Why Colour is Important in Street Photography

Why Colour is Important in Street Photography

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Colour in Street Photography

I’ve been thinking about this topic for some time, and Alexander Merc’s Guest Post last week on the Battle of Street Photography further inspired me. Unsurprisingly, as a member of Street Hunters, one way and another, I see quite a lot of street photos every day. The photos I see are a mix of street shots submitted by the established street photography big hitters, photos presented by up-and-coming street photographers, and photos from those just starting out on their street photography journey. The work I see is at all kinds of levels – some of it totally blows me away, at other times I can clearly see when a photographer needs more time and practice to develop their skills.

The Problem With Black and White Street Photography

There is something in particular that I identify more often than not in a street photographer’s work, and it’s often particularly evident in a street photographer who’s at an early stage in their photographic journey. I’m talking about shooting street photographs exclusively in black and white. Or as I see it, neglecting the importance of colour in a street photography. I firmly believe that some photographers when they first start out with street photography are holding themselves back by shooting exclusively in monochrome, and they should really consider using colour.

Black and White has a rich history in street photography

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I’m not against black and white in street photographs – some of the finest street photographs of ALL TIME are shot in black and white. Actually, a great many of the THE finest photographs in HISTORY are in black and white. My current favourite photographer – James Nachtwey (albeit a photojournalist not a street photographer), can convey more emotion, drama and humanity in a single monochrome photo than I can ever hope to achieve in 10,000 photos combined. And of course the street photography master Henri Cartier-Bresson shot in black and white. Truly brilliant black and white street photographs are wonderful, glorious, sumptuous blends of fine tones, silvery highlights, and rich shadow tones. Black and white also focuses the eye on what is the single most important aspect of photography – light.

Black and White is holding people back

I am not ‘anti’ black and white photos. I do feel though that it’s holding some people back, perhaps purely because these people have studied the work of the street photography masters, who by and large, shot in black and white. Seeking to emulate them, and driven by the fiction that a street photograph MUST be in black and white, these people have painted themselves into a corner, and in doing so have made the photography learning process significantly harder than it needs to be. In short, black and white street photography can hold people back. I think it’s well worth exploring colour in order to help yourself grow as a photographer. Andrew Sweigart has already made his own excellent arguments as to the importance of colour in street photography, but I’d like to add my own thoughts to the matter. Read on for my arguments as to why colour shouldn’t be neglected in street photography.

Colour is Our World

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I’ll begin with the most obvious advantage of colour street photography first. We see in colour, and our world is in colour. Working in black and white adds an extra layer of complication to street photography, and it’s a genre that’s hugely demanding already. Visualising a scene in monochrome is a very tough thing to do. It requires you to totally overcome the natural way you see things. All sorts of differences and nuances in a real life scene can disappear as soon as they are converted into monochrome, and this can make an otherwise interesting scene appear mundane. Until the recent rise in popularity of mirrorless cameras with EVFs there wasn’t an easy way to ‘see’ a scene in black and white, certainly not on ‘prosumer’ and pro cameras anyway. And still not all cameras have EVFs, so you can’t always guarantee your camera will let you pre visualise a shot in black and white. So why add an extra layer of complexity to things just ‘because’? It doesn’t make sense!

Colour Adds More Depth To Photos

There are several reasons why as street photographers we like to adhere to the ‘F8 and be there’ rule, or shoot with even narrower apertures. It gives a massive depth of field which allows for more of the subject matter of the photo to be in focus. This allows street photographers to use the zone focusing and hyperfocal techniques when manually focusing, for lightning fast shots. It also gives more leeway when using autofocus. Some photographers also end up using narrow apertures because they don’t own particularly fast lenses, and others because they want their street photos to have that classic street photography ‘look’ (if there is such a thing). But the downside of a wide depth of field is that it compresses the photo and removes the sense of depth. When you remove colour from your photo too, you also remove an extra element that adds depth. With just tones of black and white to add depth, some street photos quickly descend into a busy flat plane and a bit of a muddle. With the whole rich palate of colours available to you there is so much more to play with in the photo, and so many ways of showing and demonstrating the presence of layers in a shot.

Colour adds interplay between elements

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Look at the work of the genius street photographer Alex Webb. Study it. Take the shot ‘Tehuantepec, Mexico, 1985’, for instance, that Spyros Papaspyropoulos analysed for Street Photo of the Week. This shot is a perfect showcase of just what colour adds to a street photo. Webb layers the image masterfully, and uses various blue hues to tie the whole image together. These blues link the layers in the image and also help to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. If you disregard colour, you lose this valuable asset in photography.

Colour Helps Composition

Following on from my point above about colour and interplay, you can see from Webb’s photography that colour can be a great asset to composition. It provides you with more elements in your shot, so in turn you have more elements to use to aid you in your composition. Like Webb, you can use a single colour in different areas of the photo to lead the viewer’s eye around the frame. Or you can use the presence of a colour to emphasise the compositional elements you want to. For instance you can use the edge of a colourful poster or piece of graffiti on a wall and place it in the golden ratio to catch the eye, or use a vibrant and exciting background colour to catch the eye, but also isolate from your subject walking in front of the wall. The opportunities with colour are literally endless!

