Sage Advice for New Black and White Film Photographers

October 11, 2015  •  7 Comments

When a photographer starts exploring black and white film and darkroom printing for the first time, I have noticed a few recurring themes over the years.  

I am writing this article to help highlight advice that I tend to give to photographers on a regular basis based on the trends that I see.  

I hope that new black and white film photographers will consider my insights as they begin their journey.  

I am not comparing modern digital-based photography to black and white film in this article because much of my advice could easily apply to digital-based photographers, except for the film-based points.  I am sharing my insights and tips from the perspective of a photographer that is using black and white film as their choice of medium.

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  • Master the technical details only so far as to make them second nature to you and link them specifically to your creative goals.  Don't test films for the sake of testing.  Focus on creating and telling stories.  Legends including Paul Strand and Edward Weston shared similar thoughts.  
  • Minimize the number of variables in the first phases of your creative endeavor.  This would include things such as one film, one developer, one paper, one camera, one lens and so on.  By eliminating variables, you have a greater chance of understanding the modifiers and their impacts on your prints.  
  • A photographer can only know which film and developer they prefer by having used it for an extended period of time.  The creative journey is not a race, it is indeed a journey that should be appreciated as you pass through each chapter.   
  • It the end, it is about your prints and their ability to convey emotion and tell stories, not about gear or the technical "stuff".  You can be a wizard at the technical aspects and create lifeless prints with little or no emotional response. 
  • Spend as much time (hopefully more) in the creative realm.  Take art appreciation classes, a class on your favorite subject and so on.  If you love photographing flowers, take a gardening or flower class.  The more you become a part of your subject, the better you will be at expressing it.  
  • Don't reinvent the wheel.  It is my estimation that anything at this stage of the photographic game you can think of, someone else has already done it.  You can find used books on film-based photography for extremely cheap prices, often just pennies, that are loaded with exceptional information.  The same principles that applied to black and white film photography 50 years ago, still apply today.  Because society tends to value the "latest and greatest" of everything, you can find real jewels in these older and undervalued books.  
  • Don't be a forum rat.  Do you own testing and exploring.  It is okay to determine a starting place with something but build your own experiences and knowledge.  Nothing trumps doing it your self.  Form your own opinions that are uniquely based on your personal preferences and biases.  
  • Leave the camera at home or in the car.  You don't need to always be "taking" photos.  You want to evolve to a place where you "create" photographs.  You can only do that by being a part of your scene.  This process will help you visualize better and improve your compositions and ability to tell stories over time.  
  • Visit your local art museum and view prints from the "masters".  I live near the St. Louis area and I regularly schedule a personal viewing of a wide range of photographers such as Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Julia Margaret-Cameron, and many others.  I always leave the viewing feeling recharged and inspired to push myself further.  The quality of their work at the time that these photographers created it is really astounding to me.  
  • Buy Ansel's Trilogy "The Camera, The Negative, The Print".  And read a little bit for the rest of your life.  You will learn and relearn from Ansel as you improve and grow as a photographer.  
  • Share your prints with your friends, family and eventually with the public if that is what you want to do.  Get your work out in the world and brighten someone's day.  

I wish you a wonderful journey as you begin and live out your creative potential.  I am always happy to answer questions and help. 

You are welcome to connect with me on my personal Facebook account where I share behind the scenes updates with my friends and family that I don't share anywhere else.

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Karl Evertz(non-registered)
Besides Ansel Adams' Trilogy, he also has a book named "Examples: The Making Of 40 Photographs" that is excellant
Enjoyed it.Thank you Tim.
Iain Hamilton-Cummings(non-registered)
I love the whole process of framing and shooting a picture, unloading the film from the camera and loading it onto the reel, developing it and the excitement of seeing each frame as it hangs there to dry!
Then...... Deciding what process to use to recreate the image I saw in my mind when I took the shot and then bringing the whole thing to life ☺️ it's an amazing journey to explore!! The more I learn about analogue photography the more I realise just how little I know!!
This may not seem a direct answer to what you asked Tim but, it's the whole process that excites me with black and white (and colour) photography..... I've yet to find a secondary interest to focus my primary interest on.
Paul martin symes(non-registered)
Thanks for the insights.
I love the whole process from shooting right through to making my prints.
The unknown is something that is missing when I shoot digital and for me it cheapens the images .
I am still quite new to photograph only having taken up the hobby a couple of years ago ,I started with film and it will always be my favorite medium.
The process of printing to me is magical each time I see the image appear in the tray I am still amazed.
I feel I am part of the process when I develope my films and when I create prints ,they are physical things I created using my hands and my skill (what little I have) this you cannot recreate with digital.
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