Color or Black and White for Street Photography?
First, let’s assume that you are shooting with a digital camera and the choice of color or monochrome treatment can be made at the post-processing level. The decision of choosing color or black and white if you are shooting film is a different story, and requires a different frame of mind, as it is usually made before you leave the house.
So, the questions is this: Is street photography better in color or black and white? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, it is definitely a personal preference. Some photographers only shoot in color, others prefer black and white for all their work. For my part, I let the subject dictate the choice and that decision is usually made before I press the shutter.
Here is some of the reasoning behind that decision…
Why black and white may be a better choice:
B&W will work best if your subject already has a timeless look.
You may like to use black and white for its timeless quality. If your subject also has a timeless look, a black and white processing will make your image stand the test of time, and often give it a more artistic look. This is even more true when no element in your frame dates your photograph (such as mobile phones, cars, etc.). Other times, the black and white processing will even help hide those elements.
Silhouette photographs are often stronger in black and white than in color. The human element featured should be well-defined, and there needs to be some separation to identify the shape of the body. Removing the color will help make your subject stand out more, especially if it is small in the frame. The eye will automatically be drawn to the human shape.
B&W often works best when photographing silhouettes.
There are also some strategic reasons to favor black and white over color. As street photographers we usually do not remove elements from the frame in post-processing. Our job is to record an authentic moment in time, that never happened before, and will never happen again. A skillful street photographer makes quick decisions, and is able to remove distracting elements from the frame by moving in closer and positioning him/herself correctly, before pressing the shutter. Most of us would not resort to using post-processing tools to remove objects. There are times when bright colorful elements such as stop signs, trash cans, or cars are inevitable, and will draw the attention away from the subject. By removing the color, you are able to bring the attention back to the human element.
Compare these two images:
In this frame the subject is interesting but your eye is drawn to the colors of the street signs.
By removing the color distraction it’s a much stronger image, bringing attention right to the subject.
By shooting in RAW you retain all the color information in your file, which allows you to play with the color sliders in Lightroom and turn a distracting color into a light or dark grey tone to fine-tune your final image.
There are other times when the color is amazing but also overpowering, and risks becoming the subject because the human element is lost in the chaos.
Why color may work better:
When is color preferred? The color can be an integral part of the story, which also means that a black and white conversation would take away the most important component of the image, and it would not make any sense.
Here a B&W conversion would not make any sense and the subject would lose interest.
Finding a great background, such as a textured wall or a colorful storefront, is a great way to anticipate a shot, by waiting for the right subject to enter your frame. It may be even more important to get the right subject in a color shot than in a black and white picture. Color harmony plays an important role in making, or breaking the image. Most importantly, color should not overpower your subject. It should be part of the story, not a distraction from it.
Finding a textured colorful background and waiting for the right subject to enter your frame makes for a strong color street photograph. The green tires and blue shoes completed the shot.
Color will also often give a sense of place or time in street photography. It will evoke the feeling of a season, for example, or the time of the day – from the warm glow of the golden hour, to the cool tones of the blue hour.
Autumn in Paris would not be as well conveyed in a B&W photograph.
Going out on a photo walk with a specific color in mind is also a fun way to approach street photography. You will be surprised at the creative ways you will see the world around you by focusing your vision on one color. Try it!
Choosing a color theme then you are out on a photo walk can be a fun project. Here my color theme was blue!
Don’t forget that it’s your vision, and you are shooting street photography for yourself first. Don’t get stuck, try new things! If you always shoot in color, go out and train yourself to see in grayscale for a few days. If you favor black and white, take another look at the world around you and learn to appreciate and use the colors it has to offer. You may discover a whole new way to see, and you will undoubtedly grow in the process. Have fun!
This short video about Color versus B&W is part of my Street Tips series called Hit the Streets with Valerie Jardin
Editor’s Note: This is last of a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for earlier ones below.
- 5 Simple Ways to Create Expressive Photos in Black and White
- Tips for Black and White Wildlife Photography
- 7 Tips for Black and White Portrait Photography
- 28 Images with Strong Black and White Compositions
- Weekly Photography Challenge – Black and White Techniques
- Tips for Black and White Wildlife Photography
- How to Convert Images to Black and White and Add a Color Tint in Photoshop
- Shooting all Black and White for a Day to Improve Your Photographic Eye
- Split Toning Black and White Images in Lightroom
- Processing Black and White Photos with OnOne Perfect B&W