Back in the analog stone age, shooting in monochrome was a creative choice made in advance. You’d buy a few ISO 400 rolls of Ilford HP5 or Kodak Tri-X, and head out for a day of serious photography, hoping for just one image worthy of framing.
In fact, black-and-white analog photography offers several advantages. There is at least four times as much picture information, so contrasts can be stronger, textures can be more refined, and enlargements can be, well, larger. About half of this work is done in the field, mostly by selecting and composing with intelligence, and by selecting an appropriate optical filter to place on the lens. For example, sky contrast can be dramatically increased by using a red filter, but sometimes, detail in shadows is lost with a red filter, so an orange filter may be more suitable. Corrections are then made in the analog or digital darkroom, a trial-and-error process that becomes easier after a lot of hours of experimentation and instruction.
Working with a digital camera, the best black-and-white images are derived from color images, but maybe not in the way you’d think. The adventure begins with a digital camera that can shoot RAW images–so plan to spend at least $500 on the camera. Lesser cameras, and less-than-serious photographers with better cameras, shoot in JPG to jam more images onto an SD card. If you start with a JPG created in the camera, your black-and-white images will lack detail, clarity and snap. Your expensive digital camera offers an instant monochrome option. No, you shouldn’t use it, not if you are serious about your photography.
Instead, you can achieve miracles by post processing your RAW image in Aperture, Photoshop, or other software capable of handling RAW images. With desktop software, you can add the equivalent of colored filters and gradient filters, with a level of precision unavailable in the field, and unavailable in old school darkrooms.
Is it worth the time? It’s worth the time if you train yourself to create the best possible images by learning a lot about composition, mood, street photography, landscape work, architectural photography, and abstract work from a master teacher. I’ve spent the past month or two studying the second edition of a fine book entitled The Art of Black and White Photography by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, published by Rocky Nook Press. He provides the necessary technical information, but spends most of his instructional time on important photographic ideas: how to avoid the cliché, achieving balance, dealing with visual irritations that cannot be moved, capturing people in their natural surroundings, visual rhythm, form and composition. Hoffmann is especially effective when he writes about, and photographs in, a strongly graphic style: strong contrasts, superior use of line and form, repetition to suggest speed or solidity. (Study the three Hoffmann images in this article, and notice, for example, the repeated pattern of small verticals–the fence posts in the top image, the decorative balusters in the second, and the train doors in the third supported in the distance by the verticals of the Manhattan skyline). These are not snapshots–they are photographs–and if there was any doubt about a blurry line between those two ideas, it disappears here. These are advanced ideas, most suitable for the experienced photographer or for the ambitious newcomer. The reward is in the learning, of course, and also in the tour of Hoffmann’s portfolio, which is sampled in this article and offered in expansive form on the photographer’s website.