Looking to do black and white street photography? Look no further. In this guide, with many street photography tips you’ll find out:
- Myths about BW
- What really makes BW image work
- The secret sauce to making your images pop in Lightroom
- The best settings for Black and whites
- & much more
Cool? Let’s dig right in
- Why is street photography mostly done in black and white?
- Does everything look good in black and white?
- What makes black and white street photography effective?
- What are the best settings for black and white street photography?
- Black and white street photography tips
Why is street photography mostly done in black and white?
Street photography is not exclusively done in black and white, it is also sometimes done in color to great success. However most of the most famous street images are in black and white.
Why then is monochrome so prevalent?
The first reason is tradition While color film existed, the process wasn’t really ready for the masses until the revolutionary Kodachrome in 1935. So during that time most photographers used black and white film.
And since it was the most used, everybody else used it because everybody else did! Moreover even if a photographer wanted to shoot in color, they would be discouraged by magazines and newspapers as this would drive up their cost of printing.
But in these modern times, why focus still on monochrome while we can have all the colors under the sun?
Simple: Because of the aesthetics, and the way it separates the image further from reality. What does that mean?
Take Star Wars, how thrilling would it be if instead of spaceships, lasers and aliens, you had the story happen on earth, with humans only and with cars. It’s just not that exciting is it?
That is why in Star Wars everything is done to separate their world with ours: Aliens that don’t look humans, that speak alien languages, planets with multiple moons, spaceships that look like nothing from this earth, etc.
This is the same thing in a lesser degree for black and white. It abstracts reality. You experience life in color so when presented with a monochrome image, your brain doesn’t immediately go try to find where something was shot. You tend to see the photograph as it’s own thing, while in color, being so close to reality, your brain goes in detective mode trying to figure out when and where the photograph was made. Which brings us to…
Does everything look good in black and white?
When I was making my strides as a professional photographer focusing on weddings and the like in black and white, I’ve head this many times. It’s a myth.
Not everything looks good in black and white. If something looks good when the colors are removed, it’s because the foundations of a great photograph have been there when it was shot.
A great color shot can make a great monochrome shot but rarely does a BW shot make a nice color shot if the photo is not primarily about the colors. Once you start shooting primarily in black and white, you quickly realize that turds are turds with or without color.
What makes black and white street photography effective?
What makes a great black and white street photograph is what makes great street photography to begin with: the eye, heart and mind. Great technical execution, emotional appeal and strong composition. Specifically in monochrome, you will want to pay extra attention to that last one.
Why? Because when color is removed, the “decoration” of the photograph is removed. If you had a shot of some kid with a red balloon, your eyes would go directly there because it’s such a strong color. Remove the color and there’s nothing to “lock in” your eyes besides the contrast. More on this in the tips section.
What are the best settings for black and white street photography?
There’s no specific street photography cameras required for monochromes. But RAW capability is highly recommended. Here’s the best recommended settings for black and white street photography:
- Put your camera on RAW
- If you can’t shoot RAW, then shoot in color JPG
- Put your screen in BW so that you can see the results beforehand
- Some cameras will require RAW+JPG in order to turn the screen in BW
Yes, the secret of monochrome is to shoot in color first. The magic happens in post processing
Black and white street photography tips
Now that you’ve seen that there’s nothing special about the gear, let’s get into the meat of things and start shooting. Here’s some tips to get you started right away:
Double down on your composition
Nothing exposes the structure of your images more than stripping it of it’s colors. So when shooting in monochrome, pay extra attention to he way you compose your images. If your image breaks when converting it from color to BW the reason is probably weak composition.
I remember transporting a photograph of mine when I used to live in New York City, I got lots of compliments for it even tough I was a brand new photographer. All I did was I composed it strongly based on graphic design principles. If there is no particularly strong subject, or any color to hold the eye’s attention, it falls back on composition.
Train your eyes for contrast
Contrast is one of the best ways to command the attention of your viewer. Like I show in this street photography course, there’s 6 ways to use contrast. One of them is visual contrast, and this is where color wins in terms of choices, you can contrast in multiple ways: Light blue vs dark blue, blue vs red, green vs yellow, etc).
But when it comes to monochrome, the main way to contrast is between brightness (light vs dark). And you need to train yourself in order to see how real life translates into monochrome and how you lose a lot of contrast that was there if the image was in color.
All you are doing is shooting different intensities of black. Get familiar on how each intensity contrasts or gets lost with the other.
Pay attention to subject placement
Imagine shooting a portrait of a blue alien with a red background. It will pop out because the contrast is strong. Put that image in black and white however and the contrast is lost. It’s just grey over grey.
You can either get the contrast back in Lightroom (more on this next) or you can pay extra attention to the placement of your subject relative to your background, will they be lost if you shoot them as-is? Look at the image below
If the woman was too much to the right, she would be lost in the bushes because her dark clothes would be too close to the color of the normally green bushes.
When you shoot a street photograph in black and white, you will forever be stuck with it. There is absolutely nothing you can do to change the image.
That is why I said above (in the settings section), that the greatest secret monochromes are great color shots. Once you have your RAW or color JPGs, import them in Lightroom.
Because once the shot is in color, you can tell Lightroom to transform the different colors into different shades of grey, while you would be unable to do so with a BW jpg. Check out this image from Osaka:
Take a look at the color photo, notice the 24h on the top left, the guy’s shirt and the red background. If I shot this in black and white (see top) I would be stuck with all of these 3 elements. But since I shot it in color, I can not only get a straight black and white, but I could also darken and lighten the red background or the man’s shirt. This is way more creative control that a BW JPG can give you!
So import your color image and play around with the black and white panel in the develop module. It’s saying, “Hey, Lightroom, I want my reds to be darker or lighter, my blues to be darker or lighter, etc”
You can also have extra degree of control by darkening some areas of the photographs and lightning some other areas. This is an extra control you have above the color conversions.
There you have it, the best head start if you want to shoot great black and white street photography. Isn’t it ironic that the best way is to start with a color shot?
In any case, since you are reading this, you are interested in street photography, right? Then make sure to check out my street photography course. I has a whole module dedicated to BW Lightroom wizardry. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.