The power of monochrome: capturing black & white street photography
There is always something magical about black and white street photography. From the use of light, degree of contrast through to framing and story-telling, black and white street photography is a manifestation of knowledge and technique at its best.
If you’re just starting out in this photography genre, I’d like to share some top tricks which helped me develop my own style, which may help you find your own path too.
Shoot with an idea and look for the moment to capture it
Streets are not a fixed attraction or a lifeless item. The movement of people tests the photographer’s ability to turn a fleeting moment in everyday life into art.
Before you step out of the house, you should already have a brief idea of what you want to take away from the bustle. Simply ask yourself, what do you want to photograph today? Is it close-up shots of people’s facial expressions, scurrying pedestrians, or a moment of solitude?
Setting parameters makes it easier to focus on one idea and look for the right moment and places where that will happen. It will also help with your selection of gear.
Use hard light to create captivating contrast
When working with only black and white, the photo’s personality hinges heavily on the arrangement of lights. This is when you need to decide which objects should be bright or dark, how much light to include, and how to take advantage of shadows and silhouettes.
The best times to do street photography are late afternoons and golden hours, when the natural light is soft and slightly angled, creating dramatic shadows without blinding the eye. Try to look for a moment of contrast, such as when someone walks into the light or when light bounces off a building.
A lot of the time, what’s hidden is as interesting as what’s being shown. This is why I like to use hard light to create high contrasts and big shadows. Often these moments are fleeting, so it’s important to stick to a fast shutter speed like 1/400 or above to freeze the motion.
Incorporate design and patterns in your imagery
Street photography is about pinpointing the sparks hidden in ordinary everyday life. Start by observing the forms of designs and patterns around you.
It could be a row of mirrors, the identical bricks on the ground or the regular lines of a building. Then, experiment with ways of incorporating those patterns into your imagery.
Know when to use EVF and OVF
Cameras these days come with either an Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) or Optical Viewfinder (OVF). It’s important to know their practical differences, so you can make the most out of each camera in different scenarios.
An EVF electronically processes and projects the image captured in the lens onto a miniature display. This means you have a live display of how the photo is rendered in terms of brightness level, focus and zoom, and can adjust your camera settings accordingly.
An OVF works similar to a pair of glasses or a magnifier, where you view the scene as your lens sees it without digital alternation.
Whether you use EVF or OVF could depend on how much planning you’d like to give your photograph. Personally, I tend to use EVF for the purpose of previsualisation, so I can arrange frames, lines and patterns accurately before capturing an image.
I would use the OVF when I’m less concerned about the structuring of the shot and want to focus only on the authentic, moving human element in the frame.
It takes time to train your eyes and build your own style in street photography. It may take a hundred failed photos for one or two to succeed. But when they do, you will find everything worth it. So, don’t be afraid to hit the streets and leap at every chance to capture a good shot.
About the author: Markus Andersen is a renowned photographer and a Fujifilm X-Photographer. He has held solo and collaborative exhibitions in New York, Paris, Toronto, Istanbul, Sydney and the United Kingdom, and his work is represented in numerous private and institutional collections.
Markus was the subject of a documentary entitled Into the Belly of the Beast by noted director Rob Norton, and Cabramatta: Into the light by multi discipline artist Maria Tran. Markus has released three books, Rage Against The Light (2015), Cabramatta: a moment in time (2017) and will soon release INTIMATE (2021). Check out more of his work at markusandersen.net or tgpublishing.com.au/our-books/intimate-markus-andersen-signed-book-signed-print.