(Above photo: From my newly published “Downtown LA in Color” series)
I have always shot street photography in black and white. After all, it is what all the classic street photographers did. Whenever looking at famous photographs shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand, and so forth they were always black and white.
The last 6 months or so I have shot exclusively using color film (Portra 400). After about 5 years of shooting mostly black and white and now shooting mostly color I have learned a lot about the benefits and the difficulties of shooting in color. I have also discovered many influential early color photographers who have had a profound impact on myself.
Curious? Read on.
Black and white as art
“There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: Color photography is vulgar. When the point of a picture subject is precisely its vulgarity or its color-accident through man’s hand, not God’s, then only color film can be used validly.” – Waker Evans
It is the general trend that fine art photography has been shot in black and white. After all, black and white was the only easily accessible film from the beginning of photography for many decades.
Once color film hit the scene, people weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Photographers who shot with black and white their entire careers saw color as something that only amateurs used.
However in the next following decades, more photographers started to experiment with the medium. Stephen Shore, Fred Herzog, William Eggleston, and Joel Sternfeld were a few of the early color pioneers.
Below is a quote which initially drew me to black and white in street photography:
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph theirclothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!” – Ted Grant
I always loved shooting street photography in black and white. I loved how black and white was much more simple than color, and helped me focus on composition, light, silhouettes, and the overall mood. Ever since I started street photography, I was also drawn to the gritty black and white work of Daido Moriyama and William Klein- and preferred the high-grain and high contrast post-processing (which I used Silver Efex Pro 2 to re-create a similar look).
Shooting color was frustrating to me. It was quite distracting, as the color would always fight for the attention in the photograph, sometimes drawing the attention away from the subject in the photograph (and causing the viewer to focus on something in the background).
At the time, I was more interested in capturing the soul of people, not their clothes. But what if it was their clothes I was interested in?
My transition into color
One thing I hate about shooting in RAW is that the initial files are very dull and flat. Especially in color, you need a considerable amount of post-processing to make the photographs look good in color. Not only that, but it was a pain in the ass for me to do color-correction as well as white-balance. Black and white was much more straight-forward and easier for me.
When I was in Singapore last year, I was shooting a mini-project on capitalism in Singapore. I was fascinated by the shopping-culture there, and a focus on material goods (BMW’s, Mercedes, McDonalds, Starbucks, Louie Vuitton, etc.). It reminded me much of the states.
Therefore I started shooting the project with my Leica M6 in black and white film (Tri-X). However I became very disappointed in my images, as black and white didn’t seem to be the correct medium to capture capitalism.
I took a photograph of a Coca-Cola machine that glowed crimson red at night, illuminated by the backlight inside the machine. I took a photograph of it, and was dismayed to see that shooting it in black and white stripped it of much of the meaning.
After all, is Coca-Cola truly Coca-Cola without the red?
The turning point was when I decided to experiment with a roll of Superia 1600 (that my friend Ryan Cabal gave to me when back in Korea). I ran out of black and white film one day, and decided to shoot with the color film.
When I got the film back, I stumbled upon a photograph I took of a little girl. She had polka dot sunglasses on, and was eating a McDonalds ice cream cone. The photograph popped out at me, and had so much more vitality, life, and description than the black and white photographs I had been taking prior.
If I shot the photograph in black and white, I wouldn’t have noticed the subtleties in the photograph (the polka dots in her sunglasses) nor would I have spotted that her ice cream cone was from McDonalds (from the yellow and red on the wrapper).
After coming back home to Los Angeles, I decided to experiment with color film.
Shooting Downtown LA in color
I wanted to experiment shooting street photography with color film, and looked online for some recommendations. Nearly everyone recommended Kodak Portra 400 to me, as it gave fantastic skin tones, had nice saturation, and wasn’t too difficult to find (I have discovered B&H Photo to be the cheapest place to purchase it online at ~$7 a roll).
Before shooting Portra 400, I was shooting TRI-X pushed to 1600. I heard that Portra 400 pushed nicely to 1600 (I have tried it and yes, it does look lovely) but the problem was I didn’t know any local labs that could push C-41 color film to 1600 (for a reasonable price).
Around the time I discovered that my local Costco in Los Angeles (Marina Del Ray to be specific) processed C-41 color film and gave you high resolution scans (~3500px wide) for only ~$5 a roll. Not a bad deal. The only problem was they couldn’t push film nor develop black and white film (unless you are using C-41 black and white film).
