Street Photography, Black & White or Colour

I chose the main route through Ironbridge for this exercise as it’s easy to access and theres always people around.  I didn’t really have a theme in mind although looking back at the photos, I must have been in a death and decay kind of mood although it wasn’t intentional!  Well, most of the photos I took are like that but others are ironic so maybe I was in a funny kind of dark mood.  Not that that is the purpose of this exercise which is actually based on the arguments for and against the use of colour in street photography.

As street photography started out exclusively in black and white, it is largely seen as the standard for this genre of photography.  I discussed in a previous post about how Martin Parr was one of the forerunners in the use of colour in street photography and how it worked to his advantage, especially at the time his work became known.

What I need to work out is the differences between colour and black and white in street photography and which I prefer.

Going back to my ‘funny dark’ set of images, which I shot in colour, I also made black and white versions and compared the two.

Where colour triumphs over black and white!

Out of the 30 photographs I took, this is the selection I chose where the colour version is better than the black and white version.  Most of these photos contain a red element that is detrimental to the story I could see in photograph.  In the first photograph the red post box seems to be overshadowed by a huge sale board and it appears (or I made it look that way) that this small post box is for sale using the largest sign possible.  The contrasting colours of red and yellow really jump out in the colour version but in the black and white version the post box is lost against the brick wall.

Again in the ‘superfast broadband is here’ photograph the colour version makes the superfast broadband sign and the no entry sign stand out.  I found the combination quite ironic but one is saying ‘I’m here’, ‘come in’, ‘welcome’ and the other is saying ‘don’t come in’, you’re not welcome’.  This doesn’t translate very well in the black and white version.

From the above selection I think what becomes apparent is that colour separates details and makes certain elements stand out more. The flowers on the bridge are barely noticeable in black and white however in the colour version your eye is drawn to them.

Neither here or there?

The next selection of photographs seem to be impartial to any colour differences.

This set of photographs don’t seem to make any difference being in colour or black and white.

Where black and white triumphs over colour in street photography.

There are two distinct advantages to black and white in this set of images.  The first being, when a photograph consists of similar colours i.e mainly browns, then the black and white equivalent will bring out the varying tones and make details stand out more.  The photograph of the foot demonstrates this perfectly.  Ok, you can see the foot in the colour version but the black and white version highlights it as the main focus.  Secondly black and white versions removes any distracting colours.  The photograph of the shop front, with it being valentines day, distracts away from the main purpose of the photograph, again irony; it’s a second hand shop raising money for charity using items people no longer want or need and outside (from a different company) is a bin with the slogan ‘waste matters’ as of in collusion.  This is what I wanted to translate into a photograph although the window display distracts from that message.

Another advantage of black and white photography is the mood setting appeal which is where the surrealist movement started in street photography.  The photograph of the spiritual event sets the scene better in black and white.  I was going for irony here as the van, I thought at the time, read SShhh…….

Theres also the timeless quality in black and white photographs where colour photos can be dated via the tones of the time.

I’m afraid the last photograph is very cheeky!

To conclude, I have to say, I’m quite surprised by my findings.  Not by the differences i found but how they can be classified.  I will know in future that similar colours are going to look sedate and would be far better photographed in black and white to show up their tones more.  In contrast if the main point of the subject is accentuated by it’s colour then colour is the better choice. There are exceptions to the rule as in most cases but these are good guidelines to stick to.

Which do I prefer?

I’m a life long fan of black and white photography.  I grew up looking at my mum and dad’s photographs from their wedding and honeymoon followed by by eldest sibling.  They were shot and developed in 1963 when Kodak introduced their first instamatic camera making colour photographs more popular and attainable than black and white.  Despite this (my parents wouldn’t have invested) all their photographs are in black and white and I absolutely adored them.

There weren’t any more photographs in my family, other than school ones, until I had my first camera, a polaroid instax camera when I was 10 years old.  I believe my mum threw it out without my knowledge because thats what she did, although I would love to still have it in my possession now as it was possibly the best present they ever bought me.  I couldn’t use it very often though, the film cartridges were too expensive.

So what I mainly knew up until around 1983 is black and white photos and they shall remain my ultimate favourite.  However, in the case of street photography, I really think it depends on what you’re shooting and ironically its the colour that is going to determine that decision.  Looking at my sets and counting the photographs in each section there are more in the black and white section so if this is going to get the most consistent results then it would have to be black and white for me but ultimately it depends on the subject.



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