Why Black and White
First thing first. Why black and white? You see, when it comes to street photography in our mind, first thing that pop up is black and white. Surely nothing could be more classic than black and white street photography. Back in days, photography was first started with only black and white. After that, When color photography introduced, It takes too time to become popular and build its own ground because earlier, color photography was not taken as seriously like black and white in ‘Art’ form.
Since then, time has changed a lot of things. We have got digital cameras, modern equipment’s, high-quality images etc. We can make any images black and white, even whatever we like to make. But black and white still hold its classiness, appeal and popularity among all street photographers. Still we feel nostalgic when we see the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Ansel Adams and many more masters/legends.
For me, black and white street photography is peace and calmness into chaos. I can feel the emotion, the tenderness and the untold voice without any distraction. Therefore, black and white can give us the essence and emotional visual impact that might color cannot give us sometimes. That does not mean color photo are not good enough to create emotion, obviously color can do this, but black and white has its own way to touch the soul which cannot compared with the color version.
There are many reasons why most of the street photographer prefer black and white in the street. Here are some points pop up in my mind instantly:
- Reduce distraction from color
- Feel the emotion
- Focus more on the detail/subject
- Look classic
- Follow the Masters/Legends
You can do whatever you prefer, there are no law against color or even black and white in street photography, they just connect people in different way. If you like color, it’s completely fine to go with it. But if you like black and white and want to know more about; here are some tips which I am going to share with you. So, let’s begin 🙂
1. Learn to see the world in black and white
It’s not easy to see the world in black and white, we see the colorful world and we used to see in that way. Therefore, we have to train our eyes to eliminate color. But how?
Initially, you can train your eyes by your camera. Nowadays, every modern camera comes with built-in black and white preset. Use that preset to capture only black and white photo. In DSLR, shoot JPEG+RAW and set the monochrome preset. Those who shoot with film cameras, use black and white films.
Now, look for light and shadow, shades and forms, expression and detail, emotion and contexts. Practice more and more. As we cannot see black and white, we have to visualize the scene with our inner eyes and that cannot be done overnight. You have to practice for long time. May be, 3-6 months, or even more, depends on how quickly you convince your mind to visualize in black and white. That’s important.
Don’t try to mix up with color and ‘black and white’, stick to one at a time and go as much deep you can.
When I was started photography, I shoot both color and ‘black and white’ and that was fun at that time for me. But sooner I realize the impact of black and white and fall in love with it, I stopped capturing color for long time just to improve my visual perspective in black and white and try to learn the significance of black and white street photography.
No one can develop your eyes to see the world in black and white. You have to do it yourself. I just can share my experiences, besides, you might achieve that in different ways, but seeing the world in black and white is very important to capture a good street photograph.
2. Know when to convert black and white
Probably this is the most discussed topic on street photography. At this modern era, digital photography improves so much and we can easily switch between both of them within few seconds. We can do whatever we want with our photographs.
For me, the decision to go for black and white is completely depends on the subject. What the subject demand is important to choosing between color and ‘black and white. If the subject deserve color and the story cannot be told without color, I stay with color. On the other hand, if the subject does not require any color to tell the story, I go for black and white.
There could be several reasons behind the decision between both, but the most common one is ‘distraction’. In the street, you can see lots of colors all around you, and some colors are too much intense and some are dull. When you capture the photo, intense colors are always attracting the eyes of viewers and they might miss the actual subject/moment of the photograph due to that intense color. Thus, colors could be harmful for your photograph sometimes.
On the other hand, sometimes a color could make a picture more prominent and eye catchy that without it the picture could be meaningless, in that case, going for black and white could ruin your photograph too.
There is also a big reason for going black and white is leaving the time barrier. Tempting huh! You see, when you shoot a color street photograph, it could give the sense of the season and time like, golden hour, spring. But in black and white you can eliminate those easily. Besides, there are also many photographers prefer color in the street because of that feeling of time and season. They want their viewers to feel the place as the photographer felt while shooting.
3. Less is more
The street is always full of moments, various elements, activities and crowdie, and street photographers are always striving to capture the perfect moment. But, in that full of many things, your moment could easily have got distracted by other moments or various elements. Therefore, cutting lose those ‘many things’ might help you to get the focus on the subject.
Besides, when it comes to black and white street photography, contrast of those unnecessary elements could also distract from your subject or moment. I will talk about the contrast on my next point briefly. Also, choosing perfect lens is a tricky part here. I recommend 35mm would serve pretty well for it’s not too zoom and not too wide coverage. Most of the street photographer prefer 35mm in the street. Unless you create multiple layers or multiple stories in a single photograph, look at the edge of frame and cutting lose the element that could possibly distracting until you get you moment separate from other moments.
Another important tip for black and white street photography is to avoid overlapping elements, See, in the color mode overlapping elements sometimes works or survive for its color, but in black and white, overlapping elements could ruin your photograph brutally. Try different perspective, and try to eliminate those elements and keep you moment in less distraction, so that viewer could stay with your story alone.