I bought a bunch of color film to shoot, and headed to my usual stomping grounds, the fashion district in Downtown LA. Except for shooting black and white like I usually did, I would be shooting in color.
The Fashion District – in Black and White
The fashion district is one of the most colorful places in Downtown LA, with vendors selling all sorts of things. Clothes, fabrics, hats, sunglasses, toys, and so forth. There are store merchants constantly chanting and advertising their discounts, signs abundant, and narrow alleyways where you can purchase whatever you want.
A year ago I helped host “YOU ARE HERE” which was a project conceived up of Jacob Patterson and Nima from the ThinkTank Gallery in Downtown LA and sponsored by Leica-Camera USA. The concept was that many photographers from Los Angeles (and outside) to participate in a week of photographing the fashion district (in one square block) for a week. There was then an exhibition sponsored by Leica-Camera in which each photographer showcased their 3 strongest images.
For the exhibition, I ended up sharing 3 photographs (all in black and white). I was engrossed into focusing on faces, light, shadows, as well as patterns and contrast.
Shooting in color forced me to see the world and shoot in a different way. I had to focus on looking specifically for color – namely the colors of people’s shirts, their sunglasses, pants, shoes, the patterns of fabric, and the different hues of ice cream that people would eat.
The Fashion District – in Color
For the next few months (on and off in-between my travels) I shot the Downtown LA Fashion district (and beyond) in color film. I reckon I must have shot around ~30-40 rolls, (~1080-1400
photos). I embarked on this project with no special theme in mind, except I would try to showcase the Color in Downtown LA.
Although in the beginning it was difficult to see in color, after the first few weeks I felt that a veil was lifted off my eyes. I started to see the world differently, and was filled with excitement with what the medium of color could bring me.
I shot the project with my Leica M6/Leica MP and with my Leica SF20 flash (mounted on the hot shoe). I did the majority of my shooting during the day in the shade, shooting at f/8, 50th of a second, and flash at minimum power to draw them out of the shadows – as well as further saturate the colors.
Whenever I would get my film processed and scanned, I would try to do some rough edits on Lightroom, and then would export the “maybe” photographs to my iPad. Then during my travels I would carry around my iPad and ask for editing suggestions from my fellow photography friends & acquaintances for their suggestions.
I have now a final edit of around 10 images (thanks to Cindy for the final editing suggestions) that I feel best showcase the color work I have done in Downtown LA during the last several months. 10 shots of 1400 shots (~40 rolls) is a keeper rate of .7%, which equates to having roughly one keeper per 4 rolls of film (1 photo per 144 shots).
I wish I had more time to work on the project (I cannot as I am moving to Michigan at the end of August when I come back from my trip).
Practical tips when shooting color
Above I talk about some of my personal experiences shooting street photography in color. Here are some practical advice I would give to those of you who want to shoot more color street photography (based on my experiences):
1. See the world in color
When you go out and shoot street photography in color, see the world in color.
When I was shooting black and white, the world looked like a different place. I was focused on looking at expressions, shapes, lines, forms, shadows, and light.
When shooting street photography in color, I would (of course) look for color.
In Downtown LA in the fashion district, I would let my sense of color guide me. Whenever I saw something that was bright red, yellow, blue, green, or pink – I would be immediately drawn to it. When shooting in color, I would also try to consider what other colors would be in the scene, and if I could create any sort of contrast or juxtaposition using it.
What I used to do far too much when shooting RAW in digital was to decide after taking the shot to either keep it color or to convert it into black and white afterwards.
To sum up, when you are out shooting either see the world in black and white or in color – rather than deciding what looks better afterwards.
2. Sequence your photos accordingly
When I got down to my final edit for my “Downtown LA in Color” series – I had a final of 10 images.
What I tried to do in my series was to space out the different colors and sequence them.
For example, I start off with the guy in the red suit with the yellow sunglasses, then try to transition into the color cyan (kid with the sunglasses), into the color blue and red (the kid with the power ranger toys), then into a more dominant blue (guy with the strawberries), then into yellow (baby with sunglasses), into pink (lady with belly), back to blue (kid with pink gum), to red (girl in the dog leash), back to cyan and pink (lady with sprite can), and finally with the color pink.
