Black and White Photography Tips for Beginners

Photography Techniques

Here is a basic tutorial of how a camera operates and the basics you need to know in order to begin your journey as a black and white photographer. This tutorial will also go into some detail about things to keep in mind when you are selecting your composition to photograph.


Every camera has different size openings to allow different amounts of light in depending on the situation, these are referred to as Aperture settings. Most camera’s have aperture settings which range from f-1.8 to f-16, with f-1.8 being the largest opening, and f-16 being the smallest.

Each step in aperture lets in twice as much, or half as much light depending on which way you are going. Usually aperture settings of f-1.8, f-2.8, and f-4 are used indoors because they let a great deal of light into the camera. Aperture settings of f-5.6, f-8, f-11, and f-16 are primarily used outdoors because less light is required.

The depth of field, which is the area in front or behind your image that is in focus also diminishes as the aperture size increases. For example, when using an aperture of f-1.8 anything directly behind the image you are focused on will be out of focus. Sometimes this is the price a photographer must pay for shooting in a very poorly lit environment.

Shutter Speed

The amount of light entering your camera, in order to get proper exposure, can also be manipulated using the shutter speed. The shutter speed on most camera’s range from 1 second to 1/1000 second. There is also a B(bulb) setting which causes the shutter to stay open as long as the shutter release button is depressed. The same principle applies with shutter speed, each slower setting allows twice as much light in as the setting before it. For example a shutter speed of 1/8 s, will let twice as much light in as a shutter speed of 1/16 s, because the shutter is open twice as long.

So in poor lighting conditions to shoot faster moving objects you will have to sacrifice some depth of field, or if you need a large depth of field, you will only be able to shoot still or very slow moving objects, if you are in a poorly lit setting. Both shutter speed and aperture settings are adjusted to allow the proper amount of light, so that it agrees with your light meter. To put this into perspective, a shutter speed of 1/15 s and aperture of f-16 is equal to 1/30 s and f-11, and is equal to 1/60 s and f-8 etc.

ASA (Film Speed)

When you purchase film you will notice there are different numeric values associated with the ASA number. The ASA number is film speed. ASA 100 is a slow speed film, which means that the quality of the enlargements will be very good but because this is a slow film it is only suitable for shooting well lit environments (outdoors). ASA 400 is considered a medium speed film. The enlarged photos when using this film will be a little grainy as compared to the 100, but this film can be used in lower light conditions (indoors). ASA 800 is considered very fast film and is perfect for shooting in very poor lighting conditions but any enlargments made from these negatives will be very grainy.


Camera lenses vary a great deal, and the lens you choose will be based upon your subject matter. A 35mm camera normally has a 50mm lens. This size lens is generally designed for usual everyday photography such as portraits. A 35mm wide angle lens has a 24mm lens, and is used to give the photographer a wider image area, which is great for shooting landscapes. A 35mm telephoto lens has up to a 1000mm lens, and this is designed to zoom in super close, and is perfect when the photographer cannot get close to the subject.


Many experienced photographers use filters, which screw over the lens, to enhance to look of thier photos. Have you ever noticed when you shoot a cloudy sky how those clouds, which you remembered as being brilliant, barely show up in your Black and White Photo? This is because a regular unfiltered lens does not have the contrast to bring out those clouds the way your naked eye would see them. A yellow filter (uv filter) is great for situations like this. An orange filter creates even more contrast, and is great for skylights, and a red filter creates a very dramatic looking photograph. This filter will make your white clouds looks dark and ominous, similar to how they would look in the old Black and White Alfred Hitchcock movies.


The camera meter is a vital tool in order to ensure your photographs are not overexposed (too much light), or underexposed (insufficient light). Most cameras have a light meter built in, and are visible when looking through the viewfinder area of the camera. The meter will sometimes consist of a bar, indicating proper exposure when the marker is in the center of the bar. Some light meters have a rod-arm and a second arm with a hollow sphere on the end of it. Proper exposure is metered on this type of meter, when end of the rod-arm is centered within the sphere on the second arm. Camera meters average out an exposure to 18% grey, and this will make white snow grey, and a black object grey as well.
The metering area is in the center of the viewfinder, and you must be very careful in some situations not too let backlight fool you and your Meter. A good example of this is shooting outside when there is snow on the ground. When your viewfinder is pointed at the snow the meter will read that there is lots of light coming in to your camera, due to the highly reflective nature of the snow.
As a result your light meter will tell you to shut down your aperature or increase your shutter speed to compensate, and this would be a faulty meter reading. As a result the actual image you were going to photograph, say a child sliding, would be underexposed and probably show up as a dark silhouette on your photograph. In this situation you would be wise to get close to the image you want to photograph first, take a light meter reading, then go to the actual location you would like to shoot from and take the picture regardless of what your light meter reads.

