Technology Marches On
But The Simple Power Of Black And White Endures

Photo 1.
Photos © 2003, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

Over the past few years, I've covered more and more digital imaging technology, as it completes its total worldwide domination of the professional photography marketplace. Like a lot of you, I still maintain a full black and white darkroom, and the smell of stop bath and fixer is the smell of photography. For us old-school guys, there is little to challenge the depth and power of the black and white portrait.

While the world of mass media is clearly one dominated by color, motion, and frivolity, the stark reality of black and white remains an important communication tool. As a still photographer, stripping an image of its color information limits your options while opening up an entire new world of possibilities. Whether you plan to shoot black and white film and process it yourself, hire an outside lab to do the dirty work, or even shoot digitally using your camera's "B/W" mode, there are some important considerations to keep in mind when shooting people in black and white.

Photo 2.

Lighting. As with any photograph, the light source defines the image. As you can see in Photo 1, dramatic lighting can be particularly effective in black and white. For this corporate headshot, I went with a stark "Meet The Beatles" look by placing a Chimera medium softbox to the right of the subject, lighting only one half of his face. To keep light from streaming into my lens I hung a large black gobo between the light and the camera. To keep some tone in the background I aimed a flash head with a silver reflector at the floor behind the subject, allowing enough light to spill up and give the wall some tone.

If this were a color image, the viewer might be too disturbed by the lack of tone on one side of the subject's face. By removing the color information and keeping the contrast in check, we're left with a strong image that looks "right."

Choose The Right Lens. I tend to think differently when shooting black and white than when shooting color. In fact, my brain is so conditioned to seeing the results of different kinds of film that I think differently when shooting Tri-X, T-Max, or Plus-X. For this shot I took about 10 years ago, the client wanted a somewhat gritty feel with Boston in the background. While this image (Photo 2) is a little dated with its "Miami Vice" feel, the concepts still apply.

The first idea was to shoot from a low angle with a wide angle lens. Of course we would need to be right in the city, rather than over the Mass Avenue Bridge into Cambridge as we were here. Since we needed a grainy, hard-edged black and white image with a soft edge, it was decided instead to have some of the frame out of focus. This would soften up the effect of the harsh black and white and make the model stand out more. I set up a tripod with a Nikon F2 and 200mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens. To punch up the model I added a Balcar flash head firing into a white umbrella. By shooting with a long lens at eye level I got a nice soft background, crisp detail in the foreground, and a relatively rough looking feel. Ten years later I'm not sure the cigarette would still be used as a prop, but I still like this shot.

Photo 3.

Perspective Matters. With black and white more than color film you need to choose the right perspective. Black and white reveals certain elements of form that are often masked by the normal colors we see on a daily basis. While the quality, quantity, and direction of the prevailing light source will do most of the work in defining the look and feel of your image, the perspective you choose can add a lot. I always choose an eye level or above camera position for standard portraits and modeling shots, but I tend to get more adventurous when shooting black and white. Why? Because when color information is lacking, your eye is just more naturally drawn to the subtle details and lines that might otherwise get lost. For this shot (Photo 3) the model chose a heavy weight sweater that had an interesting pattern. To keep the sweater a prominent feature, I lowered my camera angle. In fact, I was just about laying down on the floor to get this shot.

Once I had the low angle chosen, I went for a mild tele, in this case a 135 on a Canon EOS-1. To give the sweater some detail and keep some drama in the model's face, I hung a large 42" square Larson Soffbox over the model's left shoulder angled downward. I then placed a flash head with a silver reflector and a set of barn doors on the floor to the model's right and aimed it upward at the seamless. When developing and printing it was important to keep the tone in the model's face, since it's easy to take high key shots like these and blow out the details when printing.

Photo 4.

Moody Black And White. For this gritty urban street scene (Photo 4) shot for a magazine assignment we needed to convey a sense of desperation. While the rest of the piece was shot on vibrant Fuji Velvia, I shot this series on old-fashioned Kodak Tri-X film developed in Agfa Rodinal 1:25. To keep the reportage feel, I shot everything very tight with long lenses. I think that this shot was done with a 300mm lens bolted to a heavy-duty tripod. I resisted the urge to punch up the scene with some fill flash, and I even waited for a wispy cloud to pass overhead to create a duller mood.

For shots like this the perspective offered by a long lens really makes the shot. By compressing the background and really making the model stand out in the foreground, the little details like the wrought iron railing and people in the background become integral parts of the composition. By developing the Tri-X in a relatively strong mixture of Rodinal, I gave the image strong black, pronounced grain and a razor crisp edge to everything. If I had chosen a smoother film like Ilford Pan-F I would have lost the grit in the image, losing some impact.

Photo 5.

Adding Light. Here's a typical black and white assignment. A corporate executive at a window, (Photo 5) lit in the foreground with flash. The whole idea here is to create a scene that looks real, not fake. In order to create a real sense of reality of course I have to fake it anyway. I added a silver reflector card to bounce back some of the window light as well as a 2400 ws flash in a large softbox. By adding plenty of flash punch I can stop the lens way down, keeping the window frame sharp and reducing the flare that a bright window light might have caused wide open.

The client wanted a sense of real-world black and white, so I didn't try and let the flash overpower the window light. By carefully regulating the power of my flash and the aperture on my lens I could make the added lighting provided from the flash look like natural room light. On a shot like this with color film I'm always fighting the color temperature of the various light sources. With black and white, I have the great luxury of mixing as many daylight, tungsten, and flash light sources as I want and firing away. To preview the effect of the mixed lighting sources I always shoot some Polaroid film first, and I always make sure to bring along some black and white Polaroid, since the color stuff makes it too hard to see what's going on.

While the world revolves around us in glorious color, there is still a stark, elegant power that black and white images offer. No matter what happens with the development of digital cameras and printers, I will steadfastly maintain my old-fashioned darkroom, remaining loyal to my Omega D2 and Beseler 45MX. I developed all of the images in this article myself in my darkroom, and every roll of film was developed with a different developer, using different dilutions and development times. This level of control over the image is unique to black and white, because you can do it yourself at home. The power of black and white is particularly potent when the subject is human. While I can make anything look good using Adobe Photoshop, controlling images this way using a stopwatch, my two hands, and some chemicals imbues the images with a certain kind of magic that really can't be duplicated using any other method.