Black and White Street Photography: 13 Key Tips

how to take street photos in black and white.

Black and white street photography can be timeless and classic. This is especially true when you intentionally create black and white street photos. Thinking and learning to see in black and white empowers you to make much more interesting images. 

In this digital age, it’s easy to convert color photos into black and white. But when you start with the intention of making black and white photos, your end results will be street photos with more impact.

When you learn to strip away the color in an image before you take it, you can create more interesting black and white street photography. In this article, I will present to you many tips for what you most need to focus on to help you make black and white street photos that are timeless and classic.

street below a city bridge.

13 Key Tips for Black and White Street Photography

You need to be aware of a few key tips to help you get started. These are:

  1. Pay attention to the light more than when you take color photos.
  2. Use the highlights, shadows, and contrast to your advantage for better black and white street photos.
  3. Think and see in black and white.
  4. Be in control of your camera’s exposure settings when working in monochrome.
  5. Paying attention to the background is vital.
  6. Good composition for black and white street photography is important.
  7. Capture the Decisive Moment.
  8. Find a scene to photograph and be patient.
  9. Photograph the essence of a place and the people there.
  10. Take a variety of photos each time you set out to do street photography.
  11. Be comfortable and confident when doing street photography.
  12. Create black and white street photographs that are timeless.
  13. Post-processing your black and white street photos must be done with care and skill.

Working with these tips will help you improve your black and white street photography. They will help you to create more captivating black and white photos that a viewer’s eyes will find difficult to ignore. 

street building windows.

Light Influences Differently Than Color Street Photography

When you want to engage in black and white street photography, you’re best to pay good attention to the light. 

You’re most likely to depend on the ambient light with any street photography. Very few street photographers work with flash or other external light sources. Bruce Gilden is one famous exception though. But not many photographers have the inclination or courage to photograph in the streets in the same manner he does.

Work with the light you have because you cannot change it. Not unless you move to another location or come back another time. Head out to enjoy your black and white street photography with an open mind. Look at the light and take the style of street photos that work well with it.

On cloudy or rainy days, don’t go out with the intention of capturing high contrast black and white street photos. You just will not be able to. If the light is bright and hard and you want to take softer images, find some shade. Don’t work in the bright sunlight. Of course, this will depend greatly on the location where you take photos.

Check out this video for even more black and white street photography tips:

Contrast Makes or Breaks a Black and White Street Photo

The contrast will make or break a black and white street photo. Your intention must be sure. You must know the style of photograph that you wish to create and make the most of the contrast. 

If you want more dramatic black and white images, take photos in locations where the light is bright. This will provide you with deep shadows and bright highlights. There will always be more of a challenge to capture a good range of tones in this kind of hard lighting.

You need to see how the bright and dark areas are and use your camera’s spot meter to measure the difference between the light. How bright are the highlights, and how dark are the shadows?

With black and white photography being aware of the contrast between your main subject and the background is critical. You generally will not want to photograph your primary subject against a background that is a very similar tone. 

people crossing a street in the urban city center.

Learn to Think and See in Black and White

When you learn to think and see in black and white, your world will change. Taking photos in color, you can see exactly the relationship between elements in your compositions as they will appear in a color photo.

Thinking in black and white and seeing the monochrome tone values in a scene before you take a photo means you can be more in control of your art. 

Black and white photography is all about light and tone values, so the more you can think and see in black and white, the more powerful images you can make. 

One simple thing that can help you to do this is switching your camera monitor to monochrome. Many digital cameras allow you to do this. When you have your camera set to save RAW files, all the color information is retained, even when your monitor is set to black and white. (Check your camera manual for details to be sure.)

women crossing a street full of cars.

Control Your Camera Exposure Settings

Because black and white photography is strongly influenced by light and contrast, you need to focus more on controlling your exposures. 

Using manual mode and the spot meter setting on your camera will help. I always prefer to take photos in manual mode. Whether I am doing color photography or black and white, this is because I have more control over the exposure in manual mode and do not rely on the camera to set it for me.

To create a more powerful and professional-looking black and white image, knowing how to expose your main subject well is critical to good photography.

person walking on the street.