I tried to avoid having two colors that were too similar to be next to one another. Rather, I tried to have the colors in the sequence to contrast one another – and have some general sense of flow.
To show it simpler, this is how I saw the main colors being sequenced:
Red > Cyan > Red/Blue/Green > Blue/Green/Red > Yellow/Cyan/Pink > Pink > Blue > Green > Cyan/Green/Pink > Pink
3. Think of the meaning that color adds to your photos
Colors have strong symbols and emotions associated with them. For example:
Red: Power, lust, danger
Yellow: Caution, Energy, Light
Green: Envy, life, nature
Blue: Calm, peaceful, water
Pink: Childish, flowery, feminine
Purple: Royalty, respect, religion
Therefore think about the emotional aspect your colors have in your photograph. For my man in the red suit, I see him as someone who wants to be flashy, be seen as different, and powerful. The child at the end of my series with the ice cream cone looks innocent yet so powerful and feminine. I feel the color pink adds to that effect. One photograph that I love by Jesse Marlow is mostly green, which I feel a sense of gloom, envy, or darkness behind it.
The colors don’t always have to have some sort of symbolic meaning behind it, but it can add to the power and impact of your photograph.
4. Is the sky blue without the blue?
This is one question that John Skarkowski mentioned when talking about the work of William Eggleston.
Sometimes color is inextricably linked to and is a part of what you are trying to portray.
For example is McDonalds really McDonalds without the yellow arches and red background? Is coffee really coffee without the deep shade of brown? Can the American flag truly be represented without the red and white stripes?
Shooting in black and white strips photographs of the detail inherent in color. Certain subjects demand to be in color when color is a part of its existence.
5. Consider the project
I feel that certain projects work better in either black and white or in color.
For example, when I was shooting my series: “Dark Skies Over Tokyo” it was a dark and gloomy look of Japanese society. Color would have added too much life and vitality to the images – which would have detracted from my central message. In my
“Korea: The Presentation of Self” project, I focused on the question of identity for Koreans, and wanted to make the photographs more ambiguous and emphasize a sense of anonymity.
Generally in the majority of projects I have seen they are all either shot in black and white or in color. Rarely do projects or photo books mix both. Some exceptions I have seen is if a book is separated into two parts (black and white in the beginning, and then color in the end). Also if the majority of the series is in color, some photograph could be added strategically in-between at certain intervals.
However I feel that a project is more powerful if you keep it all in black and white or color.
I like to use the analogy of a book. If you are reading a book, the look and the feel of the book is consistent. The pages are all white, and the text is black. The font is the same size on each page, and the pages are the same size as well.
Imagine if you read a book in which some of the pages were red (while others white) and in some of the pages in which the font changed or the size of the paper changed. That is kind of like creating a series or photo-book that mixes black & white and color, as well as photographs that are cropped inconsistently.
Of course there are always exceptions, and I think that it comes down to intent. If you want to be inconsistent purposefully (when it comes to black and white vs. color) that is okay. But I strive to you if you choose to go down this route, be inconsistent consistently. If you are going to have color and black and white mixed in a series, space it out evenly (don’t have different colored photos randomly scattered everywhere). Have a black and white photo amongst color photos perhaps every ~5 photos or so. If you are going to mix vertical and horizontal photographs in a series, try to space them out (or clump them together).
6. Look for the light (or create it)
I feel when you are shooting in color, looking for the light is even more important than when you are shooting with black and white.
If you are shooting during mid-day (noon) when the light is harsh it will look even worse in color. Your highlights will be blown out of control, and there will be little dynamic range. Black and white makes this look not as bad (but shouldn’t be used simply as a cover-up for poor lighting).
Therefore when you are shooting in color, try to wait when the light is good to start shooting. This includes sunrise and sunset (during “golden hour”).
Another strategy is to use flash during the day. For my “Downtown LA in Color” series I shot with my flash in the shade, which gave my subjects some fill and helped separate them from the background. It also made the colors in the photographs pop more. I also prefer shooting flash during the day because your subjects barely notice it (whereas if you do it during the night you can freak them out.
For those of you who are curious, for this project I shot with my Leica M6/MP, at f/8 (for subjects at 1.2 meters) and f/16 (for subjects at .7 meters). I used Portra 400 film and shot it at 400. The flash I used with my Leica SF 20 (shot at minimum power at 1/8th output).
