The Art of Black & White Photography | TKP Education
Kahla Kristen Photography
Hi, friends! My name is Kahla and I’m a motherhood, newborn and family photographer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I specialize in capturing heartfelt images for sentimental mothers who deeply value this season of raising little ones. With a love for timeless imagery, I am drawn to the nostalgic quality of film, but most especially black and white film, which can be seen often in both my personal and professional work.
For me, there is nothing quite like the grainy goodness of a black and white image, and capturing my daughters on this medium has become my favourite way to tell the beautiful story of their lives so far. It is these grainy, emotion-filled and timeless images that pull on my heartstrings more than any other, and have the ability to transport me back to a moment in time as though I could reach out and touch it. The black and white images I’ve captured of my own family have become my most treasured heirlooms, hung proudly on our walls and preserved for all of time.
Because of my own personal preference for black and white images, I have always (even long before shooting film) included a good variety of colour and black and white in my client’s galleries so that they, too, can enjoy their nostalgic quality. That said, not all clients love black and white quite as much as I do, so I have found a good balance for ensuring that they’re a special part of each session, but that they aren’t the only option. I typically deliver 25% of images in black and white (give or take).
If you’re new to shooting black and white film, or simply want to include more of these ethereal images in your own work, here are a few tips for shooting black and white film (and if you’re not a film shooter, many of these can be applied to digital, too!)
1. Less is more
When shooting in black and white, simplicity is best. Close up portraits of little ones, images with clean, uncluttered backgrounds, and detail shots are always a safe (and magical) choice to capture in black and white. A few of my favourite things to photograph in b+w are:
details of baby’s hands and toes
mom and baby (especially nursing shots!)
dad and baby
pregnant mama solo
Try to avoid shooting black and white with a very busy scene, like an outdoor group shot with lots of grass and trees in the background. This is especially true when the lighting is dappled and the background is busy - the eye struggles to find a place to rest and you’ll find yourself scanning the image, feeling overwhelmed by all that there is to take in. In my personal opinion, black and white is beautiful when there is a very distinct subject or place to settle your gaze upon. Because of the beautiful contrast between light and dark, black and white has a special way of drawing your attention in to what matters most in an image.
Find your favourite stock (here’s mine!)
I have tried a few different black and white stocks but keep coming back to Ilford Delta 3200. I typically shoot this at every session on my 35mm camera, but have occasionally shot 120mm on my Pentax as well. You’ll notice a difference in the quality of grain between the two cameras - just like colour film - where the 120mm grain is slightly more soft and subtle and the 35mm grain is a bit more obvious. While I love the softness of Ilford 3200 on 120mm, I find it most practical within my workflow to have my black and white rolled into my 35mm camera and my colour film primarily on my 120mm. Below, you can see an example of the difference between the two types of film cameras - note the quality of grain and the subtle differences in contrast between the two images.
3. How to rate
I have found that rating black and white is similar to rating for colour film. I choose to rate with the bulb in, tucked under my client’s chin at a 45-degree angle into the shadows. I usually rate my black and white film stocks at half the box speed. So for Ilford Delta 400, which has a 400 ISO, I rate at 200. For Ilford 3200, which has a 3200 ISO, I rate at 1600. That said, I have found that black and white film can be over- or under-exposed by a stop or two, which can easily be fixed in post-processing. Unlike colour film, no colour shifting takes place when improperly exposed. Like anything in photography, I recommend finding your own personal sweet spot for rating, but generally these rules have worked well for me.
4. B+W for disguising less than ideal colours or light
One of the many challenges of being an on-location shooter (shooting in clients’ homes) is that you never have complete control over the situation. Walking into a stranger’s home can either be a pleasant surprise - with lots of natural light and (in my personal preference) soft neutral walls and decor - or it can be quite the opposite. I have shot in homes where brightly coloured walls have cast unfavourable colours onto my client’s skin, or the lighting has been less than ideal. Black and white film is my saving grace in these situations. It allows me to still capture those beautiful, genuine images that my brand is known for, while still being able to make the client feel at home. I recommend shooting a roll of black and white (or converting your digital images into b+w) in the following scenarios:
there is a lack of natural light. My favourite black and white film has a much higher ISO built in (3200) so you have a LOT more leeway in darker homes. You can also turn on overhead lights if you’re really in a pinch and the colour balance will never be affected… since there is no colour!
homes with a lot of bright colours (especially on clothing/walls) that cast onto the skin
homes where the decor doesn’t totally fit into your aesthetic or your clients don’t love the home they’re in. Black and white allows you to really focus in on the subjects, without any surrounding distractions.
B+W to capture emotion
Have you ever seen the same image in black and white and colour, and felt a strong emotional pull to one over the other? Sometimes it’s the glowy light in the colour image that makes it extra special. Other times it’s the way the black and white image seems to pull you in to the subject’s gaze - like they’re looking directly at you. When deciding which images to capture in colour vs. black and white, there are many things to consider. For me, emotion is always among the most important reasons for choosing one over the other. While I do believe that some images are absolutely better in colour, there are many, many times that I have just felt the need for b+w in the moment. I try to envision the final image, the story I’m trying to tell and of course, default back to my first tip when deciding which stock to shoot. For me, black and white will always be a top choice when it comes to really capturing the feeling of a moment.
Looking back at old photos of my parents and grandparents as children was always a favourite past time, and seeing their milestones in grainy black and white would transport me to a moment in time that I had never actually visited, but made me feel like I was right there alongside them. Seeing the grin on my grown grandfather’s face while he played in snow for the very first time. Watching my dad ride his bike or hang on tightly to my grandma the way every little boy does - wide-eyed and curious and oh so sweet. Memories that I would never otherwise be a part of, but that I have the pleasure of enjoying long after they’ve passed. When capturing my own daughters on black and white film, I like to imagine their children, one day in the distant future, cuddled up on the couch and reminiscing just like I have so enjoyed for many years. For me, black and white has always been a link to the past in a way that colour simply never was. It seems to freeze moments in a heartfelt, emotive way that will always feel absolutely perfect.
Nervous your clients won’t love black and white? Communicate with them!
Any client who has visited my website or Instagram knows that black and white is a part of my workflow, but what if you’ve never really shot it before? Take some time to prep your clients prior to your session. If you send a questionnaire ahead of time, ask if they would love some beautiful black and white images included in their finally gallery. If you meet during your on-boarding process, bring it up in conversation and share that black and white is an important part of your workflow or one that you’re just getting acquainted with but are so excited about. Tell them just how much they’re going to love their black and white images and assure them that they will still receive plenty of colour in their final gallery, as well. I have had only a small handful of clients ever request a black and white image in colour, and thankfully it’s always been a digital image that I could easily duplicate and edit in colour. While this isn’t possible with film, it is possible to shoot the same scene in colour and black and white so that you can be sure to have those colour back ups. And, at the end of the day, you’re the artist. Which means that you get to choose how to shoot and edit, and most clients will never question that. Because after all, you are the expert and they are hiring you for your knowledge and expertise.
Now, like anything in photography (and the arts
in general), rules are important to help guide us in the right direction, but should absolutely be broken when the mood strikes. Below you’ll see a few examples of me breaking my own rules. I hope that this inspires you to experiment, explore what feels right and find your own rhythm of shooting black and white. Because like anything in photography, our approach is deeply personal and should always reflect our own voice.
I hope these tips have you excited to experiment with black and white within your own workflow! Thanks for reading along :)
Kahla Kristen Photography