t try to be a direct reflection of reality/ And as we have learned from the different ‘reality’ programs, there is nothing as far from the ‘reality’ that we know, than the so called reality. But color too can be enchanting. Thank you for coming by, Charles. I do enjoy your stories.

  24. The photo is beautiful. Since we see in color all the time, a black and white photo can give us a new perspective and appreciation. Thank you for sharing with us.

  25. From the 1960s through the 1980s I worked primarily in black and white, and like you and other commenters here, I remember the magic of an image coming up in the developer tray. In the late 1990s I was an early adopter of digital cameras, and I’ve stayed in the realm of color ever since. As you indicated, there are many examples on the Internet of color photographs that people have converted to black and white—a transformation that means throwing away information. In many cases the person who did the conversion also shows the original, and when I compare the two I almost always prefer the color original. I can understand as an intellectual proposition why simplifying an image, in this case by removing color, might be for the better, I rarely find that it is in practice. In almost two years of presenting images from nature on my blog, only once did I show a black and white version of a photograph. Even that was of a subject that was mostly monotone to begin with, and from which I wanted to remove a few bits of other color that I felt distracted from the patterns of the plant. Software gives us an infinite number of ways to convert from color to black and white, and that huge range of possibilities may make it hard to find the right conversion to create the best black and white image. Or maybe color really is inherently better most of the time.

    • Hi Steve. All through my photographic career, till the beginning of the new millennium, I developed and printed color as well as black and white. Color was quite difficult, because we had to work in complete dark rooms, with no red light, and also to maintain high temperatures of the chemicals. And even though it was more expensive than sending my photos to an external lab, I wasn’t willing to give up my control on the quality of the color work. Sometimes I spent the entire day in the darkroom, and it was really a taste of what it is like to be blind. What you say about throwing away information in turning a color shot to B&W in digital is quite true. But it seems to me that the real problem in that regard, is that most of the digital photographers do not understand the nature of dynamics in the representation of a B&W picture, and the photos seem to fall in the middle of the gray scale. This might be because of the orientation of the color sensor, though. Saw your picture of the prickly poppy, and found it quite interesting. I think we have something similar here.

      • You’re right that my conversion of the photograph of the prickly poppy produced primarily grays in the middle range. The leaves of this plant are low-key to begin with, and it was a cloudy morning, so in this case the conversion was a reasonably accurate representation of the tonality of the original. Your comment made me go back to Photoshop and take another look, and I found that by adjusting the sliders that control the conversion to black and white, and by adding a curves adjustment layer, I was able to get more extreme grays, including some close to black. In fact I have so much control that it’s hard for me to decide on just one of the infinitely many renditions that the software makes possible. I’ve also read about but never tried one of the commercial programs dedicated to nothing but black and white conversion.

  26. Where are you, Shimon, I long for your advice right now … had to scroll back all the way to this post to reach you … are you alright? Why are your comments closed … your words mean so much to me … Love, cat.

    • Oh, I’m sorry, cat. I closed the comments because I was posting a series of pictures, and I didn’t want to trouble those who might feel an obligation to respond. Just wanted to share some pictures… didn’t really think they were worthy of much discussion. Maybe it was a mistake on my part… I am doing fine. Always good to hear from you.

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