Is Black and White or Color Better for Street Photography?

Sounds like a basic question: but what’s better for photography or street photography: black and white or color?

To start off, I think both are good for street photography and photography in general.

The more important question to ask yourself is this:

Which aesthetic do I prefer? And for which project?

I think that within a single photography project, it’s a good idea to stay aesthetically consistent within a project. For example for my Hanoi street photography project, I experimented with both color and black and white in the beginning, but then I decided while living and shooting in Hanoi for about a year that I preferred black and white. I shot it all in RAW in RICOH GR II then processed with ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 preset.

So as a takeaway recognize that when you’re shooting a photography project, essay, or just documenting your life; you’re not going to know whether you prefer black and white or color until you start shooting!


Second point: recognize as a photographer, yes you are allowed to bounce between both aesthetics. For some different projects shoot in color. For other projects shoot black and white. There’s no ultimate right or wrong in the philosophy of aesthetics; it’s your choice, according to your own taste!


A practical tip I have is this:

Shoot either color or black and white according to your mood.

What this means is this:

Generally for black and white, the feeling is one of nostalgia, the past, and timelessness.

Generally for color, the feeling is optimism, hope, the future, and “modernness” and a contemporary feeling.

Of course this is just a generalization. But aesthetics do affect your mood.

You can also shoot color film, like Kodak Portra 400 to evoke a more timeless mood.

Similarly, you can shoot black and white in a way which looks very contemporary.

There’s still a lot of unpaved roads in photography and street photography. The genre of street photography only started really in the 1920s with Henri Cartier-Bresson (1920-2018 is only around 100 years). I imagine street photography will be around for at least 2,000+ years (as long as humans have public places). So don’t let cliches of the past hold you back!


For monochrome I really like the work of my friend Josh White. For color, I like my friend Chú Việt Ha.

For the old school photographers, for monochrome I really like Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Weegee, Josef Koudelka, and Richard Avedon. See all Masters >

Classic color photographers include Alex Webb, Martin Parr, Fred Herzog, and Saul Leiter. See all Color Masters >


What does ERIC KIM prefer for street photography?

Simply put, I prefer black and white street photography on digital with RICOH GR II and often with flash. I feel I’ve created an aesthetic I love with the ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 preset with digital.

I still prefer black and white film (Kodak Trix400 pushed to 1600) over digital, but to be frank; my digital monochrome photos look 90% good enough to me, which is more than sufficient.

Also in reviewing my portfolio, I am very happy and pleased with all my monochrome street photography work. I feel I’ve paved enough new roads for myself in black and white street photography, so now I’m more interested in trying to master color street photography for myself as a fun challenge.


Color street photography

For myself I see a lot of new excitement in color street photography: both for digital and film color street photography (or even color street photography with phones, shot and processed with VSCO or computational photography), or even in digital medium format color street photography:


Tips

General tips:

  1. Figure out whether you prefer color or black and white for street photography. If you don’t know which you prefer yet; keep experimenting and playing with both until you discover which you prefer.
  2. Don’t get married to one aesthetic for your entire life. Allow yourself to experiment with both formats. After all, you will live a long time as a photographer; never stop experimenting in your photography.
  3. Experiment shooting film; it’s a good learning tool in terms of studying the aesthetics of photography. Also shooting black and white street photography in film will force you to actually see the world in black and white! (learn more in FILM NOTES).
  4. Never settle: Keep discovering new processes to improve the look and aesthetics of your photos!

And ultimately don’t over think street photography too much.

Our final STREETTOGS motto:

JUST SHOOT IT!

ERIC

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Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

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