There is nothing more classic than black and white street photography. When we look at old street photos of the past, we reminisce on the nostalgic images of Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and many others.
Why black and white street photography?
Of course in the past, when photography first started off, there was only black and white. Therefore when we think of “street photography” (in the classical sense), we only think about monochrome.
When color photography first got introduced to the world, it was used for mostly amateur snapshots. It wasn’t taken as a serious “art” as black and white, because color didn’t have the same fidelity as black and white, history, and dynamic range.
Nowadays times are different. Modern digital cameras boast impressive image quality, with billions of different gamuts of color. With technology, we are able to post-process our photos however we would like.
Yet there is still a charm for black and white photography.
For me, I love black and white because of the simplicity, minimalism, and the ability to get rid of distractions and clutter.
Black and white photos tend to age well— because the aesthetic is timeless.
Furthermore, black and white give us a chance to focus on the essence of a scene. Often color can be a distraction.
Black and white or color are just different ways to shoot street photography. Choose what works better for you.
If your heart is drawn to black and white, here are some tips and suggestions I would give you to shooting monochromatic street photography:
1. See the world in monochrome
To see the world in black and white is different from seeing the world in color.
For me, when I look at the world in black and white, I look for the following:
- Contrast between lights and darks
- Shapes, forms, lines
- Expressions (facial, body-language)
- Eye contact
- Nostalgia, emotion, somberness
Obviously we don’t see the world in black and white. Therefore we need to train our retinas to see the world in monochrome.
Assignment: Only shoot monochrome for a year
My suggestion if you want to learn how to see the world in black and white: only shoot monochrome for a year.
If you shoot digitally, shoot JPEG JPEG+RAW (with a monochrome preset). If you shoot film, just stick to black and white film.
By giving yourself this “creative constraint” — you will force yourself to see your surroundings in black and white. You will start to pre-visualize how a photograph will look like in monochrome.
Try not to switch in-between black and white and color for this year-long period of training. Because you’ll never hone your monochromatic vision.
Also as a tip, if you shoot JPEG+RAW, make sure to apply a black-and-white preset when you import photos into your computer. By default, if you use Lightroom, it will automatically convert your photos back into color.
To get started, you can download my free street photography presets for Lightroom.
For me, black and white is the purest form of photography — in terms of minimalism, cutting clutter, and cutting distractions and complexity.
Always seek to simplify in monochrome. Seek to make the scene less complicated. Seek to make simple compositions. Stick to single-subjects (at least when you’re starting off).
When you’re walking on the streets, start off with a simple background. A totally white, grey, or black background is a good starting point. Then wait for the right subjects to walk into the frame.
Learn to ignore the colors that people are wearing. Rather, try to ask yourself, “How would this color look like if it were converted into black and white?” This will help you see the world according to different brightnesses and shades of grey, rather than color.
Assignment: Subtract the superfluous
For a month, try to subtract the superfluous from your photos and your frame.
Look at the images you want to photograph, and think of what you can take out of the image, rather than what you can add.
And when you’re framing a scene, ask yourself: “Does this element really need to be in my frame?”
Try to distill your images to the essence.
Simplify, less is more.
Not only that, but remember the motto: less, but better.
3. Take risks
With black and white photography, you never know what you’ll get until after you’ve shot the image.
The world isn’t black and white. Our camera renders it into black and white after we’ve clicked the shutter.
So nobody is able to truly pre-visualize a monochromatic image in their mind (100%). If we shoot black and white film, we have less control how our ultimate image will look. If we shoot digital and RAW, we have tons of control over how our final monochromatic image will look. If we shoot black and white JPEG, we have a similar constraint like film.
Assignment: Take risks
Therefore when you’re shooting black and white in street photography, take risks. Shoot against the light. Try to get flares in your images. Play with your exposure-compensation in black and white. Try to do +1, +2, -1, -2 exposure compensation. Learn how that affects how your images ultimately turn out.
You never know what a monochromatic image will look like until you shoot it.
4. Study the master black and white photographers
Of course, if you want to learn how to take better black and white photos, it is always good to study the masters. Here is a list of some photographers I recommend you start off studying:
- Andre Kertesz
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Bruce Gilden
- Garry Winogrand
- Dorothea Lange
- Walker Evans
- Daido Moriyama
- Jacob Aue Sobol
- Anders Petersen
- Diane Arbus
- Josef Koudelka
And also some of these contemporary masters:
Study their images, and see how they compose their images. Not only that, but look at your favorite images of theirs, and try to deconstruct them. What works, and what doesn’t work? How does the light look? What kinds of emotions or gestures are in the frame?
If you’re new to black and white street photography, here are some books I’d also recommend:
Also as a side-note, check out my free e-book: “Monochrome Manual”, or see the lecture below:
5. Focus on emotions
What I love about black and white photography is the emotion it evokes. Monochrome images feel quieter, more still, and are more somber and nostalgic. They reckon the past.
The cliche is when you photograph sad things, you photograph in black and white. Because black and white has a more somber mood.
However you can also switch it up — try to photograph happiness in black and white. Also try to photograph despair. Photograph a wide gamut of emotions in your black and white images.
