Black and White Photography

Sep 7, 2023 | Creativity

“Show Notes”

This week Marcus and Sam discuss the use of black and white photography.

Marcus did a poll on Linkedin and found that (from the sample of people who
responded) people preferred colour for a head shot, but like black and white
photography in their homes.

William Eggleston a famous photographer did an exhibition in
the Museum of modern art, New York in the mid 1970s and he used colour. At the
time the critics said his use of colour was “vulgar”.

Marcus thinks that using actual film, black and white film, and developing it
yourself will expand your understanding of black and white photography. Now the
software we use for photography still uses many of the terms that come from those
original dark room techniques. And they will make more sense once you have
experienced developing actual film. There are photography clubs all over the
country that have dark rooms you will be able to use.

Marcus also think photography books are also a great way to leam about black and
white photography. Also go and look at photographic
exhibitions and how those photographers use black and white photography.

Sam and Marcus then talk about the use of black and white
commercially. Black and white is great for headshots. Also, for some businesses
black and white can really match their brand. Some brands need some bright
colors, but for others black and white can work really well for their brand. Barbara
is a famous photographer who use red text against black and white photography which was a great look and could work really well for a brand.

At weddings black and white can be used. It’s used often when the weather is bad
as it helps deal with poor light. But black and white can also be used for effect on
any wedding. But as the shots will be digital these can be made black and white
after the event.

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“Show Transcription”

Sam: Hi, Marcus. How are you doing?

Marcus:  I’m really well, thank you, Sam. Yeah, I’m all good.

Sam: Excellent. Well, I’m looking forward to this show because we’ve got some more input from an expert photographer, and sometimes we have photographers with us in the studios, I guess. But today there’s just Marcus and I. So our expert photographer is Marcus, and it’s always great to hear from him and his interesting and sometimes crazy ideas. So today I think he’s going to talk to us about the world of black and white photography and how it can be useful for your business. So, Marcus, are you going to tell us a little bit about black and white photography?

Marcus:  Indeed I am, Sam. This podcast was inspired by a post that I did on LinkedIn, a poll, in fact, asking my network what they thought about using black and white photography for headshots, because my headshot on LinkedIn is a black and white photograph. I like it. But overwhelmingly, people were saying, oh, they preferred four headshots color photography, but they really liked black and white photography in their home. So I thought, well, that’s quite an interesting viewpoint. It’s open for discussion, and I’d love to think what your thoughts are on this as well, Sam.

Sam:  So when I think about black and white photography in commercial purposes.

Marcus:  yeah, there’s not a lot of it, but there’s one campaign that really sticks out in my mind. And it was a campaign for Jack Daniels Whiskey. And it was done in a very gritty, documentary style, all in black and white. And it ran for quite a long time. Do you remember that campaign, Sam?

Sam: No, but as I’m not always in the country, I might have missed it.

Marcus:  Yeah, it was back in the 90s, actually.

Sam: Maybe I was too young to drink Jack Daniels back then.

Marcus: Maybe. Yeah. And that really stuck in my mind. The images look great. They really popped in these big advertising campaigns I saw on billboards and stuff. Black and white photography has always had a funny relationship in the commercial world and in the art world as well. In fact, I can, you know, my love of history, photography history, my mind goes back to when a photographer called William Eggerston, who’s renowned in the art world as being a color photographer, had his first exhibition in the moment, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the mid 1970s and he was universally panned by the critics because they said his use of color photography was vulgar and commercial. I know. Isn’t that amazing? Think that yeah.

Sam:  You had to use black and white to be artistic back then.

Marcus:  That’s right exactly. So obviously, now that’s out the window, we see exhibitions and books. Color is equally as much seen as black and white. So anyhow black and white photography is something that I grew up with. I used to shoot on film. I spent a lot of time in the Dark Room and printing my own work. And in fact, in my house, I had my own darkroom and spent a lot of enjoyable time in there. So I really encourage our listeners to really investigate and try shooting black and white, which I know you can do digitally. But I really encourage you to do it on your film cameras, to buy a film camera and do it on a film.

Sam:  So why Marcus, why not just take some pictures, thinking they’re going to be black and white, and then just with your digital, make them black and white and kind of I’ve done a black and white shoot. What’s the difference between that and your fill and actually doing it on fill?

