If you want to master black and white street photography for yourself, this is the advice I would give you (advice I wish I could have given myself):
MONOCHROME by ERIC KIM
Study the master black and white street photographers of history
First of all, you gotta know your history. I would recommend studying these black and white street photographers:
Gritty black and white street photographers
And to study more gritty black and white (high contrast) aesthetics, I recommend:
- William Klein
- Daido Moriyama
- Shomei Tomatsu
- Anders Petersen
- Jacob aue Sobol
- Josh White
- Junku Nishimura
Learn from the masters
My suggestion when studying these master black and white street photographers:
- Study their compositions: How do they simplify their scenes, and keep it minimal, yet beautiful and elegant?
- What mood are in their photos? Do you see their soul in their photos? Is their outlook on life optimistic or pessimistic?
- Could you shoot photos like them? If so, can you do it better than them?
Settings for black and white street photography
When you’re shooting on the streets, I recommend shooting in RAW, and processing your photos into black and white afterwards. Why? Because with the ERIC KIM MONOCHROME preset for Lightroom, I think I have perfected the ‘black and white film look’ to digital files. So at this point, I would prefer to shoot monochrome in digital, than using film.
When shooting black and white street photography, the grittier, the better. Keep your ISO high (like 1600 or 3200, or even 6400 if it gets really dark). You can just shoot in ‘p’ (program mode), or if you’re using aperture-priority, keep it at f/8 (gives you an optimal depth-of-field).
What to be conscious of when shooting black and white street photography
The biggest suggestion I have when shooting black and white street photography is this:
Strive to simplify the scene.
You can simplify the scene by getting closer to your subject, by positioning yourself to simplify the background, or you can even use a flash to separate the subject from the background.
And I recommend when you’re shooting on the streets: shoot a lot. You never know when you will get a good photo or not. The best is to keep taking little risks when shooting on the streets, and the more little risks you take, the more likely you are to make a good photo.
Remember, every time you click the shutter, you are just taking a small chance. A small risk. It is better to take 1,000 photos in a day, and then go home and choose 1 good photo, than to only shoot 10 photos in a day, and you probably won’t have any good photos.
ERIC KIM MONOCHROME
I prefer the gritty, high contrast, black and white aesthetic. Why? To me, I love the grit, soul, and emotion which comes through a rougher aesthetic. Of course, this is just my personal taste: You must discover what aesthetic/taste you prefer for your own black and white photos.
There is no “correct” aesthetic in black and white. Avoid nerdy stuff like histograms and nonsense like that. When you’re post-processing your black and white photos, process them according to your own taste.
For a starter kit, download free ERIC KIM MONOCHROME preset for Lightroom, and apply them to your own RAW photos (also see my free ERIC KIM LIGHTROOM WORKFLOW PDF Visualization).
If you shoot film, shoot Kodak Trix 400, and push it to 1600. More information in FILM NOTES.
Principle 1: Keep it simple
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci
The first principle in black and white street photography is this: keep it simple, minimal, and elegant.
Essentially you want to have clear separation/contrast between your subject and the background. This concept is also known as “figure to ground” (figure is your subject, ground is your background).
A quick test to know whether your black and white photos are simple enough: use “Gaussian blur” to your black and white photos in Photoshop, and see if you can still see good separation between your subject and the background. Also, you can squint your eyes, or take off your glasses when inspecting your photos. Or look at your black and white photos as small thumbnails, to determine whether they are simple enough.
Principle 2: Shoot with your heart and soul
The second principle is when you’re shooting black and white street photography, shoot with all of your heart and soul.
The purpose of photography isn’t to make pretty photos; the purpose is to communicate your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and soul into your photos. Black and white is a good aesthetic for this.
In the past, black and white was the only medium. Now we have a choice. Generally I believe that black and white is good for capturing feelings of loss, nostalgia, the past, or sentimental/emotional feelings. However, that’s not always the case. You can also use black and white to capture optimism, joy, and beauty.
When you’re shooting photos, identify scenes which you find personally meaningful to you. When you photograph strangers, empathize with them. Feel the emotions they do, before you click the shutter.
Principle 3: Simple *and* dynamic
The last principle is this: make your photos both simple and dynamic.
Simple: simple background. Dynamic: composition, movement, and emotion.
You can make dynamic compositions in street photography by getting close, by using a wide-angle lens (24mm, 28mm, or 35mm). Dynamic by tilting your camera (Dutch angle), or by integrating more diagonals or curves in your photos. Or make it more dynamic by adding layers to your photos, to create more depth in your photos.