Color vs Black and White Photography

 

When I first started shooting street photography I thought my images needed to be in black and white. I discovered street photography through Vivian Maier which a lot of her iconic images are in black and white and whenever I would google search the term “street photography” most of the time black and white images would appear (HCB, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, etc). Now that was in 2010. Street photography within the last decade or so has really been revolutionized, a big part of that is social media, it’s easier to share your work with the world. You don’t need to have photos exhibited at a physical location, plus having it online reaches more people (I still love the exhibit or festival component, more prestigious and it’s nice to see quality printed work displayed). Cameras are now accessible, you can get a pretty cheap point and shoot for $500 or so, or you can use your smartphone (Samsung S8 quality is awesome).

Going off topic, anyways, yeah so there’s black and white or color approach to making your photos. Now there’s no rules in photography but my own bias opinion is to stick with one or the other, try both and see which flavor resonates with you more, but ultimately try to stick with one for a particular project you are working on or body of work. I don’t think turning a photo black and white for the sake of the photo being black and white is a much of an argument. I rarely post process a photo to black and white unless I think it helps elevate the photo. Whether it adds to the story, elevates the image and the narrative then I will convert the photo to black and white (keep reading I’ll show an example soon).

I think if you want to challenge yourself, ask yourself “Why am I turning this photo black and white” or “why am I keeping this photo in color”. It’s not to put any barriers in your photography but more of a self reflection or to better understand your own photos or maybe to just better understand yourself. Why do you like color more than black and white or vice versa.

I think both color and black an white has it’s advantages. My opinion on black and white photos is that it has more soul, one less element (no-color) so there’s potentially less distraction and with that you can draw your viewer in closer to what you want them to focus on. If you’re starting off in street photography and your don’t have a lot of direction, I would suggest shooting in black and white or post processing in black and white. This way you have one less element to focus on or distract you from. Black and white photos tend to have more soul or nostalgic feel to it. Takes us back to a place and time. You are not worried about color combinations (Blue-Yellow, Red-Green, Red Yellow, etc), rather you are more concern about capturing raw emotion at a fraction of a section (facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, sad, happy, mad faces.

Black & White

I would say to make a very good black and white photo is hard, it’s its own art form. But to make a decent black and white photo is easy, the lighting, shadows, or primary subject can be “Okay” or nothing really has to align together and it may still work. The best black and white photographers “IMO” (Daido Maroyama, HCB, Bruce Gilden, Tatsyo Suzuki, Chris Suspect, Argus Paul-Estabrook) they either have a clean image all around the edges, it’s simple, or a lot of soul and emotion in there images, or all three.

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For instance, my photo above “Hair Extension” was shot in color and converted to black and white. I photographed this woman because of her unique Afro, (crazy hair catches my eye). There were no intentions or preconceived awareness of subtly aligning her hair with the tree in the background. It wasn’t until I uploaded the photo onto my computer then realized that it created a humorous moment for me. I recognized it in color but with the bushes of the tree being green I wouldn’t think the story in the image would fully portray itself. So in that instance, turning it to black and white in my opinion helped sor of elevate the narrative I wanted to get across.

Color

When I first learned about William Eggleston and his color work, it opened a new can of worms for me. It opened up my eyes that street photography doesn’t have to be in black and white, and doesn’t always need to be of people. Eggleston reinvented the wheel and reminded us that there are no rules in photography, just your own self-limitations. Then I discovered Martin Parr, Alex Webb, Jack Simon, Jesse Marlow, Harry Gruyaert, Constantine Manos, etc). There’s also photos I come across and think to myself “that would have been more effective in black and white” or “I wonder how this photo would look in color”.

For me I’ve found color to be more challenging (I like a challenge) and most importantly more fun to shoot. You got to consider all aspect of the environment you’re shooting in. The light, shadows, color, patterns, complimentary color patterns and how these elements effect your overall frame. There’s a sense of more excitement with color and you can play around with depth a lot more (check out Alex Webb’s work or Harry Gruyaert). You can use color to evoke a different expression or feeling, color takes into account of not just people but again…the environment. The little details in a color photo can help elevate the image too.

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My photo above is obviously vibrant with slight subject to the left with contrasting blue. It’s simple, no faces, there’s not a lot or if any “SOUL” but there is a mystery to it. And with mystery that alone can make us feel a certain way. In this case, had I converted this photo into black and white, it just wouldn’t work in my opinion. The vibrant and strong color of red is the obvious attention grabber but the blue hand and umbrella on the left is not only the perfect color to counteract the red, there’s perfect portion of blue in the frame. The colors is what makes this photo, it adds to the narrative in my opinion. There’s also not a lot of other distracting colors competing with the red and blue. It just so happens to be a red wall, a person walking by with a red umbrella, and a slight arm with a blue sleeve and blue umbrella. You can call it lucky or letting experience and instincts kick in…or all three to get the shot.

Conclusion

I notice color helps with humorous or more playful situation whereas black and white is more serious situations….and yes color can trigger an emotional sensory and can definitely enhance a mood if the main subject is the prominent hue in my opinion…color can also be distracting and take away focus if the colors aren’t prominent enough.

Experimenting with black and white, forms and shapes seem to work more effective that I’ve seen and create a timeless photo…playing with shapes and form with color is achievable but a lot hard to come by from my experience.

I don’t think one is better than the other, it’s just a different aesthetic. Personally, I currently enjoy shooting and post processing in color. I like the challenge and the extra element of color. One of my fall backs when I’m out on the street and not really coming across anything is being able to recognize vibrant colors which catches my attention immediately. Shoot what resonates with you and what you like. Who cares if color is popular thing to shoot or if black and white is more hip, just do what you appreciate and defend your work and purpose.