Black and White or Color in Street Photography: How Do You Make the Decision?

"Green Umbrella" - James Maher

"Green Umbrella" - James Maher

Eric: Quite often I am asked by the community when it is appropriate to have a street photograph in black and white or color. It is a question I grapple with myself daily as well, and I enlisted the help of James Maher, a talented New York street photographer to help write an article on it. I hope you enjoy it!

James: Street Photography has been around for a long, long time. And for all but the last 10 years, the photographer has had to make a choice before walking out the door: should I use color or black and white film today?

But these days we have an enormous luxury; we can make the color or black and white decision after the fact. And it can be tough to figure out.

I often see photographers these days mimicking some of the old masters and turning everything into black and white, or some never bothering to make any. It can be frustrating to see a great photograph not live up to its full potential because of a lack of thought into this issue.

So today I want to talk about how to best make this decision. It is important because it can change the focus of an image entirely and this is why it is the first thing that I try to decide when looking at a digital negative.

Advantages of Each

There is one main rule that I personally live by. If color doesn’t add anything to a scene, then I take it out. I believe that there should be a clear point that color adds to a photograph and if this is not obvious then it probably isn’t adding anything. This is just my own belief.

Now lets talk about the advantages of each. These will all be gross generalizations and are obviously not true in every case. It is an extremely subjective issue, so please join the discussion below if you have anything to add. I did a poll once on an image and was surprised to find that the split was 55/45 for color. Everyone has their own preference.

Why Black and White?

"Waiting in Grand Central" - James Maher

"Waiting in Grand Central" - James Maher

Without any color, every area of a photograph starts on an even plane for the eye and so it makes forms, shapes, lines and contrast much more prominent and important.

Figures can look more powerful and more dramatic. Faces and expressions are emphasized more.

Blur and grain look much more pleasing in black and white. If you have a lot of color noise from shooting at a high ISO, then converting to black and white will fix this.

Since a majority of old photography was done in black and white, it can help a modern moment feel classic and timeless.

Photographs can seem more serious or sometimes more thoughtful.

Patterns and textures can become more prominent or interesting. (Color can have the same affect as well.)

Why Color?

"Blonde" - James Maher

"Blonde" - James Maher

My opinion is that there is not much middle ground for color; it either adds or subtracts to a scene, but I think that the obvious starting point is that it often just looks prettier.  It sounds so simple to say, but sometimes colors are so beautiful that you just can’t take them out, regardless of the content of the photo.

Color can enhance a humorous or playful situation.

Colors can enhance any mood if used correctly. Blues can help a photo feel more melancholy, reds more vibrant or angry, browns or muted colors more gritty or dreary.

Color can be important to the message of the photo, such as the photo titled “Blonde” above.

Color can add focus to the main subject if it is in a prominent hue. On the other hand, if an unimportant object is the most dominant color in a scene then this can significantly take away from the focus in the photo.

A play between two complementary colors can have a powerful affect on the dynamics of a scene.

Colors can be important to a culture. Recently, I had a chance to do some street photography in Mexico and the colors were such an interesting aspect of the surroundings that I couldn’t bear to take them out. I usually do around 75% in black and white, but here I left 99% of the photographs in color.

"Valladolid Mexico" - James Maher

"Valladolid Mexico" - James Maher

How I Decided on a Few of my Own Images

Here are a few of my photographs and why I chose to show them in either black and white or color.  If you have any differing opinions then I would love to hear them.

"Catcall" - James Maher

"Catcall" - James Maher

In “Cat Call” I was conflicted. I like how it looks in black and white and I feel that it helps to focus in on the facial expression, which is the most important part of the photo. But this is a fun scene, and the face is already prominent enough in the color version that it doesn’t need more help. In color the sunflowers pop, which adds to the fun-loving aspect of this photo while also framing and bringing attention to the reflection of the person he is calling out to in the window.

My Verdict for “Catcall”: Color

"Hands" - James Maher

"Hands" - James Maher

“Hands” is a typical scene that I will see in color when there is no reason for it.  The focus here should be on the hands and faces and black and white does it better. The colors in the two t-shirts distract too much as well and don’t really add anything.  Also, there is some blur because of how quickly I had to catch this moment and this blur looks much better in black and white.

My Verdict for “Hands”: Black and White

"Metal Head" - James Maher

"Metal Head" - James Maher

“Metal Head” was a tough choice. Traditionally, I would have put this into black and white and at first glance I saw the orange in the background as distracting.  However, I wanted this scene to feel more lighthearted instead of sad and found that the orange and color helped to bring this out of the photo.

My Verdict for “Metal Head”: Color

"Under the Manhattan Municipal Building" - James Maher

"Under the Manhattan Municipal Building" - James Maher

I thought I would throw in an easy one here. In “Under the Manhattan Municipal Building” the shapes of the lit areas, the deep contrast and the figures are so important.  It is still powerful in color, but I feel that the color just gets in the way and muddles things up.  In black and white, the forms are so much clearer, the figures more powerful, and the photo more timeless.

My Verdict for “Under the Manhattan Municipal Building”: Black and White

Once again, this is all subjective, so if you have any comments, questions or additional points, please add to the discussion or ask us about your own images.

About the Author

James Maher is photographer based in New York City.  His website focuses primarily on New York Street Photography, as well as tips and tricks to improve your photography.  You can follow him on facebook here and twitter here.

So when do you think it is appropriate to use black and white and color for street photography? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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  • Kyle Batson

    I think James nailed it. If color isn’t adding anything to the photo, remove it. Black and white, in general, can help the viewer see the greater relationships between forms and the overall composition of the image.

