Black and White Photography – digital or analog

Vlad Goth - black and white photo - White Shoes

Black and white photography is very tempting, because often b&w photos look more interesting. Probably one reason behind such perception is that limitation to b&w decreases overall distraction present in a photo. Most colour photos look like colourful mess, mostly without any strong composition features. I think it is easier to make an interesting photo in black and white, than in colour.

Which approach should you took for b&w photography: digital or analog? Quick answer is: both are equally good, in terms of artistic quality of final result, but they come with advantages and disadvantages.

Digital b&w – advantages

One of the biggest advantages of digital approach is that you can estimate, at least briefly, your result on location. That is, you make photo and see straight away if all is OK or if another take is required. With present memory card prices there are no restrictions on how many photos you can make, the unnecessary ones can always be deleted later.

Another important factor is workflow. You can start working on digital photos editing quickly. I don’t say that editing is quick, because it may be not quick, but the time between making a photo, and printing final result can be very short.

Often editing can be faster by using plugins, like for instance Silver Efex Pro  or other plugins provided by Nik Collection (which I use) – see link/banner below. Such plugins can save much time, especially that raw black and white photo can be looking too dull due to used raw algorithms.

The main advantage of Nik Collection b&w plugins is the fact, that you get quick insight into how your photo will be modified,  but the final look can be highly customised to your taste.

Another advantage, I would say the main one, is cost of producing b&w photos up to the stage when they can be printed. The digital development, be it in Lightroom or Capture One Pro is rather much easier, quicker and cheaper than in case of typical analog darkroom. Except just pure cost, you will save huge amount of time unless you have analog darkroom in your home or on the other side of the street. When I was looking for analog darkrooms I found that nothing is available in reasonable distance and one development session in the closest available darkroom means one day of time. Except cost of travel and cost of chemicals needed for development and printing photos, if you like to print in analog way, there is  obviously additional payment for the darkroom owner. All this makes analog approach rather quite expensive. Yes, you can go to some shop on high street and they can send your film to be developed, and you can get it back roughly after 1-2 weeks. But, don’t be surprised if you get it back with fingerprints on film. Well, mistakes happen, and always they can give you refund of few GBP as cost of your film, which obviously is not a solution from your point of view, because often the photos cannot be re-taken.


Digital b&w – disadvantages

Well, there are not many disadvantages of using digital cameras for black and white photography. Most probably, the main one is the entry price. In my opinion the best entry level camera for b&w photography is Leica Monochrom (Typ 246). Used version in the United Kingdom costs about £2,500 for body only. The cheapest lens for this rangefinder camera means cost about £500 (used), so, in total you can get your tools within range about £3000 – £4,000. However, I think that  for serious artists this cost is fully justified. Images produced by monochrome sensor are very different compared to typical RGB sensor results, especially in terms of contrast.

But, having said that, the next choice is a Fujifilm camera, like Fujifilm X-T2, which can cost as second hand about £400 – £500 for body only. On top of that FijiFilm lenses are really good, and not expensive compared to full frame options.


Analog b&w – advantages

Well, compared to digital world, there are rather not many. In fact, one of the advantages of analog approach is unique workflow and look of final prints, which can have some meaning for your audience, or may not. From technical point of view the main advantage in my opinion is that you can use cameras, usually medium and large format, with lens/camera movements: shift, swing and tilt. This gives access to unique images depth of field / perspective and compositions. Such things are rather very expensive or impossible to create with digital cameras, or require additional time consuming work in editing.

Equipment for analog b&w photography can be very cheap at entry level: just any 35mm camera with b&w film. If the results are sufficient for final format (print or digital) this is another problem. But, as such, simple 35mm analog camera with roll of film is enough to start.

Grain as an aesthetic add on for affecting mood of photo is yet another (debatable) advantage of analog photography. Leica Monochrom Typ 246 with high ISO settings, like for instance ISO 3200 or ISO 6400, can produce noise which works like film grain simulation. The same can be said about Fuji b&w simulations available in their digital cameras.


Analog b&w – disadvantages

Well, the main one is cost. Entry level 35mm camera with lens can be very cheap. The problems arise when you want to get digital versions of  your photos, because in such case you will need a very good film scanner. Professional scanning services may be also very expensive, if you want the highest quality of image. Option of buying film scanner can be a good idea (but not cheap). However, keep in mind that scanning process, with removing dust problems, is rather very time consuming – it takes much of precious time.

Except that, keep in mind, that scanned frames, especially from medium or large formats, can be very large, so now you have to take care of storage of such files, let’s say 200MB per frame.

With scanned files you have two options. If you used b&w film the image can be affected by used filters. If you used colour film, you can modify colour channels in digital software. Is it a big advantage – ability to switch between b&w and colour sensors (film), well, I am not sure, rather not.

Next thing, rather important, let’s say you want under-develop or develop longer your b&w film to get some effect. That is not a problem if you have your own analog darkroom. But, if you don’t have, the question is:  can you trust people who will handle the film development?

Also, for high quality images, analog camera kit based on Hasselblad can be very expensive. Worth to buy, definitely, but very expensive.


Final thoughts

I think, that for profesional artists interested in b&w photography and high quality photos the digital approach will be much cheaper. On top of that you can have very fast workflow, so time between making a photo and its visibility on your website, can be very short. There is the elusive idea, that analog photography is better than digital. But that is mainly because most old photos (analog) were made by photographers forced to use lightmeters, forced to slow down and think before they press shutter button. For this reason alone, we can expect that all analog photographs are better. Nowadays, everybody can make photos not only with digital cameras but also with cameras installed in mobile phones. This is the reason that most of what is available in the internet is pure rubbish compared to old photos.

I started with analog cameras (Pentax 67 and Mamiya RZ67) for b&w photography, because it looked as a cheaper option. I was also thinking that analog photography is somehow superior to digital photography. But, well, it only looked that way.

In photography the end result of artistic process is a final image. It can be good or bad, and nobody cares how you made the image.