I recently got an email from one of my readers, Kit Taylor, asking me the following question:
Color or B&W? What goes into the decision to finish a street/candid
photo as color or black and white? Some photographers have a strong
specialization. Some of us use both almost equally. Some photos are
obvious; often I have some that are difficult to decide on.
I’m really glad that Kit asked this question, as this is an issue that I grapple everyday as a street photographer. There are many pros and cons to both color and black and white street photography– which I will outline below.
A simple google image search for street photography, you get mostly black and white images. Furthermore, when people think about street photography, they always think about classic black and white images taken by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, and Robert Frank. Color street photography is not nearly as popular, or noted as black and white street photography as a whole.
I don’t believe that street photography is meant to be taken in either black and white or color. There are cases in which black and white are more appropriate, and times in which color is more appropriate. In this article, I will outline the differences between both mediums, while describing when it is appropriate to use either.
Black and White Street Photography
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
— Ted Grant
There is nothing more classic and nostalgic than black and white street photography. Black and white reminds us of our past, which we often romanticize and idealize. Not only that, but we don’t see the world in black and white, which makes these images more interesting to look at. However, I highly encourage everyone against converting all of their images in black and white simply for the sake of it. Rather, think about the purpose why you are trying to convert the image into black and white. What type of message or feeling are you trying to convey? I will briefly outline some points in which I think it is better to shoot black and white for street photography.
1. It has a timeless look
If you look at the street photography of all the great masters, they are all taken in black and white (as black and white was the only type of film available back then). Think about all the memorable images you see in postcards or posters– all of them are in black and white. When we think of the past, for some reason we always imagine the memories and pictures in our mind in black and white.
Therefore if you are trying to get a nostalgic type of feel in your images that pays an homage to the past, black and white is definitely a wonderful medium for that.
2. It is simple
The one thing that I love about black and white is that it allows you to concentrate on the image itself, rather than the color. You can pinpoint certain details in the composition, which may have been obscured by color. At times, I also notice that certain images can get far too busy when in color, and black and white allows you to cut back on some of the distractions.
Take for example this image by Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama above. It is one of his most famous images which was taken after World War II, which shows the despair of life in Japan. The image itself is quite simple, and has a strong contrast between black and white. However its effectiveness is in the menacing stare of the dog, which is perfectly shown through the difference between the light and the dark. This image wouldn’t have been nearly as effective in color.
3. It has more drama
With black and white, it is easier to emphasize drama by creating images which have strong contrast and heavy vignettes. For example the image above, I chose to keep it in black and white as it was able to make the smoke more apparent, while focusing the viewer’s attention on the fist which appears to be popping out at you. Not only that, but it helps the viewer concentrate on the visual punch of the image, when color could have been distracting in creating the same effect.
Color Street Photography
“One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.” - Paul Outerbridge
Recently I have been shooting quite a bit of color street photography with my old Contax IIIa film rangefinder and I have been truly enjoying the experience. Color has a different feel and life to it when compared to street photography. In my opinion, it makes things come to life and feel more real and vivid. Not only that, but when you are shooting in color, you can color a variety of hues and tones that black and white cannot. Below are some reasons why it is better to shoot in color than in black and white for street photography.
1. It is underutilized
Within street photography, color is vastly underutilized. Although there is a plethora of great black and white street photographers out there, there is still a dearth of talented color street photographers out there. I feel that this is because there is a prejudice against color street photography, as it is not as nostalgic or “classic” as black and white.
However there is still a wonderful group of talented street photographers who do great work in color such as Nils Jorgensen, Matt Stuart, and Joel Meyerowitz. Check out some of their work for more inspiration.
2. It allows you to highlight certain elements in an image
With color, you can highlight elements of an image which often get forgotten in black and white. For example in the above image by Matt Stuart, the juxtaposition between the red and the green helps add to the composition and balance of the image. Had this image been in black and white, the devil may have been obscured against the background. Not only that, but the color red is a strong symbol of mischief — which would have once again been lost in black and white.
3. It grabs your attention
In this image by Trent Parke, the red color of the sign almost screams at you for its attention. This is due to the fact that we have emotional and psychological connections with certain colors– especially with the color red that yells “look at me!” Therefore when shooting street photography and you really want your audience to look at something, color is definitely the way to go.
4. It has a richer dynamic range
With color, you have much more access to a wider dynamic range in terms of colors, tones, and hues. For example in this above image by Narelle Autio, you can see a wonderful depth through color that black and white wouldn’t have been able to capture. You can see the warm tones in the sand, contrasted against the deep blue sky. Not only that, but you can see the pattern of the blue/yellow umbrella on the left (above the dog’s tail) and the subtle rainbow on the right side of the image. Had this image been in color, all of these small subtleties couldn’t have been viewed.
Whats your take on the subject of black and white vs color for street photography? When do you think it is better to use either? And do you think that color or black and white is inherently better than the other? Duke it out and tell your opinion by leaving a comment below!