  • Ivan Sciupac

    This is an outstanding analysis of the age-old question. Your maxim that “if color doesn’t add anything, take it out” is a good rule to follow, one that I found myself applying to my own street photography just last night while editing the day’s batch of photos.

    Thanks for the article and for framing the question so articulately.

  • Adrian Boliston

    I personally prefer colour for street photography, but I can sort of see that many street photographers like to emulate the style of the old masters, who had no choice but to shoot b&w film. Each to their own I guess.

  • Fokko Muller

    Like your analysis James. I make the same decisions as you do I guess. Always deciding per photo what to do. When I look at my choices the ratio b&w vs color for me is 70% vs 30%. For me there are no rules in this. It’s ll about a good feeling.

  • Tom

    Custom white balance is a HUGE key to good color photography!! I didn’t understand how to properly white balance my camera for a long time, this resulted in colors that never added much to my pictures. If colors are not adding to the enough of your pictures, it might be a white balance problem.

    Also, “The Art of Photography” by Bruce Barnbaum gets deep into the pro and cons of color vs BW photography. I found it very helpful.

  • Steve Norris

    I convert 90% of my street photos to B&W and while this is just my personal preference I do it because of the extra control it gives my in post production.
    Street photos are often cluttered with busy backgrounds and sometimes foregrounds and by using quite heavy burn and dodge techniques I can make my subject stand out far more than in a colour image.
    While you can obviously dodge and burn a colour image, you can’t push it to the same degree as B&W without making the colours look over the top.
    If you just de-saturate a colour shot into monochrome you will end up with most colours looking a flat grey. Judicial use of post shooting techiques and using programs such as Silver Effects Pro can give you the ability to control which colours are converted to which shade if grey.
    As I said, just my preference but this is why I convert to B&W

    Keep shooting everyone and thanks to James for the article.

  • Isoterica

    I prefer black and white for street but James is right, if the color makes a point it should be left in. Sometimes it’s essential to direct the eye or just showcase a bright pair of red shoes. If the photo is all about red shoes they had better be red. I also agree with his assessment of each of his photos though a couple such as the cat caller and the metalhead I also like in the monotone. Like Steve I think it is better to shoot in color if digital and then convert. Then you always have a choice.

  • monoflop

    it’s hard to decide sometimes because mixing b/w and color in one series/set/theme is always problematic. Sometimes it’s easy – this one for example just doesn’t work in b/w :-)

  • Victor Bezrukov

    Black and white for me !

  • Kit Taylor

    I’m about half and half on my street photography and street portraits. the choice is immediately apparent in most, difficult in a few.

    A process I’ve found useful is to do an initial review of each new set of photos in both color and b&w — simple and quick to do in Lightroom. And not just for my street photography, but for all of it, including landscapes and travel photography. There may be some that I would overlook in color but jump off the screen in b&w. This travel/portrait — — is one I was using in its original color in a travelogue slide show for its journalism, but hadn’t thought about printing until I looked at it in b&w. In b&w it brought me a few gallery sales.

    • Amanda

      good idea re: the initial review. we have the technology, why not use it? :)

  • Oisin

    Personally, I shoot everything in colour then if it’s not quite right I try it in B&W – It can always be switched back if a copy is made.

  • James Maher

    Thanks for all the comments everyone, I hope you liked the article. I do agree that often the choice is obvious and intuitive, but sometimes the choice can be really tough. I use the V (black and white toggle) in Lightroom more than any other key probably. Even if the choice is obvious, I often just toggle it on and off once or twice to see. It can’t hurt!

    Also great point Steve about being able to push a black and white negative more.

  • Marco Fiori

    Interesting advice and very well thought out. I have the habit of ‘seeing’ in B&W when required. I’ll take a shot and already plan to convert it to monochrome when I get round to processing it.

    You think more in light as opposed to the subject when doing this. Still, shooting in colour while thinking in B&W means you have the luxury of making the mistake and having the colour shot to play with.

  • Dew

    Great article Eric and James.

    Personally I almost always prefer black and white to colour for street photography. It just adds more mystery to the photo and forces viewers to use their imagination more to interpret the scene. I like to think of it as reading a book.

    That said, using black and white indiscriminately is obviously not a good idea. Images tend to appear more alive in colour. It’s also great for emphasising the tone of the image and playing around with filters, too, in the post-processing.

    Ultimately it’s really down to the vision of the photographer to go with either. If you’re really stuck, then consider producing two copies and asking a friend to give their opinion before you’re ready to share it with the world.

  • Anthony Ryan Photography Santa Clarita Photographer

    The photos I have seen are really good, one day maybe you can post a tutioral video for us to watch…

    • Eric Kim

      Definitely can do that in the near future :)

  • Amanda

    I love b&w, but I feel it’s too… easy sometimes. My rule is more like “If color *distracts* from a scene, then I take it out.” (the difference is subtle, but implies my default is colour).
    with digital I always shoot in colour (as opposed to in monochrome mode), even if I know the outcome will be b&w, because I’d rather have absolute control of the conversion.
    I rarely shoot b&w film, solely for the reason that I can’t afford the processing. one day, I will have a home darkroom :)

  • Tuna Onder

    I recently took on the challenge of color street photography and now always shoot color film in case a shot “needs” to be in color rather than converted to B&W. Why color or B&W? I just go by feel…never absolutely sure…but once the decision is made, I can’t imagine a color shot being in B&W or vice versa. For my most recent image, “A Closer Look”, some have suggested trying it in B&W but I just wouldn’t see it working any better than it does as is.

  • bev manders

    great article and discussion. I’ve recently been editing photo’s to get a ‘portrait’ file together an am finding similar decisions having to be made with these. I love B&W but sometimes it just doesn’t fit the bill. I’ve also discovered, that for me, sometimes gradients of sepia/browns work better than B&W.

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