Street Photography – Black And White Versus Color

Whether you’re thinking about taking up street photography or you’re already knee-deep in SD cards full of strangers souls photographs, you’ve undoubtedly pondered whether it’s better to process in black and white or splendid color.  This article isn’t meant to sway you one way or the other, I’d like to give you a few things to think about that should, hopefully, help you make the best choice when it comes to color vs. b+w.

Professional Opinion”

I’ve never taken an “official” pool to see how many professional photographers prefer b+w to color when it comes to street photography so I’ll just make a number up…  80% of professionals would agree that b+w street photography shots look more professional (see what I did there?  It’s on the internet so now it’s true).

When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!

-Ted Grant

Some guy named Ted Grant thinks you can actually photograph people’s souls when shooting black and white, that guy!  I kid, that’s actually a really profound statement.  I believe that black and white does eliminate a lot of the distraction and you are able to capture emotion rather than commotion.  But…

Sometimes you want to capture the commotion in a photograph, and color can be the perfect way to do so.  The photograph below, albeit not the most incredible shot, looks way better in color.  The guy cracks me up with his rainbow headband with little streamers hanging down…  You can’t rob that photograph of the bright colors, it would be a crime.

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The photograph below also looks better in color because of the “punch” the orange/red headphones add to the subject, making the photograph more noticeable.  The headphones are what caught my eye, they are what makes the photograph interesting to me.

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On the other hand, photographs where you want to capture the emotion someone has or eliminate distracting colors look much better in black and white.  I would go so far to say that black and white street photography does look more professional…  with the exception of a select few where color is the subject.

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Versus

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The choice is yours and it’s largely subjective…  Some photos you’ll like in color and some will work better as black and white images.  Ultimately, it comes down to personal taste.  There is no right or wrong answer… Unless you choose color.  Just kidding!

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Versus

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Why Choose Black and White?

There is a strong argument for the black and white medium when shooting street photography.  Black and white images have a timeless look to them, they are instant classics.  B+W is simple, you can spend less time adjusting your white balance or manipulating your color sliders and more time on the image itself.  Black and white images tend to look more dramatic due to the contrast.

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Finally, b+w images really do eliminate distraction by cancelling out colorful objects that would otherwise compete with the viewer’s attention (for example, look at the images directly above this paragraph…  Notice the cup and bottle?  In the black and white version they are much less noticeable).

The Argument For Color

One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.

– Paul Outerbridge

Be different.  Color photography in street photography isn’t as prevalent as it is in Landscape photography or even portraiture.  Shooting in color, when done exceptionally well, will make your photography stand out against the rest (and there are lots!).

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Create emphasis.  The photograph above would be more subdued had I used black and white processing.  The use of color draws viewers attention right where I want it, the headphones (well color and the rule of thirds).  You can also grab a viewer’s attention by using bright colors that virtually jump off the image and slap them right in their eye balls.

And influence.  There is no doubt about it, colors can modify moods.  Companies pay millions of dollars every year to marketing departments who study how you react to certain colors and how to implement them into their products to help influence you to buy their products.  You too can use colors in your imagery to influence your viewers reaction to your photographs.  Blue?  Calming and cool.  Red?  Anger or lust, bold.

Note:  Using colors to influence people’s moods can backfire, not everyone feels the same emotion when they see the same color.  You could associate the color pink with severe anxiety if your 7th grade English teacher always wore pink sweaters and gave you impossible tests which you failed, dropped out of high school, moved in with a guy twice your age in a one room apartment where you ate Hot Pockets and Cheez-It’s until you gained 200 pounds and got diabetes…  Just saying…

I’d suggest not limiting yourself to solely b+w or color but instead, learn to discern which photographs would look better in color and which would make better black and white images.  Sure, you could put your foot down and say “I only shoot in b+w” (said arrogantly with bottom lip out and British accent) but why limit yourself?  Learn how and when to use each medium and your photography will improve.

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3 Comments

  • By far the most intelligent article I’ve read on the subject. Helpful insightful balanced. Really nice writing style too. I love those moments when the internal struggle takes off b/w or color. Can be hard sometimes Other times the decision makes itself in the viewfinder Great thank you

    • Awesome, thank you for your feedback. I’m glad you enjoy my writing style, I can’t promise it’s always grammatically perfect but I try. I agree, sometimes you can tell the second you frame something and others it helps to see it both ways. Take care!

  • Nice article. Balance point of view. I think it is the best writing about the title. Greetings from Indonesia.

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