I feel that shooting color street photography is more difficult than shooting in black-and-white.
With color, there is more complexity. If you have a photograph that has distracting colors that don’t add to the frame— your photo won’t work.
Black and white cuts out complexity, by distilling the image into just monochromatic shades of black and white.
Color introduces complexity, by adding different colors, shades, and hues (which can make or break your photo).
In something as unpredictable in street photography, how can we better make color street photos? Some ideas:
1. Only shoot in color for a year
It takes a while to train yourself to see in color. For me, when I started to get interested in color photography (after getting bored with black-and-white), I decided to stop black and white all-together, to only focus on color.
It was a good choice. Because I feel it is impossible to both improve your color and black and white photography at the same time.
By trying to chase two hares, we will catch neither. To do two things at once is to do neither.
Focus on one thing at a time that you’re trying to improve.
For color, learn to see the world in color. Look for interesting colors that pop out to you. Look for intense shades of red, cool shades of blue, or calming colors of green. Look for interesting juxtapositions of colors — a pop of orange against a green background. A pop of red against a blue background.
Look for complementary colors. Look for scenes that all have a similar shade of color (a scene of only warm colors: red, orange, and yellow). Or scenes with only cool colors (blue, green, purple).
2. Study painting
One of the best ways to study color is to study painting. Why? Because the painters could create their own colors at their own will, whereas as photographers we are slaves to the scene.
Look at how painters use different colors to bring your eyes around the frame. See what colors and shades they use to create different emotions and moods into their images.
Then try to apply the same to your photos.
3. Don’t just convert your photos from color to black and white
When it comes to street photography, you need to be more brutal when it comes to editing your photos (choosing your best photos). Because you might have a great photograph (that works in black and white), but it might not work in color.
Instead of doing the easy thing (converting a color photo that doesn’t work into black and white) — just focus on your color photography. If the colors of your street photograph don’t work, ditch it.
Our eyes are generally drawn to the areas of the greatest contrast in an image. For color, I’ve found that my eyes are most drawn to the colors red and yellow (a coincidence that these colors are mostly used for advertisements, fast-food chains, and sale signs?) The color red reminds me of blood and death (always catches our attention). And the color yellow is for “caution” (most road signs are painted this color).
4. Start off with simple colors
When you’re walking on the streets, start off by training yourself to see in color by working on simple colors.
For example, if you see just a simple blue background, try to get someone wearing a bright red (something) to pass by. Start with very basic colors, and nothing too fancy or complex.
Or when you’re walking on the streets, wait until you see something or someone colorful. Then try to make them the focus of your scene.
5. Shoot with a flash
Most of the time, you won’t have good light. The hard thing about street photography and color is that if you don’t have good colors, the photos tend to look aesthetically ugly.
Black and white is more forgiving in poor light. Color isn’t.
So when you’re faced with a situation with poor light, try to shoot with a flash. A flash will add contrast to your scene, the colors will look more bright and vibrant and saturated.
In terms of technical settings, I just recommend using the integrated flash on your camera (if you have one), and shooting in “P” (program mode), with ISO 800. If your camera doesn’t have a flash, just use the smallest and most compact flash possible.
6. Shoot in good light (golden hour)
The best color street photographs I’ve seen are in epic light — mostly during golden hour (sunrise, and sunset).
There is nothing more blissful than seeing golden light. I am still blown away by the beautiful Kodachrome colors of the photos of Alex Webb and Steve McCurry.
Personally I don’t have the will to wake up early to shoot sunrise. But whenever it is near sunset, I try to shoot like a madman. This is when the shadows become very long (longer than the height of your subjects), when there is dramatic contrast, and you feel the day coming to an end.
So if you want to make better color street photos, try to shoot sunrise or sunset. Also if you’re shooting in aperture-priority mode or program mode, try to use exposure-compensation for a better exposure (usually -1 exposure compensation works well).
7. Study great color photographers
When I first started to study color photography, I studied the work of the masters and pioneers of color photography, which include some of the following:
- William Eggleston
- Stephen Shore
- Martin Parr
- Bruce Davidson
- Joel Sternfeld
- Joel Meyerowitz
- Alex Webb
- Constantine Manos
The funny trend I’ve noticed in photography is this — most photographers start off in black and white, then evolve to color. It very rarely happens the opposite way.
I suspect because a lot of these photographers started to shoot in color, because it was more difficult, challenging, and complex. And we all need a challenge to push ourselves in our photography, to grow, evolve, and improve.
I’m passionate about both color and monochromatic street photography. Both have the pros and cons.
Neither is better — it just matters what your personal preference is.
If you’re interested in shooting more color, I hope these tips will help you in your photographic journey.
The world is a beautiful and colorful place. Keep capturing the vibrance of life.
To learn more about street photography, check out Street Photography 101 >