Color or Black and White for Street Photography?

0Comments

Note: This week is Black and White Photography Week on dPS and to celebrate we’re offering 50% off our Ultimate Guide to Black and White Photography eBook when you use the coupon code BW50 during check out.

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.

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.

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 immediately drawn to the red and blue street signs.

In this frame the subject is interesting but your eye is drawn to the colors of the street signs.

By removing the color distraction you have a much stronger image by bringing the attention right to your subject.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Choosing a color theme then you are out on a photo walk can be a fun project. Here my color theme was blue!

Conclusion:

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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram. And listen to my Podcast!

  • These are such gorgeous examples!

    While scrolling through I was thinking, “Black and white, definitely black and white”. But I got to the colour section, and oh man – the colour adds so much to these images.

    No I just want to go out into Cape Town’s streets and take photos of EVERYTHING!

    Thanks! Sarah

  • I have to say that this is a great thing you’re doing. It’s very helpful and Informative.

  • molly_porter

    I disagree with the example in which black and white is deemed superior. The color version is much better – more textured and visually exciting.

  • Valerie Jardin

    Thank you for you input Molly, much appreciated! Photography is all about story telling, I wanted to convey sense of mystery, I pre-visualized the shot in B&W because of the strong contrast. Thus, for my story, the color didn’t bring anything but only distracted from my subject. It is of course very subjective, I was there and it conveys an emotion. Had I posted the B&W version only, you would have probably had a different perspective. Interesting experiment though! Thanks again 🙂

  • Valerie Jardin

    Thank you Sarah, now get out there and shoot! 🙂

  • Valerie Jardin

    Glad it inspired you Taposy!

  • Tim Lowe

    There are many fine street photographers working in color today. It’s a different vibe. For me, it’s may trusty Hasselblad 500 c/m and a couple of rolls of Ilford FP4+ every time.

  • Andrew Kliss

    Wonderful read, Valerie! I tend to view street photography as a predominantly B&W exercise and forget to look for potential shots highlighting color, or colors in the scene. Now I get to go out with a fresh set of eyes!

  • Joe Schmitt

    Excellent article! You gave me a lot to think about.
    Thank you!

  • Chris clayton

    awesome article. Think i may have to try making some of my photos black and white

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed