Street Photography with Black and White Film
• by Daniel A. Norman •
Street Photography with black and white film has for a long time been extremely popular in major cities around the world like New York City, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Street Photography has stood the test of time and remains popular today in cities around the world. Black and White Street Photography in film is still surviving in a world where digital photography takes center stage. Black and White film or monochrome, is the perfect medium for street photography because it instantly transforms a Street Photography image, like a scene in New York City, into a timeless work of art. The look of Street Photography with Black and White Film can be imitated with a digital camera, but a film rangefinder, loaded with b&w film is the classic tool for street photography. As a big fan of street photography with black and white film, who uses the streets of New York as the backdrop for my artwork, one of the most important elements for shooting black and white street photography is the film itself. One of favorite choices of film for street photography is B&W 35mm Kodak Tmax 100, but with the recent announcement from Kodak about the plan to sell off their 130 year old film business, it looks like Ilford will become my new favorite brand of film.
Recently Kodak announced that they were selling their film business, and this made me think about the future of film photography. There were several articles about this in The British Journal of Photography & The New York Times. Kodak is actively trying to sell off the film business. Does this mean and end to Kodak film as we know it? Does the mean the end of film photography is near? Not in major cities like New York, where film photography labs still exist, and artist and film photographers still roam the streets looking for the next moment to capture. I personally develop my own black and white film, and then scan it into a digital image. This workflow gives me the best of both the digital and film photography worlds. It allows me to mix the pleasure of film photography with the convenience of digital photography.
With all the modern digital camera’s available, I still enjoy shooting New York Street Photography with black and white film and on a rangefinder camera. My camera of choice is a Leica M7, with a Zeiss Planar T 50mm F2 lens, and Kodak TMax 100 black and white film. One of the classic rangefinders, the Leica M7 is a decade old and is still in production by Leica. I applaud Leica for still producing film cameras in a digital era. Film rangefinders have a much longer lifespan than digital cameras, and they hold their value a lot longer. Is there any digital camera that has been in production for ten years, yet remains on the cutting edge of technology? I doubt there is. In fact, a film Leica M3 that is over 50 years old is as useful today as it was when it was made. Leica ‘s rangefinder cameras have been a part of street photography going back to the great Magnum Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who’s foundation preserves his amazing contribution to street photography. I also use a Voigtlander Bessa R3A with a Voigtlander Nokton 40mm 1.4 lens. These Japanese made Voigtlander cameras and lenses are really well built, and make a great addition to any rangefinder collection. Shooting street photography with black and white film with my Voigtlander rangefinder is always a rewarding experience. Even though rangefinder cameras, which are perfect for street photography, are still being made, will 35mm black and white film always be available? We can only speculate.
If Kodak sells off the film business as planned, will the TMax 100 film be the same product? Will the Portra 400 , Portra 160, and Ektar 100 color films be the same as they are today? These are concerns that I have because it seems like the sale of the Kodak film business will mean an end to Kodak film as we know it. Kodak will still keep the motion picture film business, which trickles down the technological advancements to the consumer film division, but does this also mean an end to advancements in black and white and color film technology for consumer film? I, like many other street photographers and fine art photographers who still use film, are concerned with the future availability of film.
I didn’t always think film photography would be around forever. Years ago, while studying photography in a course at Brooklyn College‘s art department, I remember telling one of my professors that I thought film photography would die out, and I remember the look of horror that came across her face. For photography purist, b&w film is not only the foundation of photography, but it represents photography itself. When I think back, my opinion of b&w film photography has changed greatly from then to now. I’ve developed a much greater appreciation for film photography, especially street photography with black and white film. I love the look of the grain that can only be imitated with digital photography. What probably changed my opinion the most was when one of my hard drives, with an entire years worth of images fell and broke. I lost almost an entire years worth of work, except for the film images I had made that year. The film photography images that I had made during that year only needed to be re-scanned. Of course I should have backed up the hard drive, which I do now, but some lessons we learn the hard way. I emerged from this experience with a much deeper appreciation for film photography.
Film emulsions have continually developed over the years, and thanks to motion picture film R&D, consumer film continues to be developed with the latest technology. When I started photography at the age of nine, it was with Kodak TriX 400. This film has lasted the test of time and is still popular today, but while getting back into film photography a few years ago, I fell in love with TMAX 100 black and white film. The grain pattern isn’t as pronounced as TriX, but it is great for street photography with black and white film. I use this film mainly for street photography in New York, which has traditionally been done on black and white film. There are color films from Kodak that interest me as well. I enjoy the vivid look of 35mm Ektar 100 film, and I even like the new 35mm Portra 400 film, but when shooting film, I usually use black and white 35mm TMax 100 film. It’s been my favorite for a while, but it’s time to find something new.
Instead of waiting for the day that I stop by Adorama to pick up some Kodak Tmax 100, and they tell me it has been discontinued, I will start looking for an alternative now. I was once loyal to Kodak film, but Kodak film isn’t obviously loyal to it’s film photographer customers. I’ve used Ilford HP5 plus, which has really nice grain and contrast, so maybe that will be my new film of choice. Maybe I’ll try Ilford FP4 plus or Delta 100? I’ve been very happy with the results I’ve gotten on Ilford films in the past, and I use Ilford paper in the darkroom, so maybe I’ll be happier with Ilford than with Kodak? I’ve always wondered if I was loyal to Kodak because that’s the film I learned film photography with. I know my preference of Nikon DSLR’s over Canon is based off of my early experience of using a Nikon FM2 when I was a kid just learning about photography. Either way, it looks like Ilford is not shifting away from it’s film business anytime soon, so I can be confident that their film products will be around for years to come. I hope Ilford values my business and my loyalty by keeping high quality products on the shelves. If Ilford keeps 35mm film available for film street photographers like myself, I’ll keep up my end of the bargain and keep shooting with film.
I could just shooting black and white New York Street Photography with a digital camera and stop using film all together, but I love using film for street photography and fine art photography. I’ve shot many street photography images and fine art photography images with a digital Nikon D80, a Nikon D300, an Olympus Pen EP2, and even an iPhone, and then converted the images to black and white in Adobe Lightroom. I also use Nik Software Silver Efex Pro2 to convert color images to black and white images. The images have come out great, and if I wanted to add some grain with Silver Efex pro 2, that option was always available. Even if I want to use a rangefinder, the Leica M9, M9-P , or the new Leica M Monochrome looks like they were made with street photographers in mind. These Leica digital rangefinders can make images with almost the same dynamic range as street photography with black and white film. I would love to roam the streets of New York with a Leica M Monochrome, and see how the images compare to the the film Leica M7‘s black and white street photography images. I guess in the end, it doesn’t matter to some what camera you shoot with, whether it’s digital, or film, the only thing that matters is the photograph you end up with. For me, the experience of shooting Street Photography with a film rangefinder is rewarding in itself. If I end up with a beautiful example of black and white New York Street Photography, even better.
by Daniel A. Norman
Street Photography with Black and White Film Gallery: