Black and white street photography is classic and timeless. Stripping away color renders a rawness and an alternate reality to street life.
But merely removing the color will not make a compelling street shot. If you want to create strong street images with no color, you need to be intentional. And that’s what this article is all about.
I’m going to give you 12 tips for capturing beautiful black and white street photos. And by the time you’re done, your classic street photography will be much improved.
Why is black and white great for street photography?
Choosing monochrome for street photography can make for great images. That’s because black and white photos often appear more emotional or mysterious. There’s something missing, so we automatically have a sense of wonder.
Whether you are out in the streets or working on the highway, your street photos will convey a different mood in black and white. If you’re intentional about creating this feeling from the start, you can make your photos more compelling.
So how do you take beautiful black and white street photographs?
Here are my 12 best tips:
1. Start well
Pay attention to your camera settings so you can capture in-focus and well-exposed images.
When you nail your settings, you’ll get image files you can work with in post-production.
For instance, you’ll be able to manipulate a well-exposed image without risking quality degradation. Even with the simplicity of black and white, you need to be careful to maintain image structure.
So know the look you want to capture, then choose the camera settings that will achieve it.
2. Think in black and white
Digital photography means it’s easy to capture images in color and later decide to render them in black and white. This will sometimes create good monochrome photos, but not always.
Thinking in black and white and intentionally shooting without color is best.
Despite the amount of control that’s available when converting color photos to grayscale, pictures deliberately taken for black and white editing are often stronger.
3. Look at light and tone contrasts
Without color, you must rely more on tone and light to shape your images.
When you compose your photos, look for where light and dark meet. How do these tones relate to each other? What graphic impact do they have on your composition?
Tone is largely dictated by light. If you are out in the street on a sunny versus a cloudy day, this will affect the style and mood of the photos you’ll be able to take.
Think about how the light looks in black and white – and work with it because you cannot change it.
4. Think “figure to ground”
Figure-to-ground photography is when the main subject sits in stark contrast to the background. This means your subject is most prominent in your photo, even if it only occupies a small portion of the frame.
You can create this look when your subject is in the sun and the background is in the shade:
Or when your subject is in the shade and you have a very bright background. (A silhouette is another example of figure-to-ground photography.)
5. Find a good background
Finding a good background is important for color or black and white street photography. However, when working in monochrome, your background choice is influenced more by lighting.
Will a background that’s completely in the sun or in the shade suit your subject best? Will the type of images you want to create be stronger if there’s more or less tonal contrast in the background?
Once you find a good background, be patient. Wait for some interesting activity to occur – and when it does, take a photo.
6. Be comfortable with what you’re doing
The more comfortable and confident you are when you are out taking photos, the better your images will be.
So if you’re not comfortable in one location, move somewhere else, because worrying about your situation will distract you from being creative.
When you are comfortable, you’ll be able to think more clearly and visualize the scene in black and white. Focus your thoughts on how the parts of your image will look. Observe the colors and imagine how they will look when converted to grayscale.
Don’t get consumed with worries about how other people will notice you and what they might think.
7. Aim for timelessness
Black and white street photography can have a certain timelessness to it.
But how can you deliberately create a timeless effect?
Look at what you’re including in your compositions. See if you can create some images containing nothing that would indicate when they were taken.
For instance, avoid things like cars and motorcycles. Smartphones are another element that dates a picture.
Think about the items you include and ask yourself:
Would they have been in your picture if you had taken it fifty years earlier?
This can be a fun exercise and could be developed into an ongoing project.
8. Compose well
Be aware of everything you include in your frame. Make sure to only shoot what’s relevant to the main subject and to the style of photograph you want to create.
If you are capturing too much and it’s not making your photo stronger, move closer or change your focal length.
Look at the light and shadow and use these intentionally as compositional elements. Include strong shadows to help shape your images. Frame your subject with light and dark areas.
Don’t only focus on capturing a moving subject at the decisive moment; make sure to include it meaningfully in your composition.
9. Use negative space
Filling your frame does not mean it needs to be cluttered. When it’s intentional, negative space in your black and white street photography can be used very effectively.
When space is left in a photograph without purpose, it weakens the image. But deliberately including empty space will often create a more compelling image.
Think about the lighting and tone in the empty space. Is it going to take away from the main subject? Or will it help the main subject stand out?
10. Take your time
Whatever genre of photography you enjoy, taking your time and not rushing will empower you to capture better photos.
Slow down. Observe what’s happening around you as you are out taking black and white street images.
Look for patterns of movement. When you find them, they will help you predict the best times to take photos.
Watch for when the decisive moment happens and be ready to capture it.
11. Manage your camera settings
Being in control of how your camera autofocuses and exposes your photos means you can be more precise and more creative.
I prefer to use single-point focus as it allows me to focus on the part of my composition I want sharp. If your camera has touchscreen focusing, you can do precise focusing very quickly and easily.
Manual mode and semi-automatic exposure modes put you in charge of which tones in your image will be well exposed. Sometimes, you may want shadows to render black. Other times, you may want highlights to completely blow out while you capture shadow detail. You can manage all of this in Manual mode.
12. Use a higher ISO
Setting a higher ISO allows you to use a faster shutter speed and a narrower aperture.
And when you want to freeze movement, a fast shutter speed is invaluable.
So don’t be afraid to boost your ISO!
Black and white street photography: conclusion
Black and white street photography looks classic. But capturing images with the intention of rendering them in monochrome requires that you think carefully about the light and tones in your compositions.
So before you head out with your camera, take a look at some black and white street photography from the masters. Check out Bruce Davidson, William Klein, and Robert Doisneau, for starters. Look for the secrets of style in their work and let it inspire you.
And remember the tips I’ve shared today!
Now over to you:
What’s your favorite tip from this article? Which tip are you going to implement immediately in your work? Share your thoughts (and your black and white street photos) in the comments below!
Because it’s classic and timeless.
All image-editing software allows you to convert images to black and white. Desaturating is the simplest way to make a color photo black and white, but it will not bring out the best in the image. You will see better results by controlling the conversion.
You can adjust your LCD so it shows you a black and white image. On cameras with electronic viewfinders, you can also do this with the display. When you capture a RAW image, it’ll be in color; by converting to black and white from a RAW file, you’ll get the highest-quality results.
Black and white can make an image look timeless!