Usually, I prefer to shoot with keep my subject/moment within 2.5 to 8 meter and that range brings me enough room to tell the story or you can say capture the moment with less unnecessary elements which could ruin my black and white photo easily.
There are many street photographer use flash in the subject from close while shooting street to focus only the subject so that other elements get less importance. Therefore, the subject/moment popped up pretty well in black and white.
4. Look for contrast ratio
If your subject does not pop-up and blend with the background, the viewer would not understand your photograph easily and they might leave your image. There could be many reasons behind that kind of situation. See, Compositional perspective of black and white street photography and color street photography are not same always. There are few things you have to keep in mind while you intend to go for black and white.
Subject to background: One of the most important things that should keep in mind while shooting black and white street photograph. You have to separate your subject/moment from the background. If you can’t, your photo might not pop up due to mix with the background. There are also some exceptional, but exception could not be an example. In color, sometimes color itself separate your subject from the background and you don’t need to think about it, but in black and white, you need to think about the background. Therefore, try to keep your subject/moment on a clean or simple background.
Light and shadow: Photography is like painting with light, without light there is nothing. With shadow you can make your photograph more dramatic and compelling. Even you can make various wired, funny composition with shadow.
When it comes to black and white photos, light and shadow are one of the vital factor that you have to keep in your mind, because there are no color and you need to create contrast with light and shadow. Most of the street photographer used to capture photos with the perfect balance of highlight, midtone and shadow. So that, there subject pop up perfectly. Also, there are new trend running of street photography with high contrast ratio. More contrast, more emotion, more depth. Therefore, look for variation of light and shadow in your composition and that will make your photograph more dramatic.
Also, you can use shutter speed to create dramatic light. I talked about this in my other article which my top 10 street photography tips. Using low shutter speed or even going for long exposure will create motion which feels pretty dramatic in black and white. You can also try night street photography with low shutter. You might get surprised by the result. Try to use tripod if you intend to shoot in long exposure in the street.
Color contrast: Color has its own contrast ratio by its temperature. Opposite color create more contrast. Similarly, in black and white photos, you can also create contrast with colors. For example: if your background is yellow and you subject is wearing blue dress, it will create a fantastic contrast in color photos, also, when you convert that photo to black and white, it still creates dramatic contrast due to opposite color. If both of your subject and background are in same color, black and white version will be dull for lack of contrast. So, whether you shoot black and white, you still need to look for color contrast.
5. Focus on Emotion
Black and white photos are looks classic, kind of nostalgic. In black and white photograph, emotional attachment is the most important elements. Without emotional attachment you cannot tell the story that touch the viewer. Now, there are many types of emotion like sadness, happiness, curious, angry, confused, etc. With those emotion, you can create a more compelling story that could touch the soul. In color, there also could have emotional attachment, but that could easily divide with color.
Streets are crowdie, full of elements, people and activities. Everyone is carrying his/her own story and life. Therefore, when you capture someone, you actually capture his/her story and life in your perspective at a specific time. S/He may be sad, may be happy or may be in some other mood and you take the shoot that mood in your perspective, how you see the story of that individual. That is the point where emotional attachment come to you.
Focus on the expression and gesture that will lead you to find the emotional feelings and your photograph will be more compelling. Without emotion, you cannot create a story with you photograph. Emotion is everywhere, you just need to find the perfect moment which can make your photo good to great.
To me, capturing emotion is the main key of every great street photograph ever taken. The way of presenting emotion in black and white is bit different than in color. As there is no color, you have an extra liberty to focus on emotion only rather than color also.
6. Focus on Details
Ok, that’s kind of relevant to the point of emotion, but I want make it another point because of its importance especially in black and white street photography.
In my previous point I talked about how emotion is important and its aesthetic perspective in terms of capturing in the street but, without proper detail, your emotion could lose the fillings. Therefore, focusing on detail, even it could be tiny, is very important in the street.
When you are in black and white mode, look at every element and detail in your frame. Even skin detail could bring you depth to the photo. Remember one thing, the detail you capture will describe the story more in depth. If you think every element of your photos as different characters in the story, detail is the personalities of those characters.
7. Keep it simple
I love simplicity, especially in black and white. It gives me enough room to think and feel the story in the photograph. When I go out in the street, minimalism and silhouette attract me most of the time and you can see my photos where lots of my photograph are simple. There are so many street photographers prefer to shoot moments with crowdie location with so many elements, but, simplicity has its own place to uncover so many untold story.
Try to capture with few elements like shape, color, texture as much as you can. Minimalism and silhouette could be extremely powerful by its specific subjective perspective. That means viewer could only focus the subject without any other distraction. If you don’t like complexity in your photograph, try simplifying it.
