Editor’s Note: This is last of a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for earlier ones below.
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.
Black and White tugs at everyone differently, but there is work that truly tugs at the hearts of everyone. It has the power to create interest from chaos, emphasizing emotion over color noise, and tone over hue. Just look at the trends for street photography and it is not hard to see a general preference to go monochrome over color. #monochrome and #bw commonly go hand in hand with street photography posts.
Autumn in Paris would not be as well conveyed in a B&W photograph.
Just as light and darkness can become subjects on their own, colors play an important part in color images. Whenever the photographer decides to stay away from monochrome versions, the colors shouldn’t just be there randomly. In a way, they should make sense and really add something to the scene as if the photographer painted the scene himself. Otherwise, why should you include them?
“I have learned to do my thing and not try to please others. If you do your thing in photography chances are others will like it too,” said Mr. Goodden. His focus was on being true to his vision and not paying heed to the opinions of colleagues and pundits. This is a sentiment often spoken, but not often headed in photography–and just as with color imagery, it applies to black and white.
Black-and-white still remains the photographer’s favorite for street photographers, and with very good reason. Where in other genres monochrome has become a niche look, street photography is different. Why does B&W remain the favorite choice of street photographers, and are there logical reasons to go for it?Black-and-white was naturally the first choice for photographers of old due to technical restrictions. Film wasn’t able to showcase color, and it took a long time until more and more street photographers explored new opportunities for color work. Nonetheless, it seems most modern street photography photos are still in B&W.
B&W will work best if your subject already has a timeless look.
For interested photographers in the modern age looking to make their way into street photography, it is much more likely to discover the work of Vivian Maier, Robert Capa, or Bruce Gilden, who almost exclusively shot in B&W. Quite interestingly, Vivian Maier also had a collection of color images that have mostly remained unpopular.
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One often misused misconception is converting a bad colorful picture into monochrome and hoping that it turns out better. I agree that B&W makes it easier to conceal mistakes, but a bad photo stays bad and doesn’t profit from monochrome. A picture that doesn’t work in color, because it lacks the depth of story or is badly framed, won’t be better in B&W.
Each of these notable black and white street photographers has had an evolution in their style. This was driven not by popular trends or opinions, but by their own personal tastes and preferences. For each of them, finding that unique personal formula was a key to their black and white work getting noticed.
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.
Here a B&W conversion would not make any sense and the subject would lose interest.
Indeed, others agree on being careful with processing. Mr. Goodden relates his experience in fine tuning his style. “I guess as a beginner I would get a little trigger happy with the contrast slider, “ noted Mr. Goodden. His experiences have helped him to appreciate the subtle variations in tone that come with black and white photography.
“The more I shoot the more I feel that being fluid and receptive is key,” Mr. Jones explained, “Sometimes you may have an idea of what you want, but I think the most rewarding street work can be unplanned and completely off the cuff.”
Modern technology is now more than able to capture colors of the real world. If necessary, editing makes it possible to change the look of colors in any direction you can imagine. And additional complexity like white balance becomes easier to deal with thanks to digital cameras offering RAW files that give photographers more flexibility to adjust the look afterward.
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About the author: Sebastian Jacobitz is a street photographer from Berlin, Germany, capturing the everyday life in the city. The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author. To see more of his work, visit his website, The Street Photography Hub, or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram.
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Therefore, I feel that colors should match in some way. This could be that one color is very present in the image, or that different colors create either a very harmonic picture or tension. But including color just for the sake of not doing B&W doesn’t work most of the time. Color is too complicated, especially in uncontrollable situations like street photography.
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.
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.
There are also a few characteristics that make black and white advantageous in comparison to color.
In general, I’d advise you to think about which style you chose before you go out and shoot. Both variations are unique and aren’t interchangeable with a simple click in the post production. You have to observe the world very differently. With B&W, you will focus more on the light and shadows, while color requires you to have a look at every possible combination of annoying colors that could break your image.
“[I] ask myself what do I want this image to convey, what tone suits it and lastly, what looks best.” explained Lester Jones, a director, black and white street photographer, and the man behind the blog I Dig Your Sole Man. Considering that his work is embodied by fashion, editorials and street, this simply makes sense.
While beauty itself often isn’t the sole subject, the contrast of light and darkness is a frequently used subject. A lot of street photographs revolve around subjects being in the spotlight while a lot of the scene is hidden in the dark.
“I have always had a thing for contrast and I still have.” Says Mr. Waltz, who explains how it helped him better understand and appreciate the mid tones. This led him to a much more subtle way of processing, where heavy handed image editing was phased out in favor of a more incremental, tactical approach.
Mr. Waltz shares Henri Cartier Bresson’s sentiment that all things are a matter of luck. “I think my failure rate is about 95%, which means 95% of my shots are crap,” Mr. Waltz bluntly puts it as he describes learning to accept failure in order to create quality images, “Yet I need to shoot the crap to get halfway acceptable 5%.” Shooting the ‘crap’, as Mr Waltz puts it, is essential to being able to see a good black and white image when you take one. Many photographers focus on their best images, but a trick to growing is being able to see your bad images and know what is wrong with them. This will help to improve street vision, and knowing a good scene from a bad one without ever taking the shot.
Documentary photography is one of the oldest genres, and a lot of street photographers try to replicate the look of classic photographers like Robert Capa or Henri-Cartier Bresson. Even until the late 70s, most icons didn’t make the transition but continued to shoot in B&W. Exceptions such as Joel Meyerowitz or Saul Leiter were pioneers with their beautiful color work, but they also had to fight a lot of criticism.
