I’ll cut through all the misinformation and get right to the bottom line. In America, it is absolutely legal to photograph people in public spaces without their consent. This includes streets, public parks, and sidewalks. Model releases only become necessary for commercial use and instances where the image implies that the subject endorses a certain product or statement. For editorial and artistic use, releases are not required. Now that you know your rights, consider downloading a copy should someone approach and ask what you are doing. In countries across Europe, there can be variations to these laws, so it’s advisable to familiarize yourself with their specific customs.
Editor’s Note: This is last of a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for earlier ones below.
Note: This week is Black and White Photography Week on dPS and to celebrate we’re offering 50% off our Ultimate Guide to Black and White Photography eBook when you use the coupon code BW50 during check out.
Street scenes require a photographer to work fast or potentially lose the moment. Unlike a posed portrait, there are no re-dos. There is rarely time to fish the camera from the bag, remove the lens cap and fuss with your settings. Considering how unpredictable life can be, it’s best to prepare for anything. I start by dialing in all of my camera settings based on the existing light. The precise settings will vary depending on the existing light, but here are the main technical considerations that I keep in mind when shooting black and white street photography.
B&W will work best if your subject already has a timeless look.
The instant you bring the camera up to your eye, everyone becomes self-aware and changes their behavior. To counter this, you can shoot from the hip, also known as the “spray and pray” technique. If you’ve never heard of it, let me explain how it works. I start by setting the camera to the high speed burst mode and choosing the single center autofocus point. I then set my exposure manually and use the lens at its widest focal length. A wide angle lens is an important consideration here, as it sees more, offering a better chance of capturing the subject.
3) Since you’ll be using a small aperture and fast shutter speed, a high ISO will likely be required. Just how high should it be? Try 800 first and go to 1600 if the photo is still too dark. The ISO will make your camera more sensitive to the existing light, absorbing it faster and brightening up the scene.
Choosing a color theme then you are out on a photo walk can be a fun project. Here my color theme was blue!
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Don’t forget that it’s your vision, and you are shooting street photography for yourself first. Don’t get stuck, try new things! If you always shoot in color, go out and train yourself to see in grayscale for a few days. If you favor black and white, take another look at the world around you and learn to appreciate and use the colors it has to offer. You may discover a whole new way to see, and you will undoubtedly grow in the process. Have fun!
Autumn in Paris would not be as well conveyed in a B&W photograph.
I put some informational nuggets about how I use Exposure for B&W’s in the image captions.
By removing the color distraction it’s a much stronger image, bringing attention right to the subject.
By shooting in RAW you retain all the color information in your file, which allows you to play with the color sliders in Lightroom and turn a distracting color into a light or dark grey tone to fine-tune your final image.
This short video about Color versus B&W is part of my Street Tips series called Hit the Streets with Valerie Jardin
Processing: I prefer great contrast in my black and white images and Exposure 7 certainly has no shortage of options to choose from. Agfa Scala 200 provides my shots with inky blacks without muddying the highlights. Depending on the particular image, I will also used the “brighten highlights” preset or the “crush blacks” on the Tone Curve panel.
There are also some strategic reasons to favor black and white over color. As street photographers we usually do not remove elements from the frame in post-processing. Our job is to record an authentic moment in time, that never happened before, and will never happen again. A skillful street photographer makes quick decisions, and is able to remove distracting elements from the frame by moving in closer and positioning him/herself correctly, before pressing the shutter. Most of us would not resort to using post-processing tools to remove objects. There are times when bright colorful elements such as stop signs, trash cans, or cars are inevitable, and will draw the attention away from the subject. By removing the color, you are able to bring the attention back to the human element.
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Walking past my subject briskly, I hold the shutter button down to start the capture process. Technically I’m shooting blind as the camera is by my hip and I don’t know what it’s seeing. Since the center AF point is active, I try to aim the center of the camera towards the subject. During this high speed burst, I’ll capture anywhere from three to six photos. If aimed correctly, the autofocus will lock onto the subject in the center of the frame and achieve sharp focus. You may have captured something great, or an out of focus series of your feet. I’m aware this isn’t the most precise technique as the percentage for missed shots is high. However, it’s better than leaving the camera in your bag because you were afraid of the consequences.
