Making your own black and white pictures the good old fashioned way can be fun. It’s VERY hands on.
There’s something magical about sliding a sheet of white photographic paper into the developing tray and watching the image form before your eyes. That magic can offset the messy chemicals and smells.To create your own (no computers) black and white photo prints you will need:
1. A camera that uses film – non-digital. There are thousands of these for sale everywhere in second hand shops because the owners switched to digital.
2. Black and white film. You should be able to find this. Kodak made TRI-X which was a very good all-purpose B&W film. Ilford made good B&W films too. Get a film with an ‘ASA’ of 400 – useful for most applications.
3. Buy a kit of the basic chemicals. You need a:
- developer for the film,
- a different developer for the prints,
- a stop bath (to stop the development from continuing,
- a fixer (to fix the image so it doesn’t darken or fade when exposed to light.
4. Somewhere to wash the film and prints. The chemicals are caustic to a degree and if they are left on the film or the print eventually the film or print will discolor.
5. A film spool. This is a little gadget that you feed the film onto (in the dark) before you put it into the film developer. The spool stops the film from sticking together.
6. An enlarger. This projects the negative onto the print paper and focus the image so it’s clear and sharp. Start with a simple one.
7. Printing paper. These are graded usually in terms of contrast with 0 being very flat and low contrast, up to 4 or 5 for very high contrast. Some modern papers are variable contrast.
8. A set of at least three plastic trays. They will need to be the size of the paper you are using, to hold the chemicals. Best to get these where you get your chemicals.
9. A safelight. These are usually orange or yellow, red is OK too. Best to buy a commercial one. The print paper is only sensitive to the blue end of the spectrum (white light) so you can work with a safelight and not keep slamming into things in your…
10. A Darkroom. This is a room which is… dark. It can be your bathroom if you want an early divorce, or you find some small room, ideally with plumbing, that can be made light-proof.
- Cover the windows with black plastic.
- Make a light trap – this means hang a heavy curtain a few feet inside the door, or if you want to build stuff make a dog leg entrance and paint the walls black. Light travels in straight lines and not around corners.
- Or just put a lock on the door, and remember to check that all your light-sensitive materials are closed up before you open the door.
- Some kind of ventilation is a good idea.
- Stand in the room for five minutes to see if it’s really dark.
11. An ability to read and follow written directions. B&W film is pretty forgiving, but temperature of the film developer and print developer is a factor, also timing is important especially for films. You can’t use a safelight for B&W film because it is sensitive to all the spectrum, so you have to be accurate in your developing times.
12. Some way to wash the prints. You need to wash the chemicals out of the paper’s coating or emulsion. You can use the bath, or a very gentle cycle on a big washing machine, changing the water several times.
To dry the prints you can hang them on the clothesline, indoors in best, away from dust. Or lay them flat on a towel.
13. A sense of adventure. Printing is trial and error.
Put the (dry) negative in the enlarger. You can use test strips – a strip cut off a sheet of print paper that you expose in full (say for 5 seconds). Then cover 2/3rds of the strip and expose for another 5 secs. Then cover half the strip and do another five.
This gives you exposures on the strip in 5 second increments and will tell you approximately how long for the best exposure. Also if you have the right contrast.
14. Hands or fingers. By using your hand to shadow the print during exposure, you can ‘hold back’ or ‘dodge’ parts that are too dark, or burn parts that are too light and crop to improve composition.
Or you can just do all that in image editing software with digital images. It’s up to you.
If you want to see incredible black and white photos, Google “Cartier Bresson.” This guy worked almost exclusively in black and white and made photography into an real art form.
You can do the same!
If you really want to learn how to take great photos, black and white or otherwise, and get good at this stuff we highly recommend Beginner Digital Photography as a learning resource.
It covers everything you need to know from beginner to pro in an interactive format you can study or refer to at your own pace and at your level of experience.