Complementary Colours balance a shot

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If you’ve ever read any of my Talking Movies articles, you’ll have noticed I mention how talented directors and cinematographers use complementary and harmonious combinations of colours to balance a shot. If you study the colour wheel, you’ll learn that certain combinations of colours work well to complement one another, and create an attractive balance, while colours that are close to one another on the colour wheel (orange and yellow for instance) also create a nice harmonious look when used together.

 

Colour Adds Mood

If you do a little research into colour theory, you’ll discover that certain colours create preconceptions in our psychology. Red for instance is associated passion and energy, so a shot with a dominance of the this colour will be very intense. Once you get a good idea of what colours can do, you’ll be able to create specific moods and feelings in your photos with just colour, which is a real bonus!

Light is as important with colour as it is with black and white

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I stated earlier that monochrome photos serve emphasise the light in the photo, as the lack of other elements serves to focus the eye on the exposure in the shot. However, it’s simply not true that light does not play an important role in colour shots too. In fact, I’d argue that a high contrast shot with direct sunlight illuminating bright colours and really making them ‘pop’ can provide just as much impact as a black and white photo, despite the monochrome emphasising the tones of black and grey and light and dark to such an extent.

Embrace Colour!

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I’ve set out several reasons why I think colour can really add to your street photos. I genuinely think more developing street photographers should see it as a viable option for their work. It has so much to offer, and is truly another string to your bow and skill as a photographer. As for the argument that the masters of street photography used black and white, I say two things. Firstly, many of these masters were working in an era when technology made it more practical to shoot in monochrome. Secondly, Martin Parr, Alex Webb, Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, Constantine Manos, Eugene Richards, Bruce Gilden and Boogie have all shot in colour at some point. If it’s good enough for them, then it can’t be that bad can it? I suggest you give it a try!

15 COMMENTS

  1. Great article man… I love both bw and color but I do get tired of bw all the time… if the pic doesn’t look good on color sometimes people use bw just cause… but the real mood of a photo can only revealed in color… that’s the world we live in… I love bw photography, I’m just sayin tho

    • Thanks Todd! That’s a good point about using black & white on a photo sometimes ‘just cause’. I think you raise a very interesting concept about ‘the real mood’ only being revealed in colour too, I can’t decide where I land on that debate, but colour does put me ‘in the moment’ more I think.

  2. The never-ending debate that is very subjective. I photograph the real world but B&W allows me to reinterpretate it. I am not obligated to represent the reality just like that in order to avoid “to get back” as you say. B&W for me is not to imitate the great masters. It is a different way to see the world and avoid the fashion way imposed by media.

    • Lumitorma, yes colour or black & white is a personal choice for every street photographer, and I couldn’t agree more that it provides a different way of seeing the world! I think every photographer should make an informed decision for themselves once they’ve experimented with both styles.

  3. Man, that’s a nice read but please correct it: colors are complEmentary, not complimentary. They counterbalance each other and don’t flatter anyone! Two different words, though similar, with two different meanings.
    LOL

    • Great spot Alessandro! I’m totally ashamed I made that error. Motto of the story – don’t write first thing in the morning just after you’ve staggered out of bed!

  4. This is a very insightful article. A great manifesto that elucidates on the hot topic of the debate: which is better B&W street photography or color? Thanks Digby for sharing this.

  5. I disagree. Many of todays street photographers who shoot in color do so as a means of avoiding content. By this I mean they make color the be-all-and-end-all of their work. In black and white one cannot fall back on having a poorly thought out and executed photograph saved by snappy warm colors contrasted with cool colors. These kinds of photographs are fine for getting lots of “likes” by similar minded people in various social media platforms but my opinion based on what I’ve been seeing over the years is that it’s a shallow and simplistic approach. This is understandable; it’s difficult to create street photographs strong on content, the kinds that don’t have to fall back on visual gags or snappy colors. Even those who do shoot in black and white are guilty of this at times; the high contrast that some monochrome photographers fall back on also at times seems to me a technique used to mask a lack of effective content. Once you get past this which is an expression of the medium and nothing more, you look for the content but does not find any. In general, an effective street photograph does not call attention to itself by the technique of the photographer. Content trumps form, always.

    • I would also say that as in linguistics, form is content in photography too. Among these two there is no winner.

    • Interesting points keeperoflight. I certainly agree with you on the annoyance of high contrast in monochrome, and equally that some photos do lack content. There has to be something in there after all. However, like Luis, I feel that form does form an essential part of the content of the photo – photography is art after all.

  6. As a UK writer and street photographer, my view is that you should use whatever media the scene in front of the lens requires. For me, and I am a great lover of the black and white discipline, using it for 99% of my work, if the shot cries out for colour, then use colour. It should never be a case of one versus the other. I have set myself a challenge for my next street photography project – to shoot it entirely in colour.

    • Interesting point Keith! I have to say I do absolutely love colour, and I don’t feel my black and white photography is ‘there’ yet. Perhaps I should take a leaf out of your book and challenge myself to shoot black and white only as a project!

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