There are other times when the color is amazing but also overpowering, and risks becoming the subject because the human element is lost in the chaos.
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Going out on a photo walk with a specific color in mind is also a fun way to approach street photography. You will be surprised at the creative ways you will see the world around you by focusing your vision on one color. Try it!
Silhouette photographs are often stronger in black and white than in color. The human element featured should be well-defined, and there needs to be some separation to identify the shape of the body. Removing the color will help make your subject stand out more, especially if it is small in the frame. The eye will automatically be drawn to the human shape.
When is color preferred? The color can be an integral part of the story, which also means that a black and white conversation would take away the most important component of the image, and it would not make any sense.
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In this frame the subject is interesting but your eye is drawn to the colors of the street signs.
Finding a textured colorful background and waiting for the right subject to enter your frame makes for a strong color street photograph. The green tires and blue shoes completed the shot.
With black and white street photography images, I add 50% of “regular grain” and reduce it to taste, usually settling on about 30-35%. This always gives me joy. Most photography magazines and camera manufacturers promote “noise free images” as the gold standard. However in black and white street photography, a bit of grittiness is a welcome addition.
Here a B&W conversion would not make any sense and the subject would lose interest.
Color will also often give a sense of place or time in street photography. It will evoke the feeling of a season, for example, or the time of the day – from the warm glow of the golden hour, to the cool tones of the blue hour.
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You may like to use black and white for its timeless quality. If your subject also has a timeless look, a black and white processing will make your image stand the test of time, and often give it a more artistic look. This is even more true when no element in your frame dates your photograph (such as mobile phones, cars, etc.). Other times, the black and white processing will even help hide those elements.
As is always the case in all good art, rules are meant to be broken. The same is true with black and white street photography. You have even more flexibility as shadows can be inky black, and highlights can clip the histogram while retaining their visual appeal. A subject with dark shadows and bright highlights would not be ideal for a color photograph. In fact, it’s one of the reasons techniques like HDR have become so popular. Yet, for black and white street photography, this type of high-contrast light can be extremely effective. The harsh mid-afternoon sun is no longer a detriment, but an enhancement.
It was Zack Arias who said “If you aren’t close to getting clobbered for a photograph then you aren’t trying hard enough.” At times like this it feels like I’m on the right track.
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2) Select a shutter speed of at least 1/250 which is fast enough to freeze a person walking and also prevent any camera shake. If your subjects are moving very fast, you may even opt for 1/320 or 1/500.
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1) Shoot with a fairly small aperture so you have enough depth of field to keep your subject(s) in sharp focus. As the old war photojournalists would say, “f8 and be there”, meaning put yourself in the right place at the right time, set the camera to f8, and you have a good chance to succeed.
As a final step, I apply a subtle black vignette in Exposure 7 to darken the corners and bring attention to the subject. For those images where a heavier vignette is desired, I prefer the “distortion large lumps” option. I appreciate how easy it is to move, shape and place the effect in a precise location.
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Finding a great background, such as a textured wall or a colorful storefront, is a great way to anticipate a shot, by waiting for the right subject to enter your frame. It may be even more important to get the right subject in a color shot than in a black and white picture. Color harmony plays an important role in making, or breaking the image. Most importantly, color should not overpower your subject. It should be part of the story, not a distraction from it.
So, the questions is this: Is street photography better in color or black and white? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, it is definitely a personal preference. Some photographers only shoot in color, others prefer black and white for all their work. For my part, I let the subject dictate the choice and that decision is usually made before I press the shutter.
First, let’s assume that you are shooting with a digital camera and the choice of color or monochrome treatment can be made at the post-processing level. The decision of choosing color or black and white if you are shooting film is a different story, and requires a different frame of mind, as it is usually made before you leave the house.