Search for a Suitable Background

Finding a suitable background can help you capture great moments that will stand out. When you have a dark background and a subject in brighter light, the contrast helps your art. It can work well having a subject in shadow and a bright background too. A viewer will appreciate the contrast.

As an example, you can often capture life on city streets of people walking past in the sunshine while the background remains in the shade. This level of contrast helps your main subject pop. You have to decide what you want and frame your subject well.

black and white pattern on the wall.

Good Composition for Photographing Streets in Black and White is Important

Just because you are working in black and white, you cannot neglect to make the best compositions you can. Don’t rely on lights and shadows to do the composition work for you. Make the most of them, for sure, but be intentional about it.

Look at the lines. Where are the strongest lines in the scene, and how do they contrast with other elements? Can you add more depth and interest by making the most of good lines in a scene?

Work with all of your favorite composition techniques the same way you do when you’re taking color photographs. As you do this, pay more attention to the tonal and contrast difference you can see. 

image of an alley in black and white.

Capture the Decisive Moment

To capture the decisive moment in black and white images is to make sure you press the shutter release on your camera at the right moment. This requires sharp observation and plenty of practice.

Any street photography that involves moving subjects is more challenging. You need to be in the right place. Your camera settings must be optimal. Focus is critical and more challenging. It takes a lot of bad photos to get to the point where you can capture street photos at that moment consistently. And it’s definitely worth the effort.

skateboarder jumping.

Find a Scene to Photograph and Be Patient

One of the key tips to capturing a great street photo is to be patient. This will help you predict the best moment to take your photograph.

This tip is not only specific to black and white street photography but can be applied to all types of photography. Once you have a good spot, be observant and take your time. You don’t always need to be on the move to find the best photographs. They will often come to you as you wait patiently.

street contrast with bike.

Photograph the Essence of a Place and the People

As you wait patiently for your best images, look at the place and the people there. How do they interact with each other? How can you best portray this in your images? 

I think the most interesting street photography illustrates the connection between the people and the place, and also the photographer who is creating the pictures.

Look for how people interact with each other and their surroundings. Aim to make photos when this relationship is most evident, and your photos will tell more of a story about people and places.

snowy scene with trees.

Add Variety to Your Street Photography

Don’t always take the same style of street photo. Mix it up. Think about other ways of showing viewers what you are seeing and how you are experiencing the places you photograph.

Think about how you can make images that better represent the thoughts and feelings you have as you are taking a photograph. Aim to show people how you see the world in black and white.

people waiting for the train.

Be Comfortable and Confident When Doing Street Photography

The more comfortable and confident you are when you stand in the street with your camera, the better each image you create will be. When you’re not sure of yourself and what life may bring your way, your image creation will suffer.

If you are naturally uncomfortable, find places where you can stand that are out of the way. Places where other people will pay little attention to you. Then you can get on with concentrating on making one great photo after another.

photographers standing on the sidewalk.

Create Black and White Street Photographs that are Timeless

One quality of black and white photography is its timelessness. Black and white street photography can be challenging to achieve a timeless look, but it’s not impossible. 

You need to pay attention to what you can see in your viewfinder and seek to eliminate anything that dates the image. This becomes increasingly more difficult as time goes by. Any photo of a person in the street is likely to also contain at least one mobile phone, which immediately dates the photo.

Look for places where the world appears to have stood still. Look for nice old architecture or an old street sign on a city street. Then wait for the right interaction to happen. Aim to show the viewer timelessness.

store front.

Post-Processing Black and White Photos Take Care and Skill

Some people prefer to use black and white presets to help them convert their color photographs to black and white. This is fine, so long as you are careful and intentional.

You can also manage to convert a RAW file to black and white manually. This takes longer and requires more skill but often produces much more satisfying results.

street scene in black and white.

Conclusion

I hope this series of tips inspire you to head out with your camera and enjoy some black and white street photography, as will all forms and styles of photography it pays to practice a lot.

If you need some inspiration for this with any of your photography, please check out our 365 Days of Photography Course. In this course, you’ll learn about all the most essential aspects of photography and learn to love using your camera every day.

If you’re more interested specifically in black and white photography, you can learn more in our course on black and white photography.

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