How to Master Color Street Photography

If you’re passionate about color this advice I would give to you on mastering color street photography for yourself:

First of all, I recommend studying these master color photographers:

  1. Alex Webb (The Suffering of Light and Istanbul)
  2. Constantine Manos (American Color)
  3. Martin Parr (The Last Resort and Common Sense)
  4. Stephen Shore (American Surfaces)
  5. William Eggleston (Chromes)
  6. Helen Levitt

See all the Masters >

Contemporary street photographers to study:

  1. Dirty Harrry
  2. Jesse Marlow
  3. Yves Vernin
  4. Chu Viet Ha
  5. Barry Talis

Why color street photography?

So first of all, why shoot color street photography?

To me, I find color photography more challenging than black and white photography. Black and white is difficult, but color is even more difficult because color is another variable. When shooting in color, we don’t just think about composition, expressions, and emotion; we must also be very cognizant of the colors in the scene!

Color street photography isn’t better or worse than black and white street photography. Just different.

And also realize that at a very high level, to master black and white photography is equally as difficult as mastering color photography.

My practical suggestion is this:

When you’re starting off street photography, shoot in black and white to learn how to simplify your scenes and build your timing skill to capture the decisive moment. Then when you’re bored of black and white, then move onto color photography.

Also if you’re already drawn to color street photography, and black and white doesn’t interest you at all, I suggest skipping black and white all together, and going straight into color.

Principle 1: No more than 3 colors in a photo

To start off, I’d suggest keeping your color palette simple. When Hayao Miyazaki colors food in his animated films, he doesn’t use more than 3 colors.

I believe in color street photography, colors are more impactful when you have fewer colors in a scene. The fewer colors you have the more focus you can give to the few colors (already) in the scene.

Principle 2: You perceive the intensity of a color via the colors around it

There is no absolute way humans perceive color. We only perceive colors in respect to other colors.

For example, if you put the color red next to something that is yellow, the intensity and shade of red will look very different if the red is next to something which is blue.

As an experiment, try to photograph different colored objects against different colored backgrounds and see how it changes how you perceive those colors. For example, take a red apple and take it around your house, and find different colored backgrounds to photograph it against. Shoot the red apple against a green background, a black background, a white background, and a pink background.

Principle 3: Colors evoke different emotions

I don’t think colors in photography should be purely decorative. I believe colors in photography should be used to evoke a certain emotion, mood, or feeling.

For example, “warm” colors such as red, yellow, orange (colors of a warm sunrise) evoke “warm” feelings of passion, comfort, security, love or lust. I also generally believe red to be the boldest color. My theory is because it is the same color as human blood.

Then you have “cool” colors such as blue, violet, cyan, green, and purple. Cool colors tend to relax and calm your viewer. Consider a tranquil beach, with blue skies and an aquamarine ocean.

Also realize when you’re post-processing your digital files in color, consider how the contrast, saturation, vibrance, and other settings will change the mood and feeling of your photo. For example, a photo with high saturated colors will look more exciting, fun, and cheerful. Generally photos with more muted tones and colors (like soft pastels) are more relaxing, romantic, and soft.

Technical settings for color street photography

Generally if you want good colors in your color street photography, here are some tips and guidelines:

  1. Keep your ISO at 800 (don’t exceed 800 ISO). Most digital cameras above ISO 800 start to degrade the color in digital files.
  2. Using a flash will increase the saturation of the colors in your photos: Examine the color flash photos by Martin Parr, and you can observe how adding flash will increase the saturation of your color photos.
  3. For the most epic colors, shoot at sunrise or sunset: This period is called “golden hour”, when the light is most epic. You generally know whether it is golden hour or not if your shadow is taller than you.
  4. To shoot better color street photos during midday (around noon or afternoon, when the shadows are harsh), shoot your camera at -1 or -2 exposure compensation. This will make the shadows of your photos pure black, and will not “blow out” your highlights. This will also make the colors in your photos look better.
  5. Look for colorful things, scenes, people, or backgrounds when you’re shooting. For example, find people wearing the color red in their outfits, find nice blue walls (and wait for your subjects to enter the scene). Whenever you see color, shoot it immediately! And try to keep your color photos simple and minimal; once again, try to keep your scene 3 colors or fewer.

Color Theory

There are many color theories. There is the “Opponent Process Color Theory” (where certain colors oppose one another), theories on complementary and adjacent colors (based on the color wheel), and many other color theories.

But ultimately, all color theory is only useful when you have lots of time to stage your shot, like in modeling, in commercial shoots, when you have the power to dictate what colors your models wear, or what color backgrounds you have.

In street photography, we don’t have the luxury of changing the colors of the outfits of our subjects, or of the background. We must best effectively utilize the colors we are already given to us by reality, and figure out novel ways we can re-combine and frame these colors in our photos.

Not only that, but don’t let color theory paralyze you. Just shoot colorful stuff in the streets and have fun. You don’t need an academic explanation why a certain color photo “works” or not. If you have made a color photograph that you like, then it is a good color photograph.

Studying colorful visual art

Photography has a very short life span for color photography. To study colors, I recommend studying painting (which goes back thousands of years).

Study Monet, Picasso, Diego Rivera, Frida, Matisse, Raphael, and other cubist/impressionist painters. Use photoshop and use the “eyedropper” tool to determine the colors they use. Look and study the colors, and figure out what kinds or colors they used in their paintings and ask yourself: “Why did this painter put this color next to this other one?”

Stay colorful,

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