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Street photography: Color or black and white?

When processing street photography images, a major consideration is choosing between color or black and white. Many of the greats (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, etc.) used black and white film, thus the “look” we are used to for the genre is often monochrome. However, rather than default to the usual, I prefer to ask myself about the story playing out in the photo: does color add or take away from the story?

What is street photography?

According to Brittanica:

Street photography records everyday life in a public place. The public setting enables the photographer to take candid pictures of strangers, often without their knowledge, and capture moments which might otherwise go unnoticed.


Telling a story with color (or the lack thereof)

Choosing to process a street photo in color or black and white has everything to do with the story you, as the photographer, are trying to convey. Let’s take a look at two examples and see how color, or the lack thereof, affects the story.

Example 1

This photo was captured in a busy farmers market. The story shows the interaction between two people as food was handed from a vendor to a customer.

In color, the scene is chaotic and the story is a bit harder to discern.

Giving Hands - Color or Black and White

In black and white, the chaos of the background disappears, the hands become the focal point, and the story becomes clear.

Giving Hands - Color or Black and White

Winner: Black and White

Example 2

This photo was captured in a tiny California beach town on a warm summer day. The story depicts a young woman grabbing a snack before heading to the beach, framed by bright, contrasting colors.

In color, this scene is vibrant and visually appealing with the subject framed in yellow while sitting at the blue table that almost perfectly matches the blue section of the wall.

Snack Time - Color or Black and White

In black and white, the photo is dull and loses its lively warmth and sense of place.

Snack Time - Color or Black and White

Winner: Color

Color or black and white?

Ultimately, the choice is yours and will depend on the image, and the story you want to tell. I encourage you to create different versions of an image, compare the way each makes you feel, and choose the one that resonates with you.

Another great way to test whether a photo is best in color or black and white is to share both versions online with friends or in a trusted community (where there are minimal trolls) to get some feedback from other photographers and art lovers. You might not agree with their assessment, but constructive feedback is always helpful.

In the end, choose the version YOU like best.

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Rafael Jones

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