Definition of Black & White Photography

By Gwen Wark

Black-and-white photography is the creation of monochrome images using photographic techniques. Through the use of either a traditional film camera or digital camera, the artist exposes an image media, such as film or a digital image sensor, to light. The light then affects the image media in such a way as to leave a permanent imprint of the scene on that media. This media is then processed to create a final image or photograph.

What Is Black & White Photography?

Black-and-white photography, also called monochrome, is the culmination of several other discoveries and inventions. The resulting image is limited to monochromatic hues, although filters may be applied to give a hue or tint. Different photographic processes and toners may also give a different hue to a black-and-white photograph; for example, selenium-based toners give a reddish-brown hue, while sepia toners give an oxidized, brown hue. These chemicals combine with the colloidal silver in the exposed photograph differently, creating different chemical reactions and producing different results.

Early Photography

Black-and-white photography is truly the root of the photographic process, and modern imaging has evolved from the early explorations into monochrome imaging. Nicéphore Niépce produced the first permanent black-and-white photograph in 1826 at his estate in France, using a modified camera obscura and a plate coated with a bitumen mixture sensitive to light. This first image took hours to expose; however, it was the birth of modern photography. Further discoveries, such as the colloidal wet-plate process developed by Frederick Scott Archer, cut down exposure times and moved black-and-white photography from being a scientific process toward becoming an accessible popular art form.

Developments in Black & White Photography

From Niépce's first landscape image and Archer's colloidal wet-plate process, black-and-white photography still had evolving to do before becoming the modern art form it is today. The colloidal wet-plate process did cut down exposure times but was unwieldy and long, requiring the photographer to develop images instantly. The photographer could not be far from his darkroom, severely limiting applications for this new art. In 1883, George Eastman introduced photographic film in rolls, and in 1888, Eastman Kodak released the first consumer camera, making the art of photography accessible to anyone.

Development Processes

Early black-and-white photography processes depended upon creating an image directly on the display media. This changed with Kodak's introduction of roll film, and the process of creating an image now did not necessitate having a darkroom to hand; however, it did require that the film be developed and the image transferred to a specially treated paper. The process of developing film was then born--the exposed film is washed in a developer, which acts upon the silver halide crystals. Crystals that have not been exposed to light are washed away, while crystals that have been exposed to light are darkened. This creates a negative, or inverted, image on the film, which must then must be converted in the darkroom to a photograph.

Modern Black & White Photography

Modern black-and-white photography can be either film-based or digital. The process remains the same in that the film or digital sensor is exposed to light through a lens, and then the resulting image is processed either in a darkroom or by computer to create the final black-and-white image. Despite advances into digital photography, many artists continue to use and prefer traditional film processes. The advantage to digital photography is that the process is chemical free; however, film still has a greater dynamic capture range than a digital photography sensor, allowing more minute control over the finished print.

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