8 Technical Reasons to Shoot Black and White Film

6 min read by Dmitri ☕️.
Ilforord Ortho Plus — a blue-light-spectrum-sensitive film.

Black and white photographs can help focus viewers’ attention, emphasize shapes over colours, remove the complexities of colour management — particularly in high-contrast scenes and in skin tones, and create associative effects with a time period or genre of photography.

Virtually all black and white images shot digitally are colour photographs converted to monochrome — even if done in-camera. Colour film can also be printed or converted digitally to black and white. However, many film photographers choose to shoot pure monochrome emulsions without the option of reverting to colour. This article will explain a few good technical reasons to do just that.

1. Finer grain.

Black and white film is widely available in slow ISO speeds that produce finer grain with more details that C-41. The slowest colour emulsions available today are CineStill 50D and Fujichrome Velvia 50. For monochrome, Ilford Pan F+ 50 and Rollei RPX 25 are just two examples of ultra-slow emulsions, with Adox CMS 20 leading the pack as The sharpest, most fine-grained and highest resolving image recording system in the world.

Adox CMS 20, shot at ISO 12. Incredible detail and virtually no perceptible grain.

2. Price and availability.

It’s easier to create a single-layer emulsion that does not rely on masking, colour dyes, and chemical couplers. With the right tools and knowledge, you could even make yours at home — something that can’t be said for colour. This simplified manufacturing process allows more businesses to create a greater variety of products with less. Ilford is an example of a well-known brand that sells a large portfolio of monochrome-only products with great success worldwide — and there are many more.

Some manufacturers who used to (or still do) make film for technical applications have shifted to making emulsions for the growing analogue photography community. JCH SteetPan 400 is an example of a Japanese brand that sells surveillance film from Belgium.

3. Chemical stability.

There are plenty of choices when it comes to freshly-made black and white film. There’s also an abundance of well-preserved films that you can still shoot with relative confidence.

Colour film tends to colour shift and fade as it ages due to the different ways its layers change with time. Monochrome film typically degrades across the entire frame, making artifacts less noticeable.

A large pool of expired monochrome film stock can still be usable today, provided that it’s been stored well. This relative stability of the black and white emulsions is also fueling startups like Street Candy, who purchase film of the yesteryear in bulk and repackage it for everyone to use.

4. Larger choice of developers.

For the most part, C-41 and E-6 are the only two modern processes available for colour film. On the other hand, there’s a large variety of developers available for monochrome emulsions. Some will change how your grain looks; others will add or decrease contrast and acutance. There are even kits to make slide film out of monochrome negatives. You can have the entire process simplified to just a single chemical bath or forget synthesized chemicals and develop with coffee, beer, or wine.

Kodak P3200 shot in subdued indoor light with lots of motion on Voigtländer Ultron 2.0 hand-held.

5. Greater film speed flexibility.

CineStill 800T and Portra 800 are examples of the numbered few fast colour films available today. Monochrome film is available in ISO 3200, from Ilford and Kodak. Both films can be pushed to 6400+ or pulled to 1600 or 800. Many black-and-white films come with an expectation that their sensitivity will be changed by the lab; Ilford HP5+ is famous for its flexibility in this manner.

Though colour film may be pushed or pulled as well, it isn’t nearly as flexible.

6. Easier to scan and print negatives.

Reversing black and white negatives is a relatively straightforward process: invert and adjust the black point. That is not the case with C-41, which calls for doing the same on a per-channel basis and an additional step of removing the blue cast resulting from the orange mask. Colour film does not have a standard mask density, so the complexity of reversing the colours is taken further by individual stock and scanning device differences.

Furthermore, while the final image interpretation with monochrome film is down to contrast, colour film has an infinite amount of options for colour balance and saturation.

Printing monochrome film is easier in the darkroom. There’s no need for colour balancing with larger print heads. Plus, black and white images may be adjusted for contrast — something that can’t be done with C-41.

For those of us who print digitally, colour management is no longer a necessity. Which is nice, considering how tricky it may get to precisely calibrate hues on various monitors, printers, and papers — despite all the advanced tools available today.

7. More formats and mediums.

Though colour film may be found in 110, 35mm, 120, and a couple of large-format sizes, it can’t compare to monochrome that’s available in oddball sizes like 3.25x4.25 or 6.5x9cm for older cameras like Voigtlander Avus.

Black and white emulsion may also be found on paper, glass, and metal plates. Though colour may be accomplished by taking multiple exposures with lens filters, it is a lot more complicated to work with.

8. Infrared, X-Rays, and more.

To my knowledge, there’s just one IR colour film: Kodak Aerochrome. It’s all expired, expensive, and rare.

Monochrome film, on the other hand, is easily available in infrared and could even be found as X-Ray-sensitive emulsions! Though to be able to see through soft tissue or walls you’ll need an X-Ray lamp, which won’t be available to the general public.

Most modern monochrome film is panchromatic, which means that it’s sensitive to the entire visible spectrum of light. But another type of emulsion, orthochromatic, is also available, which is predominantly sensitive to blue light — like the first image in this post, shot with Ilford Ortho +.

Kodak Aerochrome makes vegetation appear red.

Last but not least, working with black and white film is more accessible for the colourblind. Given that up to ten percent of us may have difficulties interpreting colours, it’s obvious that monochrome images can reach a greater audience and stand as a truly universal visual language.

Have I missed anything? Let me know via email or on Twitter.

Thank you #BelieveInFilm Twiter for helping me complete this list.