For black and white street photography, here are some tips to capture more compelling photo with minimalism and silhouette:
- Try to find strong light and shadow, especially in you subject
- Find opposite color, it will give you more freedom while converting black and white
- Shoot towards the light source, and that will create a strong silhouette
- Focus on body shape and gesture.
- Try different perspective like low or high, it will help you while converting black and white by eliminate unnecessary elements and colors.
- Look for the line or shape or texture to create more direction and narrative to the subject.
8. Beautiful Mistakes
Sometimes we capture image without proper settings (un-intentionally) of shutter speed or aperture or shake for some reason and that create the image with some sort of disturbance to us when we look at it, and we fell regret because the moment we will never get back again. Don’t be regret, there are plenty example of great photographs are taken by mistake. They call it ‘Beautiful mistakes’.
Don’t think even correct them in post-processing, keep that mistake and try to unfold that new story created for those mistakes. It’s like a new invention, and you could be amazed after you find the new story. That also does not mean every photo you took by mistake is a great photo, but there is a chance, and you should consider it before remove them. Even in black and white, those images might also surprise you.
Once I took a photograph with beautiful color combination and intendant to process in color, but I process it in black and white un-intentionally and I got pretty surprised when I was it in black and white mode. It gives me more depth than the color version. That mistake made that photograph a level up for me. No matter what others say, but for me, I am happy for that mistake I made.
In the black and white street photography, we often shoot without concern about the light and we find weird light pattern or flare and we fell that ruin our photograph. Don’t remove it until you go thoroughly with the new image. Light can play more way than you could imagine in your photos. So, while shooting in black and white, let the light play in your frame.
Post-processing a black and white image is always tricky. When it comes to street photograph, post-processing becomes the trickiest part nowadays because of its un-controlled verity of elements and colors. Your beautiful photo could be ruined in a moment if you cannot process it as it deserves. I will write another article only for black and white street photo post-processing because it’s a big part to discuss but in this point I’m trying to put some common tips that should be followed.
First of all, shoot RAW. Your camera sensor collects info that gives you color version. The benefit of shooting RAW is, it will give you more freedom to use color channel while converting black and white than conversion from a jpeg image. And also, you will have more dynamic range on RAW so that can play with light, especially highlight and shadow.
Next part is creating a work flow you comfort with. Everyone has their own perspective and vision to enhance and present his/her photo, so the workflow should be created by individuals. You don’t need to follow others workflow, if you fell comfort and get your desire result in your own way, that completely fine. Stay with yourself.
Now, let’s talk about some basic things you should keep in mind while convert your photograph to black and white.
Contrast: I told before in this article about the importance of contrast in black and white photo. If you use Adobe Lightroom (most of the photographer use it), don’t just adjust highlight, midtone, shadow slider, check the HSL tab (the secret chili sauce of black and white) also for tuning the color temp in the black and white. That’s important!
Clarity: There are many debates on clarity about how far you should go. I prefer to stay in between “-10 to +20”. Increasing more clarity creates more micro contrasts which looks crispy but not good at the end. Therefore, keep the clarity with a comfort zone and painless to eye.
Black to black: Many photographers prefer complete dark/black in the shadow area. For this, take photos 2 stop underexpose and decrease black slider (in lightroom) to get pure black and then increase highlight part a bit, as a result your subject will well exposed and also dark shadow both in order.
Dodge & Burn: One of the most classic technique for black and white processing. Before digital tools arrived, photographers use this technique in ‘Darkroom’ and now, in ‘Lightroom’. Dodge & Burn gives you the freedom of choosing which part you want to keep in dark and which part in bright. This is the most favorite tools among every street photographer, especially those who take black and white photos. Just one advise, Don’t misuse this tool by over processing. It will look unrealistic and fake.
My recommendation is, keep your photo within simple processed and use minimum processing. Create your workflow as simple as they took less than 2/3 minute. I prefer to process my photo with some basic adjustment like brightness, contrast, highlight, shadow and it took me 1-2 minutes. Minimum processing also force me to concentrate more on composition while shooting.
10. Learn from the Legends
If you want to become a good street photographer, you have to learn and study the works of legends. How they shoot, how they think, composes and even how they process their photos. At the beginning, there were only black and white film photography and they produce legendary photos at those time. Study their works and try to analyze their photos, research them. They gave us everything in black and white film. Studying them will definitely improve your vision and confidence for taking black and white street photograph.
My most favorite is Henri Carier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz and Josef Koudelka. Still now, I learn so many things from their work and about themselves, which recharge me to continue my journey. You can study them, there are also many legends you can study with. My point is, studying those legends will give you a beautiful guide to take better photos and also black and white vision.
End of all rules, there is no rules! For me, capturing black and white photo is like capturing the life that connects the soul instantly with all emotions. Black and white is classic and it will be always remaining. I hope, you could improve your skills by these black and white street photography tips and take better photos.