Camera Equipment for Black and White Photography

Ahh so many, many choices when it comes to choosing a camera that is right for you. The 2 biggest factors that should influence your decision on which camera to buy should be

  1. The type of subject you are going to shoot, and
  2. Your budget.

If you are primarily interested in shooting still life objects such as landscape, buildings, and individuals posing, and you are working with a limited budget, I would definitely recommend a simple manual camera.

I am partial to the old Canon Ftb model which is a very solid high quality camera. Focusing, choosing the shutter speed, and setting the correct aperture is all manual on these older cameras, but once you get the hang of it they are very simple to use.

The manual camera gives you a great deal of freedom as a photographer to experiment with different combinations of shutter speeds and aperture (f-stop) settings. The light meter is also there to always ensure that your pictures are not over or under exposed when using the different settings.

Dark Room Equipment

When it comes to setting up your darkroom there are even more choices involved then chossing camera equipment. I will start with the key piece of equipment in your darkroom, the Enlarger. This is another piece of hardware that will depend greatly on your budget. In case you are very new to this the enlarger takes your B&W; 35mm negative, and creates a postive magnified image as an 8X10 or an 11X14 print. I have seen many nice used enlargers for sale on Ebay starting at around $100 US, and prices go up from there to several thousand dollars. If you have a bit more money in your budget you might want to check with your local photo shop for a brand new model.

Now for the smaller items. One of the most crucial elements of your darkroom will be setup, and lighting. You want to ensure that there is no white light seeping into your darkroom at all, otherwise you will end up with foggy prints every time. So make sure you use some nice thick black construction paper to cover those windows, and place a blanket under the door. You will also need a safelight or redlight so you can still see what you are doing without spoiling your photographic paper. I have heard of people using simple red light bulbs from the local hardware store or Walmart, but personally the extra $10 spent on an actual darkroom safelight is worth the piece of mind and knowledge that I will get the best quality prints possible. It is also a good idea when setting up your darkroom that you have at least one white light at at arms length, so that you can view your prints or make adjustments to your enlarger without walking across the room to flick on a switch.

You will also need the following to complete your darkroom:

1. At least 4 – 8″X10″ (or 11″X14″) paper trays
2. 4 wooden or plastic print tongs.
3. An 8″X10″ (or 11″X14″) easle for your photographic paper to sit on underneath the enlarger.
4. Three empty 2L plastic containers (eg. empty juice jugs) for your chemicals.
5. A large measuring cup to measure out your chemicals for mixing.
6. A darkroom timer (the GraLab make of timer is nice).
7. A grain focuser to ensure your image is in focus before you burn your print.
8. a large sink or wash tub at close proximity (to the right of) to your darkroom counter top.

Film and Chemicals

Choosing the right B&W; film, paper, and darkroom chemicals are almost as crucial as picking the right equipment. First a word about processing your own negatives. Many photographers choose to develop thier own negatives in the darkroom and thier are advantages to this including financial savings as well as having your negatives ready much quicker. Having said this, if you are brand new to B&W; developing I would not recomend processing your own negatives right away. The reason I say this is that if certain conditions such as developing time and the temperature of the developer are not followed 100%, your negatives will not develop properly.

For example a 2 deg Celcius temperature difference from the manufacturers recomended temperature will have a negative effect (pardon the punn). It is much easier if you are a beginner to find a trusted photo-shop to develop them for you and have the piece of mind that your negative will not be ruined. Most photo labs will only charge between $8 – $12 per roll and they will give you a postive contact sheet as well so you can view all of your photos. If you do have some experience in the darkroom and would like to start developing your own negatives you will need a negative tank and the proper chemicals. Here is a very informative site with¬†Kodak’s specifications

In the age of digital photography true B&W; film is not as easy to find as it used to be. However any reputable photo-shop should carry it and it usually costs around $4 per roll of 24. One word of caution, be sure you are buying actual B&W; film and not color machine developed black and white many stores carry. A very good B&W; film is the Kodak T-Max 400, Tri-X 400 or the Ilford Delta 400 . These are all fast shooting films and are basically ideal for most circumstances and lighting conditions. Dont forget most manual cameras must be set to the speed of film you are using, for example if you are using 400 speed film you must set the film speed setting on your camera to 400.

Fortunately developing your own prints on photographic (8X10 or 11X14) paper is a much more forgiving process then developing negatives. First order of business is choosing photographic paper. There are 2 main types, Resin-coated, and Fiber-based, paper and there has been a long time debate as to which is superior. If you are a beginner the choice is very easy. In fact 90% of Black and White photographers use Resin-coated paper in their darkroom. Resin-coated paper is about half the price, half the time to develop, half the time to fix, and very easy to dry. Fiber-based paper is costly, much more difficult to chemically process, requires more washing, and special drying techniques must be used othewise the print will roll up like a scroll and never lie flat again. Supporters of the Fiber-based paper claim the image has much more depth and is the only option for serious artists, so this may be an option if you are an experienced photographer and dont mind the extra cost, time, and attention to detail that this paper requires. Some very good brands for paper are Kodak, Ilford, and Agfa.

