How to Think in Black and White When Shooting Street Photography

In a world rich in colour and vibrancy, it’s time to think a little more black and white.

The modern world is spoiled for choice when it comes to cameras, gadgets, and editing tools that bring out the beautiful colours in your photographs. I just got the Fuji XT2 and I’m learning all about those famously addictive ‘Fuji Colours’. But even in modern times, there is still a demand for that classic black and white look.

If you’re thinking of taking the colour out of your work, here are some tips on how to think in black and white when shooting street photography.

Tell a Black and White Street Photography Story

The human eye is designed to react positively when we see pretty colours. The advantage of this in street photography is that you can still make a visually compelling photograph, even when nothing much is happening in the frame.

With black and white, you lose that advantage. As a result, you need to ensure your image still has enough in it to keep the viewer gripped. Slow down, take your time and look for a narrative.

Looking for visual emotions is key. For example, a child with a thoughtful facial expression is almost guaranteed to provoke an emotion within the viewer. Cover that with a clean black and white edit and you’re on to a good one.

I would also suggest getting up close to your subject. The closer you are to the story, the more intimate it feels. This will provide the viewer with a feeling of being part of the story themselves. They will connect much deeper with the frame.

Take Advantage of Good Lighting

When it comes to black and white street photography, light can be your best friend. It is a simple (and free) tool that can really bring your photo to life.

When the sun is out and the clouds are non-existent, get out with your camera. The buildings and streets will create beautiful high contrast photo opportunities. This can really give your photography a dramatic and intense feel.

Find yourself a subject of interest, and just as they come into the light hit your shutter release. Load the image up in post-production and bring down those darks and lift up those whites to really make the image pop!

Keep an eye out for classic fashion

There was a time when black and white was considered the only option for street photography. That is why we associate some of the most classic fashions on the streets with black and white photography. Today’s common attire choices don’t really benefit from that glossy black and white feel.

Thankfully, there are many people on the streets that are inspired by fashions from previous decades. Keep an eye out for top hats and slingbacks so you can create some modern day imagery with a vintage feel.

Research the Masters

For me, there is no better form of education than one provided from someone who has lived and breathed it already. Vivian Maier, Bruce Gilden, and Helen Levitt shot most of their work in black and white. Study how they composed their images, and how they built a narrative through a collection of images. Their attraction to a scene was not influenced by colour; they had to go much deeper, and they had great results.

Personally, I would study the black and white work of Saul Leiter. Leiter was most famous for his colourful, compressed, street photography. However, he has a great body of work in black and white also. There is no better example of how to make that transition from thinking in colour to thinking in black and white than Leiter.

Shoot Analog

If you are thinking of shooting more black and white images, it may also be a good opportunity to bring out your Analog camera or use one for the first time.

Today’s cameras are built to make images look as clean and modern as possible. Sometimes, for that black and white look, you want a deep gritty, grainy feel to your photographs. Film photography is a great way to create this authentically, and a good way to test your true photography skills – this camera isn’t going to think for you!

If you are looking for the perfect film, check out Ilford Photo. They specialise in black and white film and are well priced in comparison to other manufacturers.

Make silhouettes

Shooting silhouettes is a very creative way to make your photography more interesting. You can make use of streets, light, and architecture to make your silhouetted subject really stand out. It is also useful to remove colour because it can sometimes be a cause of distraction. Look for movement and physical gestures to really get the most out of your image.

Conclusion

These are some pointers to get you thinking about black and white street photography. I would challenge yourself to shoot only black and white for one month. This will give you a good amount of time to train your eye and mind to start thinking more black and white when shooting street photography.

I have no doubt that the more you do it, and the better you get, you will fall in love with black and white street photography. And possibly you may never want to show your world in colour again!