The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography

Converting your images to black and white can add depth and soul to your street photos. In this shot, I’m especially fond of the way the treatment brings out the swirls of the steam from the vat of hot soup.

Whenever I hear the term “Street Photography,” I have an almost Pavlovian response: In my mind, I conjure up a series of photos that have had a lasting impact on me. Some were taken by masters of the past, like the great Henri Cartier-Bresson, while others come from more modern photographers, like Alan Schaller. Yet all of them have a common trait—all of these iconic images are black-and-white photos.

Whether it’s because the film stock used was black and white or the image was digitally manipulated to that style, each photo I recall is devoid of color. That’s why I’ve always paired street photography with a black-and-white presentation. When you pair them together, it seems the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

However, before I go any further, I’d like to discuss each and talk about why I connect “street photography” and “black-and-white treatments.”

It’s All About Soul: Connecting Street Photography And Black And White

Much like with travel photography, I find the term “street photography” to be quite nebulous to define. How exactly would one explain street photography? Do you have to be on a street? Do you forfeit the label if you’re standing on a sidewalk? And what streets are valid? Do they have to be within big cities, or does a bumpy cobblestone path count?

Of course, this is all mostly tongue-in-cheek, but it’s worth pointing out. For me, at least, the term “street photography” is a genre that presents the minutia of all those everyday moments that are so easily overlooked. With patience and a sense of anticipation, an observant street photographer can tease through all of those mundane instances to find a decisive moment and capture it. In other words, street photography is the presentation of life unfolding. And where one might see these moments as boring, another will find them exciting—or at least one particular moment—and strive to catch that instant of excitement.

For me, I also find that street photography is generally the presentation of life unfolding in urban environments. Whether you’re in a big city or a small one, I think it’s fair to tie street photography to urbanity. So let’s go with that general definition for now.

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography
Street photography generally focuses on the denizens of an urban area. After all, I wouldn’t consider a photo that I took of some goats in a pasture to be street photography. Nor would I consider a photo I took of a person sipping on a latte to be wildlife photography.

Black-and-white photography hardly needs any introduction or definition, although I will discuss a few distinctions about best practices in converting a color photo to black and white later on in this article.

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There are many reasons why black-and-white treatments can be favorable, not least of which is the timeless nature of them. I always get a sense of awe and reverence whenever I see a powerful black-and-white photo, like when I look at an Ansel Adams photo. Perhaps it’s because of what you’re left with when you strip away the glitz and glamor of color.

For photographers, using a black-and-white treatment allows you to simplify matters by limiting the variables: Depending on what the photographer is hoping to convey within a frame, the inclusion of color can actually be more of a distraction and take away from the underlying soul of the photo. But visually speaking, when you strip away color, you’re left with only subject and tone. Nothing more, nothing less.

Another way to look at it is that you’re left with only light and shadow. And this can give the resulting photo an elemental quality.

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography
I find the most joy practicing various black-and-white techniques specifically on my street photos. There is an instant timeless quality that these treatments add, and they suit each other perfectly.

Reducing the number of pictorial elements (by removing color from the equation) also brings focus to my subject: I can use highlights and shadows to sculpt a path, of sorts, through my composition, all without having to be concerned with the relationships of color. In a way, it can be a very creatively freeing process, and it’s a very deliberate decision that I make on behalf of my viewers when I create a black-and-white photo.

So what happens when you combine using a black-and-white treatment with a street photo?

I can produce a powerful statement. A strong black-and-white street photo can instantly make you feel something about the moment conveyed within the frame. In many cases, it takes what would otherwise be a completely disregarded moment in time, and, instead, makes you concentrate on it, and then contemplate on and consider its meaning.

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography
Look at the difference between the color and black-and-white versions of this photo. For me, the latter black-and-white image has much more soul and even evokes a sense of timelessness.

The Truth About Black-And-White Conversions

In the digital age, it seems easy to apply a black-and-white treatment. For example, you could simply drag the saturation slider in Photoshop to –100, which is what many newer photographers do.

But In fact, there is a world of difference between completely desaturating a photo and converting a photo to black and white. When you desaturate a photo, you are, in essence, reducing the presence of color. That color information is still very much present in the photo, and you aren’t actually working on the correct set of data with regard to black-and-white treatments.

What you really want to strive for in a black-and-white photo is to replace the color version with a true grayscale one. While the differences between a desaturated photo and a grayscale photo may be subtle, the tools that you have at your disposal are quite different and allow for a host of unique editing opportunities that aren’t available with a color image.

Aside from working off of a proper grayscale source, converting to black and white also opens up a series of editing tools that are not available with color photos. These tools allow you to truly dial in the tone in individual color channels, which can be very powerful.

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography
In Adobe Lightroom CC, you have access to one type of mixer for color images and another for black-and-white photos. This is why it’s important to do a proper black-and-white conversion instead of working off of a desaturated color image.

Dodging And Burning: Black-And-White Sculpting Tools

The general principles are the same when it comes to properly stylizing your black-and-white street photos as they are with color photos. Namely, your goal is to bring attention to your primary point of focus, making it easy and enjoyable for your viewer to find.

When you’re working with color photos, you have a range of tools and choices to make, all of which can yield impressive and visually striking results. With black-and-white photos, you become a wrangler of tone. With color thrown out, you’ll need to focus on shaping your photo using light and shadow, which can be very powerful!

One of the most traditional ways of sculpting a black-and-white photo harkens back to the days of film: dodging and burning. These techniques, and their names, have since made their way into the digital realm and are just as powerful:

  • “Dodging” is the term used to selectively brighten an area within a photo.
  • “Burning” is the term used to selectively darken an area within a photo.

One of the most common forms of burning (and sometimes dodging) that you have likely used is a vignette. When applying a vignette, you are effectively darkening your exposure from the corners of your frame inward at a graduated rate. When you add in the use of layers in Adobe Photoshop or a localized adjustment brush in Adobe Lightroom, you also open up the power of selectively drawing where you want to dodge or burn, resulting in some truly refined results.

The Timelessness Of Black-And-White Street Photography
In this photo, I used a variety of dodging and burning techniques, especially with Adobe Lightroom’s local adjustment brush, to paint in my lights and shadows. This results in a pleasing path for the viewer’s eyes to navigate through the frame.

A Coda On Color: There’s Nothing Wrong With Color

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is no hard-and-fast rule stating that all street photography must be converted to black and white. There are many examples of evocative and powerful street photos that have full color.

The key is to determine what the best route is to take in order to fully convey the moment within your photo. After all, it is that tiny moment that matters most.

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