9 Secrets To Incredible Black & White iPhone Street Photography

iPhone street photography really lends itself to black and white. By removing the color, you’re able to strip the image down to its simplest form. This allows you to eliminate busy distractions and focus the viewer’s attention on the light, shadows, facial expressions and surrounding architecture. In this tutorial you’ll discover how to use your iPhone to shoot and edit stunning black and white street photography that will stand the test of time.

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Street photography was born in the era of black and white film photography. If you’re unfamiliar with the art of black and white street photography, a Google image search of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson will result in a very good visual explanation of the genre.

We’ll start by exploring a number of ways to shoot high impact street photos that will look incredible in black and white.

And at the end of the tutorial you’ll learn how to quickly and easily convert your color photos to stunning black and white edits.

1. Shoot In Harsh Sunlight

When you first start learning about photography, you’re often told to avoid shooting in strong sunlight as it can create harsh and unflattering shadows in the scene.

However, in certain situations bright sunlight and dark shadows can create a more interesting and dramatic image. And it works especially well in black and white street photography.

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The reason for this is that black and white photos rely on strong contrast between the light and dark areas of the scene.

If there isn’t enough contrast in the photo, it will look washed out or “muddy” when converted to black and white.

Shooting in harsh sunlight enables you to capture bright highlights and dark shadows that are perfect for black and white photography.

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One of my favorite techniques is to wait until evening when the sun is just about to set, then look for places where the sunlight streams between two buildings.

Compose the shot so that you include the shadows cast from the buildings as well as the bright area lit by the sunlight.

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Now you just need to wait for an interesting person to walk into the light for a dramatic street photo.

Hold the shutter button down to activate burst mode, and fire off a series of shots as the person walks through the frame.

2. Capture Contrast Between Background & Subject

Another way to create contrast in your street photos is to use the color of the background and the subject’s clothing to your advantage.

Photographing a person wearing dark colored clothing against a light colored wall, or vice versa, is an easy way to achieve this.

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Remember that you’re going to be converting the image to black and white so the actual colors don’t matter.

For example, you might have a yellow wall and dark green clothing, but when you convert the image to black and white the wall will appear white or light gray and the clothing will appear black or dark gray.

Another way to make your subject stand out against the background is to shoot from a low angle so that you can photograph them against the sky.

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Of course, you’ll achieve the most amount of contrast if the person is wearing dark clothing and the sky is bright.

3. Use Buildings And Architecture As Supporting Elements

Buildings and architecture make perfect supporting elements in your black and white street photos because of their strong shapes and lines.

These bold design elements work particularly well in black and white photography, especially when they create contrast in the scene.

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Look for interesting architecture that you could use to create a frame around a person on the street. Arches, doorways, windows and bridges all work well as framing objects.

Look for leading lines in architecture that you could use to draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. And keep your eyes peeled for symmetry as this can create really powerful compositions.

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Another thing to look for is repetition of shapes or lines that form patterns in the scene.

A repeating row of columns or windows on the outside of a building can be used to create rhythm and flow in your composition.

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Once you’ve found an interesting architectural element that you want to use in your photo, all you have to do is wait for someone to walk into the scene.

4. Set Exposure For The Face

Getting the exposure (image brightness) correct is essential for capturing important details in your photo.

If you under-expose the image, the details will appear too dark. And if you over-expose, the details will be too bright.

When you’re shooting high contrast scenes, getting the exposure right can be tricky because the camera can’t capture detail in the dark shadows and bright highlights at the same time.

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So what should you do? Well, in most cases the most important part of the scene is your subject’s face. You want to capture the facial expressions and emotions of your subject, so making sure the face is correctly exposed is essential.

If other areas of the scene appear very bright or very dark, it doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is to capture the facial details.

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In fact, having very dark shadows that contrast with the brighter face actually creates a striking black and white photo because the face stands out against the darker surroundings.

So before you press the shutter button to take a photo, always check the exposure in your viewfinder. If the subject’s face looks too bright or too dark, adjust the exposure to ensure the face is correctly exposed.

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To adjust exposure in the native camera app, start by tapping to set focus on the subject, then swipe up or down on the screen to make the image brighter or darker.

5. Create Dramatic Silhouettes

One instance where you wouldn’t want to set exposure for the subject’s face is when you want to create a dark silhouette.

Silhouettes add a dramatic and mysterious quality to your street photos because the darkness hides the detail of your subject.

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To create a silhouette, you need to have a bright light source behind your subject, so make sure you’re shooting into the light.

After tapping to set focus, swipe down on the screen to reduce the exposure. Your aim is to make the subject appear as a dark shape or outline against the brighter background.