Choosing a color theme then you are out on a photo walk can be a fun project. Here my color theme was blue!
Black and White photography has a magic all its own. It has the ability to create strong focus and stir up emotions. Each of these photographers, while displaying varying styles and preferences, all found their inspiration and growth within common veins.
When I started my journey into photography, I didn’t want to invest too much money in a camera. A consequence was that ISO noise became very apparent, especially in low light situations. In color work, this can become very distracting and lowers the overall quality of the image. For B&W, some noise can actually work very well, because it resembles the old analog look. You don’t need a Fujifilm X100F to begin with. A Ricoh GR works wonders, even in low light situations when embracing the film look.
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.
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This can be very difficult, and the composition doesn’t always come out like the street photographer had envision. Often, you observe a nice scene that really catches your interest, but you also face the problem of distracting objects in the background. Especially colorful objects can distract the viewer and sidetrack the attention.
For Mr. Ruiz, it all starts with seeing light — and that it means a lot to his personal style of art. “Light was a big factor in what made my black and white photographs evolve over time, “ describes Ruiz. “I didn’t quite know how to see the light at first but once it clicked, I studied it and shot for about a year practicing and finding my way.”
But the inspiration angle really only covered a part of the story for these photographers. Famed black and white street photographer Martin Waltz said a big reason he turned to black and white was to visually simplify his work. “Photography is the art of reduction.” Mr. Waltz said, “A painter adds things to frame. A photographer reduces elements.” Mr. Waltz believes that Black and White is a great way to reduce the visual complexity of an image. To that end, he believes that colors in urban life are often clutter and distract rather than add to an image.
Later on for me, the noise wasn’t an annoyance anymore but instead became an aesthetic choice. It is a lot easier to emulate old pushed Tri-X film than the ever popular Kodachrome. Color has to factor in a lot more variables which make it near impossible to emulate them perfectly.
In fact, many of these photographers reference a strong influence by street photography legends. Rinzi Ruiz, a champion of black and white street photography stated, “[In 2010] Street Photography came to my attention and the black and white masters of photography such as Roy de Carava, Elliot Erwitt, Ray K Metzker and Henri Cartier Bresson were some of the first photographs I was inspired by and learned a lot from.”
Nonetheless, there is a huge amount of B&W released on the Internet very day. Standing out from the masses is very difficult when you can only show distinctions of gray. It is easy to get lost in the mass of mediocre monochrome images. Therefore, you have to develop a unique picture style that is distinctive from the rest.
Often times it is more interesting for the viewer when not everything is revealed, but there is still room for imagination. This kind of image works very well in B&W. Increasing the contrast also adds to this effect. Colors often would be too distracting and take away from the mysterious atmosphere.
In this frame the subject is interesting but your eye is drawn to the colors of the street signs.
But why has black and white photography taken such a hold over the street photography genre? Is it as simple as ‘because that is what everyone else is doing?’ or is there more to it? One thing is for sure: even some of the genre’s most popular photographers stick to it!
For landscape or portrait photographers, there are icons like Sebastiao Salgado or Helmut Newton who put out impressive black and white images. But looking back, the past decades have been dominated by color work.
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The $1,300 Fujifilm X100F (left) and the $659 Ricoh GR II (right).
Street photography is one of the hardest and most fast-paced genres, leaving little to no time for the composition. While studio photographers can often take all the time they want to create their image very carefully, street photographers have to react on the street very quickly.
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.
To restore the original focus of the image, it can be helpful to display the picture in B&W. This way, the content becomes king and the look becomes less important. Since street photography often tries to show a story or the interaction of people, B&W can help to emphasize the content, by fading out distracting colors.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
It is easy enough to apply a black and white preset to a color image and think you are done. But just as with color processing, true black and white art is massaged into the perfect tones of black, grey and white.
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Either way, try sticking with a style for more than only a few images and not switching back and forth. B&W might be a classic that will never run out of fashion, but with color street photography you could set the next highlight in your unique style.
In the same vein, silhouette images work very well as monochrome versions. The picture becomes very minimalistic, but when done right can encourage the viewer’s imagination.
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Because of that, B&W is often the “easier” choice by reducing the complexity and difficulty of an image.
Despite this, it is also essential to keep an open mind, being adaptive to situations, and constantly looking for all good moments — not just the ones pre-visualized before heading out,
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!
09.02.2016 – Spotlight / black and white / Lester Jones / Martin Waltz / Member Only / Nicholas Goodden / Rinzi Ruiz
This short video about Color versus B&W is part of my Street Tips series called Hit the Streets with Valerie Jardin
This led to the development of free film presets like the Silver Efex package. So for the classic film look, monochrome has a lot more to offer and is much easier to replicate, than his colorful alternative.
Black and white still has a place in photography, because it’s hard to see the message through the tangle of this world’s bright colors. Its popularity in street photography could be attributed to that fact – that in the jumble of busy city streets focusing on the light, and removing the color, brings clarity to our modern chaos.
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By removing the color distraction it’s a much stronger image, bringing attention right to the subject.
But the following are some of the possible reasons why B&W is still popular among street shooters.
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.
In contrast, street photographers never quite made the full transition and therefore beginners are more likely to try their luck with monochrome images first, following their idols.
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.
“I think initially (years back) I was attracted by the fact I could try and emulate the work of past masters. I grew up in France and remember seeing posters with photos by Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier Bresson,” Nicholas Goodden, well-known street photographer and blogger at Urban Photography Blog, noted. “I thought their work was beautiful so automatically when I started photography I had, like many, an affinity for monochrome.” Indeed, Mr. Goodden shoots both in color and in black and white–but he really is smitten for the latter.