If you want to use flash during the day in the direct sunlight, make sure to have a nice balance between your flash output and exposure settings. Generally this will mean you will have to shoot with a low ISO (50, or 100), with a high F-Stop (f/16-22), fast shutter speed (250ths/sec or faster), and with a higher flash output. This will give you a proper exposure for the background, and your flash will have to be strong enough to properly expose your subject.
7. Research color photographers
When I was learning more about shooting street photography in color, I started to do a ton of research on color street photographers and started to buy a bunch of books.
Some books by photographers I would recommend you check out:
This one is expensive but one of my favorite color photography books. It is a 3-book series published by Steidl and shows unpublished color slide film by Eggleston over his career. The color print quality is phenomenal (any book published by Steidl is superb) and will easily be a collector’s item in the next 5-10 years. Thanks to Charlie Kirk for the recommendation.
One of Bruce Davidson’s best work, also published by Steidl. It is about him shooting the grimy subways in NYC in the 80’s, where graffiti, violence, and grime in the subways run rampart. He used a flash in the project, and really brought out an incredible source of energy in the photographs. Another of my favorites with amazing photographs, great sequencing, and print quality.
This book is considered one of Martin Parr’s best books. He shot the sleepy beach town of New Brighton – of working-class families on vacation. Although the book was quite controversial, the photographs he captured were breath taking. Not only were the colors deep and vibrant, but also the photos were full of life and intimate. He also shot this project on a medium-format camera, which gives the photographs great details.
After publishing “The Last Resort” – Parr ditched his medium-format, and instead switched back to 35mm film and used a SLR camera, macro lens, and ringlight flash. He shot the photos with a cheap amateur color film, which made them look ridiculously over-saturated and quite cheesy. However it makes the photographs all that much more powerful.
Fred Herzog was one of the earliest street photographers shooting in color, but hasn’t received international recognition until the last several years. His Kodachrome photographs in Canada show a colorful and changing neighborhood, and the energy and soul of his neighborhood. A definite must-buy.
Good luck finding this book. It is mostly out-of-print everywhere I go, and haven’t been able to purchase my own copy yet. But if you can find it in your library, it will blow you away.
Sternfeld captures fantastical scenes that are exploding with color, on a road-trip across America with a large-format camera.
Shore was also one of the early pioneers of color. He too traveled across the states with a large-format camera and started to shoot the American urban landscape in deep colors. Another great resource to have.
Meyerowitz was one of the earliest practitioners of street photography in color. Not only did he create a solid body of work in color, but he also experimented using a large-format camera and shot one of his seminal books: “Cape Light” which really focus on the beauty and quality of the light. Not street photography by any regards, but essential for anyone studying color.
With signs, portraits, and architecture – Strauss created an incredibly intimate look into the American landscape. Having lived in tough neighborhoods her entire life, she was able to build rapport with people she found in her every-day life and travels who also were having rough and tough times. Her hard work and efforts have awarded her dearly, with an invitation into Magnum, one of the most prestigious photo agencies in the world.
Currently one of my favorite color street photographers. Incredible light, layers, and brilliant colors. Check out some of my thoughts about his book here.
Siberian Prison camps, in color? Check out my review of Zona here.
Color is still a medium I am experimenting with, and a medium I still have much to learn about. It has been difficult for me to transition into black and white into color for my photography, but I am excited for all the new possibilities it will inject into my work. Shooting color has also helped me see the world in a new and refreshing way, which is also much more colorful (pun intended).
I don’t think that street photographers should become pigeonholed into feeling that they have to only shoot black and white or only in color. I feel that both mediums should be used when necessary. However my humble suggestion is when you are working on a project, try to focus on having the project entirely in black and white or entirely in color.
I feel that color in street photography shouldn’t be used as an after-thought. We shouldn’t simply keep our photos in color (because they “look better” than in black and white). We should see the world in color, have color inject meaning and purpose into our photographs, and have a statement.
I hope this post has helped inspire you to perhaps start experimenting more street photography in color. Just because all the masters shot street photography in black and white, it shouldn’t mean that we should only shoot in black and white as well. After all, for many of them black and white is the only medium that they had for several decades!
What other advice would you have about shooting street photography in color? Leave your thoughts/feedback in the comments below!