Color vs. Black and White in Street Photography

Overdose | Berlin 2015

Color is it | Overdose | Berlin 2015

Life is in color (mostly), seeing is in color, actual cameras and smartphones capture fantastic colors. Why the hack do a huge amount of street photographers turn their photographs from color to black and white?

History

Early photography was black and white due to the process of capturing and developing. Even if several inventors in the middle of the 19th century found methods to capture color in photographs, the monochrome pictures dominated far into the 20th century. Color has been used in commercial and fashion photography since the 1930s, in photojournalism since 1945 and has been accepted in art photography since the 1970s.
The first street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Alfred Eisenstaedt used black and white film at the same time, successors like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand too. Saul Leiter, Joel Meyerowitz or Fred Herzog introduced color in street photography to a wider audience and established it as an equal approach. But this genre seems still to be connected to the monochromatic look.

Distracting attention or breathing life

There is a good reason for black and white in street photography. While being focused on a “decisive moment” the essential elements of a picture have to come together in a single moment. Black and white is all about light and shadow, shape and composition. You can say this is photography reduced to the essential. Color could often disturb or distract such a moment. On the other hand: Color can emphasize the composition, give it a certain mood, breathe life into the picture.

This example works in color and black and white
It’s all about the composition
In this picture the color is distracting
Color in the left picture is distracting the attention, the bw in the right is emphasizing the story
Color is breathing life into the chaos
Left – seeing elements, right – no chance to manage the chaos

I am torn between the two worlds. That’s why I’m shooting always in raw mode to have all options. If a color isn’t the main subject or doesn’t add something to the story, I convert the picture into black and white (what I do mostly). Otherwise the color would distract attention from the essential. And to be honest, black and white in street photography pretends a more artistic look or in other words: It is even harder to take an artistic photograph in color. I am still working on it.

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