Marcus:  That’s a great question, Sam. And this is what I’m all about, really, or trying to explain here, is basically, if you can learn the process and see a black and white print in front of you being developing in the dark room, it’s very different to how you can make a black and white in digital, even though the processes have been copied in digital, like in light room or photoshop or capture one, which I use. And there’s the same terminology. To actually see a print in front of you gives you a much deeper appreciation of what a black and white image should look like. I feel. And the way you can do that, yeah, is get yourself a fairly cheap 35 mil camera, a few rolls of black and white film, and maybe join a local dark room or camera club who might have some facilities where you can develop it, and they’ll teach you how to do that. And as I said, the magic of this the magic of being in a darkened room with the red light on and just seeing your print coming up in front of your eyes is something to behold and something you’ll never forget.

Sam: Yeah. So sort of interesting. So you’re not thinking obviously in terms of this is good for your going out and doing it with your next customer. You’re more thinking this is good for developing you as a photographer which will eventually help your customers. But it’s not a direct yes. Go and do this with your customers. This is more. This is how you can develop yourself as a photographer and become a better photographer.

Marcus:  Yeah, certainly about developing yourself as a photographer. And that, ultimately, is going to be good for your customers, isn’t it? I would argue.

Sam: Definitely.

Marcus:  Yeah. So this process, which you do in the darkroom as I said, it’s being replicated digitally. They use the same terminology, words like burning and dodging. Burning is when you’re on a print. And you might add more light from the enlarger, which makes it darker. Ironically, The Opposite Of what you think and dodging is when you remove light from that area of your print and that makes it lighter and you can play around. You can see I’m doing my hands now, but yeah, which you’re not seeing, obviously, but yeah, when you’re under the enlarger, you do it with your hands and you move them around. You do little bits of metal, little bits of paper.

Sam: You’re talking literally about shading individual parts of the print and presumably you make it dimmer, which makes the picture brighter because you’re working in negative. You’re working in negative,

Marcus:  Exactly. Yeah, it’s a bit of get your mind around it, but when you’re actually doing it all makes perfect sense. Yeah,

Sam: probably the younger photographers will be very confused by this whole negative thing.

Marcus:  Look, that’s why I’m saying you should try joining a local. I mean, here in my town, we’ve got dark rooms that you can rent out very cheaply and largers and you go there and you can do it all. You can use their machines

Sam:  And probably if there are local enthusiasts who have their own dark room, they’d be more than happy to let you come along and have a go and give them a try.

Marcus: Yeah, definitely. Another thing that you can do when you’re making your print in a dark room is adding contrast to it, which again, we can do digitally. And that’s really the main controls you’ve got. You basically dodge and burn and you change the contrast. And as I say, once you’ve got see that in front of you in reality, when you start making doing it digitally, I found it really helped in really producing very good quality black and white digital images. So one skill will lead to the other.

Sam: That’s it. And then the other thing I was thinking, if you’re talking about shooting on film, I think one of the biggest differences to digital, I don’t know what you think because like everybody else, I moved at one stage from film to digital is there’s much more discipline with film because it costs you. So every frame you think about much more carefully. If you got a digital, it’s like snap, snap, snap, snap, snap. I’ve got 40,000 on this card. If you got film, you know you’re paying for every print. There are 36 on the roll. You don’t want to just keep snapping, it’s going to cost you a fortune. So actually, I think it brings some discipline into your shooting in that you think more carefully about every shot.

Marcus: 100% agree. And if you’re shooting on a large format camera where the negative is a single negative, a five inch by four inch negative, or a ten by eight or even bigger, then you really got to think about what you’re doing. You’ve got one shot or two if you turn it back to front. You’ve really got to take your time and think about it, which is a great way of learning any subject, of course. And I’ve talked about that in previous shows on our creativity one. Okay, so that’s one approach to it, to learning about black and white. Another approach that is a little bit easier is to go and find some good quality books that have been printed well by people like Kemson Hudson. They produce amazing books and great lithographs, great printing in there. So you can really start seeing the subtle tones of what what makes a great black and white photograph.

Sam:  And we’ll put some links for some of those books in the show description.

Marcus:  Indeed. And also, of course, I’m bound to say this, go to your galleries, go to your photography shows and see the black and white photography in the flesh on the walls there in front of you. And you can then really start seeing the difference, the range of possibilities that you can get from black and white. Different tones, warm tones like sepia, cooler tones like Platinum or selenium. And you can really start to appreciate that you won’t get that from the internet. You will not get that. You won’t see those subtleties.

Sam: And so then what about sort of thinking about black and white commercially? So obviously that would be digitally, that would be you’ve effectively got a color photo and you’re stripping the color out, but you can use black and white commercially. Have you got sort of thoughts when it’s good to use black and white commercially for customers? What sort of things it works for?