This concept of photographing emotions is universal to all forms of photography. Yet black and white is a certain aesthetic which evokes a certain mood to the viewer.
Assignment: Evoke certain moods in your photos
Consider what kind of mood black and white stirs in you — and try to photograph those emotions. And as an assignment, also try to evoke the opposite emotion in black and white, to push yourself outside your comfort zone.
6. Dodge and burn
One thing that photographers have been doing for decades is “dodging and burning” their photos (brightening and darkening their photos, in certain parts of the frame).
In the past, they did this in the darkroom. Now we can do it in the “Lightroom” (clever Adobe).
A lot of newbie photographers think that dodging (brightening) and burning (darkening) certain parts of the frame is “cheating.” No. There is no “cheating” in photography — it all depends what your artistic vision is.
You can use digital or traditional tools to brighten and darken certain parts of your frame. I am a big fan of the “adjustment tool” in Lightroom, which gives you more control over how much you want to darken or brighten a part of your frame. Also if you want to darken parts of the frame which are too bright, try using the “radial tool” or “gradient tool” in Lightroom — to allow for a more natural-looking change of brightness in your photo.
Darken parts of the frame you find distracting. Brighten parts of the frame you find interesting (but you want to shine more light on them).
The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the area of your photo with the highest contrast. Keep this in mind.
Also when it comes to dodging and burning, you don’t want to over-do it. For example, when you dodge or burn a photo too much — it looks fake. And if your viewer can tell if a photograph has been excessively dodged or burned, it will be a distraction. Treat dodging and burning, and post-processing in monochrome like adding salt or seasoning to your food. A little seasoning adds a lot of great flavor. Too much seasoning will ruin the dish.
Assignment: Limit your post-processing to under a minute
Personally, I find the longer I spend post-processing my monochrome images, the worse they look. I try to limit my post-processing to under a minute.
I do this by shooting RAW+JPEG, but also applying a standard black-and-white preset to my images (upon import). Then I will make small adjustments to the photograph, in terms of exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights. I will often burn parts of the photo I find distracting.
Once the photograph looks 85% good to my liking (in terms of the monochromatic look) I stop. Anything more will ruin the image. Try the same yourself.
7. Use a flash
A good way you can add more “pop” to your images is to use a flash. Just use the integrated flash in your camera, or use a small flash.
The benefit of using a flash that it will add intensity and a pop to your images. Great photograph needs good contrast, and dramatic light. If you’re shooting in the shade, your black and white photos will probably lack contrast, and lack that aesthetic interest.
Assignment: Photograph all your subjects with and without a flash
For a week, practice by using your flash on everything you photograph. Photograph flowers, trees, people, and things on the ground with a flash (in monochrome).
Also when you take a photograph of each subject-matter, shoot in both flash and without flash. Then when you go home, judge both images. See how the flash affects your images, in terms of the aesthetic look, the emotional impact, and the intensity.
Then at the end of the day, treat flash as another tool in your street photography toolkit. Use it when you see it is needed, and don’t use it when you find it superfluous.
8. Shoot in dramatic light
Photography means “painting with light.” So try your best to shoot when the light is good (golden hour — during sunrise, and sunset).
My good friend Rinzi Ruiz does this really well — he will find a great shaft of light, be patient, wait for the right person to walk in, and he gets a beautiful, minimalist monochromatic street image.
In terms of technical settings, if you shoot in aperture-priority or program mode, adjust your exposure compensation to -1 or -2. Also when you go home, you can increase the “black slider” in Lightroom (or your program of choice) to darken the shadows. They often call this “crushing the shadows.”
It is often good to have some details in the shadows, but when you’re starting off, there is something exciting about having an aesthetic of totally black blacks, and a sliver of light illuminating your subject.
Assignment: Stalk the light
Whenever you go out and shoot, always try to stalk the light. See where you can find nice little slivers of light, and try to adjust your exposure-compensation to minus -1 or -2. Be patient. Wait for the right person to step into the frame.
Try to experiment with different perspectives. Take the elevator to the top of a skyscraper, and shoot down. Or shoot up.
Better yet, try to wait until sunset until you shoot — when you get dramatic long shadows in your subject. Or if you’re really tough, wake up early for sunrise.
Know that at the end of the day, great light will make an ordinary street photograph into a great street photograph.
This is just a brief guide and start to shooting black and white street photography. Know that to truly master monochrome, it will take a lifetime. It means training your eye, to learn the light, and to take lots of images.
There is no truly “wrong” or “right” in street photography — whether you decide to shoot black and white or color.
For most street photographers starting off, I recommend starting off in black and white. Why? Because it allows you to train your eye to the fundamentals, and not to get distracted by color. I generally recommend color street photography for more intermediate/advanced street photographers.
But ultimately, there are no rules — only guidelines and tips.
Above all, I feel black and white photography is all about capturing soul. Photograph with your heart, and capture the soul of your subject through the images you make. A photograph without emotion is dead. Make your photos immortal with your monochrome.
To learn more about street photography, check out Street Photography 101 >