Black and white film has undergone a lot of changes over the years. One of the bigger changes was making it less blind to certain colors.
Yes, less blind. If you look around you, different colored objects will appear to you at different brightnesses, and you might be able to imagine how the scene looks in black and white, simply by translating the brightnesses into grey levels.
And that's how many black and white films work these days. They try to create a black and white picture that reflects the perceived brightness levels that you see with your eyes.
But originally, black and white film would translate colors very differently.
Look at the visual spectrum. It starts right beyond infrared, goes through red, orange, yellow, green, blue to violet and then disappears into ultraviolet. Infrared and ultraviolet are black to our eyes, simply because we don't have the right receptors to see these colors.
Now imagine a black and white film that can see an even narrower range, film that can only see part of the colors. And that's exactly what black and white film did in the old days. It was blind on the red side of the spectrum, so whenever it saw red light, it would register that as black. We call that an orthochromatic film. Only some time after the 1950s did black and white film become more sensitive to other colors. A film that sees the entire visible spectrum is called a panchromatic film.
Here's a snap I took of the same scene, but this time with a digital camera:
Compare the two and you will notice that the black and white film is very sensitive on the blue side, but it almost doesn't have any sensitivity on the red side of the spectrum. Blue renders almost identical to yellow, and green is somewhere in the middle grey area. In the early days of black and white photography photographers had to learn how to see in black and white to get to the picture they envisioned, and still today a lot of films have their characteristic look that's at least partially based on how the different wavelengths are rendered on a scale from black to white.
Back in the day, art went so far that during early black and white film productions, the actors had to wear bright and colorful make-up so that a normal looking black and white image could be achieved. Imagine an actor with green lipstick to avoid the lips from going all black on the film. These early film sets must have looked very colorful.
I recently posted a bunch of pictures that I took back in the United States in August.
Here are their stories.
Clicking on pictures opens them in a new window.
Let me start with the one picture that is my favorite of the whole bunch. It's Liliana, the daughter of my friend, photographer and parfumeur Douglas Hopkins and I made several pictures while we spent some time during my stay in Washington D.C.
I try my best to treat children with the same respect and at same eye level as I treat anyone else, and I try to carry that into my photography whenever possible. Lili sat ona structure in front of the Washington Air and Space museum, and when I noticed what the sun and the wind were doing with her hair, I took a few shots. What came out was one of those in-between pictures, where the posing stops and the real emotion happens.
Lili again, at the museum's gift shop, trying on props. This time I deliberately didn't shoot her at eye level, so I could emphasize the huge gap between the little girl and the pilot's gear, making for quite some contrast and fun. The goofy look on her face helped a lot to make this a humorous picture.
This is one of those street shots where I'm really happy that everything has it's place. The guy in the foreground sits very comfortably in the corner, facing outward, which gives him a bit of a lost feeling, and the fact that he's sitting on the curb holding his face, helps a lot in conveying that feeling. I shot several frames while different people walked past, the guy in the background also touching his face was the final winner.
Meet Peter, his friends and his dog. This one I'm very proud of. At first I walked past them, and the stream of thoughts in my mind went a bit like this: "Awesome, three guys in wheelchairs, with a tiny dog, I totally should take a picture of them. But how would you feel sitting in a wheel chair and some stranger asking to take your picture? But it's such a great scene! But I really don't want to hurt anyone's feelings…" and so on. At that point I had long walked past them, but then luckily the urge to get that picture won, I turned around, approached them, asked if they'd mind me taking a picture of them and they said "Oh sure, absolutely!" and I took about 10 shots of them from various angles.
I tried from their eye level, which I felt was the appropriate thing to do, but the busy background (it was at a street festival) didn't work, so I had to revert back to a standing perspective. A bit of tilt on the lens helped guide the attention to the three - and to the dog, wearing an SF Giants jersey.
I come to the United States every year to hold photo workshops. One of them was the Fire & Night workshop in San Francisco. I always wanted to include night photography in the workshops, and adding fire to the mix turned this into a really exciting one! There were a lot of pictures with lots of detail in the flames and great color contrasts between warm and cold, but in the end this is one of my favorites, even though the flame itself is blown out. I love how it shows the raw power of the flame, its strength to light the entire scene, its heat, and the motion of the fire breather juxtaposed with the other guy waiting.
Last but not least, the Fire & Night workshop also took us out to Treasure Island to take pictures of the San Francisco skyline at night - or rather at the blue hour. That term is misleading though, as it actually describes a window of maybe 10 to 15 minutes. It's the time shortly after sunset, where the sky turns a deep blue. We were really lucky to get the fog behind San Francisco lit by the city lights and glow in a bright orange. The color contrast with the sky turned out very dramatic. Initially I was unhappy about the clouds in the sky, but they turned out to add some great drama to the pictures.