Marcus:  As I’ve already said to you, I like it for headshots. I think it looks really good. And it’s also very flattering for the portrait of the skin. That’s the reason why I used it. Black and white is very flattering. There’s nothing worse than oversaturated colors in the skin and red skit over reds and oranges. So it’s flattering for portraits. Definitely. It gives a certain vibe. I’ve used it on commercial shoots or branding shoots, and immediately it gives a very certain story. We’re always talking about stories. Black and white gives you an instant story. Yeah. Go on, Sam. Yes.

Sam: I was going to say I’m presumably it depends on the brand. So some people’s brands, they are very much I’m wearing bright reds or bright purples, and I’ve got the lipstick to match if you’re a woman. And that’s got to be visual in color. But other brands are yeah, the black and white can work really well with, can’t it? Just matching that brand and that mood.

Marcus: Yeah, definitely. And I’ve not seen it yet, but I think a website done with just black and white photography is going to really give you a USP. It’s unique, it’s not been done.

Sam: And you could still get bits of colors, couldn’t it? Could be a black website, white writing, little bits red here and there, just yeah. And then some nice big black and white shots. Could be beautiful.

Marcus: Sam, look, you took the next bit out of me. I was going to mention an artist who uses black and white photography with red text. Her name is Barbara Kruger and she came about in the very famous artist. You’ll see her work in most major art museums, and she used text very politically, but the red really jumped out against the black and white. And that style actually has been copied a lot. I’ve seen that plagiarized or used or copied, whichever way you want to say a lot. So, yeah, definitely it’s there to be had. So that’s my feelings. I mean I’d love to hear some of our listeners, if they could write in the comments and tell me what they think.

Sam: send in some of their shots in black and white.

Marcus: Well, there you go. That’d be even better. That’d be lovely to see that.

Sam: And then what are your thoughts on we don’t talk often about weddings, but here’s something in photography. What are your thoughts on black and whites in weddings?

Marcus: Well, do you know what? It’s funny enough yeah, okay, let’s talk about that. We’ll talk about weddings and fashion photography. Weddings. I do see wedding photographers using black and white invariably, I think they use it when the lighting conditions aren’t very good because obviously if you got mixed lighting, like tungsten lighting and daylight, it’s going to give you a certain off color balance. And black and white puts that white. All of a sudden there’s no color to worry about. And I’ve used it for weddings when the lighting has not been great. So it’s great for that.

Sam: What about actually using it in a wedding when you want to, as opposed just as a way of dealing with issues, if you know what I mean, to get a certain look.

Marcus:  Yeah. Well, the great thing about if you’re shooting digitally, and I want to imagine most wedding photographers are shooting digitally, you can choose it later. I mean, yeah, it was a big decision in the film days whether we’re going to shoot on that day on black and white or color, because you could change them over mid shot shoot. But it wasn’t easy. Fashion photography is somewhere, definitely, where you still see a lot of black and white being used, and a lot of black and white imagery. If you get any reptile fashion magazine, there’s a load. I bet you’ll see about half of the images in there are shot in black and white.

Sam:  Okay. That many still.

Marcus: Yeah. Really? I think, yeah.Well, its classic. It’s got an aesthetic, it’s got a few story, all these things, really, that they tie into in fashion, definitely.

Sam: So, yes, be great to hear from listeners. You send us in some prints that would be amazing. And do please sign up to our newsletter. You can sign up to the newsletter on the website, which is That’s with the number 4 podcast on there. You can sign up to the newsletter. We will then get the latest episodes out to you and you will get to find out extra information, hints and tips from me and Marcus and all sorts of extra goodies. And also on there are all our past episodes where you can listen to them, read, skip whatever you want to do. Thank you, Marcus that has been really interesting. I think the second hand shops now are all going to be raided for those 35 mil cameras or lofts. Your loft raided. I’m not sure where mine’s gone. Now, I did have what did I have? A canon? A One, I think, and some lenses.

Marcus: Classic.

Sam:  I don’t remember ever getting rid of it, but yeah, where is it? It could take a little bit of digging to find it now.

Marcus: You’re probably using it as a doorstop. Solid cameras.

Sam:  No, I looked after it. It will be in the loft somewhere.

Marcus: I’ve certainly got all my film cameras, my Hassel blads and all that. I still got them and still use them. Well, my assistants used them. Yeah. Yeah. Nice. Thank you.

Sam:  Amazing. Right, brilliant. Great to talk to you, Marcus, and I will see you next week.

Marcus:  Bye. Bye, Sam.

Sam: Take care.