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If your silhouette doesn’t appear dark enough, try using an editing app like Snapseed to adjust the contrast levels or the shadows and highlights.

Alternatively, use the Brush tool in Snapseed to selectively darken just the silhouetted person without affecting the rest of the image.

6. Capture Interesting Shadows

During the golden hours of sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky, keep your eyes peeled for long shadows cast by your subjects.

Just like silhouettes, shadows add a sense of mystery and intrigue to your photos. Sometimes shadows can even create feelings of tension and fear, especially in a black and white image.

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If you shoot from a high vantage point such as a bridge or the upstairs window of a building, you’ll be able to capture wonderful long shadows on the ground.

Alternatively, look for shadows cast onto walls or nearby buildings. The shapes of surrounding objects will often distort the shadow into interesting shapes.

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Experiment with capturing both the person and their shadow, as well as just the shadow on its own.

When taking your picture, you may want to reduce the exposure a bit so that the shadows appear dark and dramatic.

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If you capture just a shadow on its own, try flipping it upside down in post-processing to create a more intriguing and abstract image.

7. Look For Reflections

Windows offer great opportunities for capturing interesting reflections. And the great thing about converting them to black and white is that it removes any distracting colors, allowing you to focus the attention on the reflected shapes.

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In this example of a man sitting in a cafe, it’s the reflections of the opposite side of the street that create more drama in the scene. They also add context to the photo, giving the viewer a glimpse into the cafe’s surroundings.

In the photo below, I captured the man walking down an alley-way, and also his reflection in the window of the building on the right.

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In both cases, converting the image to black and white to remove the colorful distractions helped to place more emphasis on the reflections.

Whenever you walk past a window, don’t forget to see if anything interesting is being reflected off the glass. It might not look good in color, but when you convert the image to black and white it has the potential to look great.

8. Include Lots Of Negative Space

Negative space refers to the empty space around your subject, and it can be a powerful compositional tool. It works especially well in black and white street photography when you have dark areas of shadow.

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You might think that leaving a lot of empty space in your image will make it boring, but it can have quite the opposite effect.

Composing your photo so that there’s lots of dark shadow around your subject will create an image full of drama, emphasizing the darkness and mysteriousness of the surroundings.

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Even if your subject is relatively small within the frame, having a large area of empty space will help to draw the viewer’s attention to the subject.

Try to expose the photo so that the shadows appear nice and dark, but make sure your subject is correctly exposed. If you can’t get the shadows dark enough when you take the photo, you can always darken them in editing.

9. Convert Your Photos To Black & White

There many iPhone photo editing apps that allow you to convert your images to black and white, including Snapseed, VSCO, Enlight and Filterstorm Neue.

There’s also a good selection of dedicated black and white photo apps, including Ansel, Monokrom and Dramatic Black & White.

For this tutorial I’ll be showing you a very simple technique using the native iOS Photos app, but you can use whichever app you like to create your black and white edits.

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Start by opening the color street photo in the Photos app, then tap Edit at the top right of the screen:

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At the bottom of the Edit screen, tap the icon that resembles a clock:

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Tap the B&W option (ensure you tap on the B&W text rather than the arrow as the arrow opens the advanced options that we don’t need here):

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Use the B&W slider at the bottom of the screen to scroll left and right until you get the particular black and white look you prefer:

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This part is subjective and depends on the particular image you’re working on as well as your own tastes and preferences.

When you’ve dialed in your favorite black and white look, tap Done at the bottom right of the screen to save the edit to your photo library:

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If you wish, you can of course make further adjustments to exposure using the Light option in the editing tools.

If at any point you want to revert the photo back to the original color image, open the photo, then go to Edit > Revert.

Black & White iPhone Street Photography: Conclusion

You’re now ready to get out on the street to shoot some great photos, and come back home for a dynamic editing session!

Black and white street photography has a long history, and I hope that these tips have encouraged you to see it as an intriguing art form.

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By taking advantage of strong sunlight and surrounding elements in the city, you can create stunning high contrast black and white images with strong visual appeal.

Remember that black and white photos tend to look best when you have a high contrast scene, so make use of light and shadow or a contrasting background and subject.

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Look for architectural elements with strong shapes and lines that will enhance the composition, and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to capture dramatic silhouettes and shadows.

Look out for reflections in windows that might add visual interest and context to your photo.

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And finally, don’t forget to experiment with leaving lots of negative space in your composition, especially when you have large areas of dark shadows.

When you shoot your pictures, don’t be disappointed if the color images don’t look that special. When you remove the color in post-processing, they’ll be completely transformed into stunning black and white street photos.

  • Sebastien A

    there’s also the camera1 iOS app which allows to set contrast and exposure specifically for b&w street photography.. just saying 🙂