Now a little explanation of the darkroom chemicals. You will Developer, Stop Bath, and Fixer for your darkroom, and these can be purchased in a powder or liquid form. Personally I prefer the liquid form because it is much easier to measure out, and mix without having dust fly up. You will be buying the concentrated form of the chemicals so they will need to be mixed in empty containers. The concentration varies depending on the brand but is usually arond 1:5 parts chemical:water. After mixing you should cleary mark on each container with a thick black marker which chemical it is so there is no confusion later on. Some very good brands as far as chemicals are Kodak, Ilford, and Agfa.

Burn and Develop

Allright down to the nitty gritty of producing black & white prints. First I will discuss darkroom setup a little. The ideal setup is to have a couple counter tops or one long counter top to work on. You want to have your enlarger on the left most side and then to the right of that you will have your developing tray, then stop bath tray, fixer tray, water wash tray, and then your wash basin furthest to the right. This setup allows for a nice smooth transfer of your print during the burning and developing process.

Ok now we will tackle using your enlarger. Most enlargers are fairly similar in design and operation. The first step is to insert your negative (ensure it is clean) upside down, light side up into the negative holder of your enlarger, and then slide the holder back into place within the enlarger. Once it is in place turn the lights out and turn on your enlarger on the focus setting. Upon doing this you should see a positive blown up image of your negative, but you may need to slip a peice of white paper into your easel to see it clearly. Usually the knob on the right side of your enlarger moves the head up and down to adjust the size of your image, and the knob on the left is to focus the image. Using the knob on the right adjust until your image is the approximate desired size, and then using the focus knob adjust until it seems to be in focus. To ensure your image is 100% in focus you will now place your grain focuser on the image (on easel) and look through it. If you cannot see distinct seperate clear grains when you look through the grain focuser then you must slightly adjust the focus knob on your enlarger until these grains appear, and they are sharp. Now your image is in focus and ready to burn.

Now your ready to make a test strip of your image. The test strip will give you a great deal of information as to which aperature setting or amount of time you need to burn your image. With the white lights off and your darkroom lights on cut a sheet of photographic paper into 3 or 4 horizontal strips. Place one of these strips, glossy side up on your easel in an area where there was a great deal of image (not white space or empty sky). Have a thick peice of contruction paper covering your strip so that you can gradually expose sections to the light. With the enlarger aperature set on 5.6 (or the second largest opening – smaller number = larger aperature) turn it on. Expose 1/4 of your strip for 5 seconds, then move your construction paper exposing another 1/4 of the image for 5 seconds. Continue doing this until the last 1/4 of your strip has been exposed for 5 seconds then turn off your enlarger.

The result of this will be that the left 1/4 of your test strip will have been exposed for 20 seconds, 2nd section 15 seconds, 3rd section 10 seconds and last section 5 seconds. Upon developing this strip it will give you a good idea which time frame is closest to what you need to achieve a good image. You may need to do a second or even third test strip to get an exact time frame. Every increase in aperature size (smaller number) on your enlarger requires half the time of exposure and vice versa. For example an image requiring 12 seconds exposure on an aperature of 5.6 would only require 6 seconds of exposure on an aperature setting of 4.

Developing chemicals may vary somewhat, but most requre about 1 min of developing. After gently sliding your paper into the tray, gently agitate the tray every 3 or 4 seconds. If your image is burnt for the proper amount of time (not underexposed or overexposed) your image begin to appear slowly after about 10 seconds and continue darkening for the duration of developing. Next is the stop bath, which neutralizes the developer so it wont over develop. This usually requires about 30 seconds depending on the brand, and remember to gently agitate the tray during this step as well. Next is the fixer, which will protect and preserve your image in the paper to prevent fading or degradation over the years. Again it depends on the brand but fixing may require anywhere from 2min to 7min. I would recomend buying a quick fixer which will greatly speed up your developing process. The last step is the water wash tray, which simply washes 90% of the fixer off in this tray filled with luke warm water before placing your sheet into the actual wash basin. This only requires 15 – 30 seconds and is just used to prevent your wash basin from becoming overly saturated with fixer when washing many prints. Let your print sit in the wash basin anywhere from 2-5 min depending on the direction stated on the photographic paper box. Next hang the print to dry on a line with clothes hangers, perferrable installed over some type of water drainage.

Take a look at your developed print under a good light source. If your image is too light it needed to be exposed longer, if it is too dark the paper was exposed to the light too long. Make adjustmenst on your enlarger to correct this by adjusting the time of exposure or aperature setting, and try burning/developing your image again. This is a learning process so dont be afraid to waste a little paper and experiment. As your experience grows you will also want to start playing around with contrast by using contrast filters on your enlarger. These filters will make the blacks, and whites of your image much more pronounced and are useful if your image is dull and lacks punch.



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