Black & White still remains the photographer’s favorite for Street Photographers with very good reasons. Where in other genres, monochrome has become a niche look, Street Photography is different and for very good reasons. Why does Black & White remain as the favorite choice for Street Photographers and are there logical reasons to go for it?
Naturally Black & White was the first choice for photographers 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 with color work. Nonetheless, most of the Street Photography photos are still in Black & White. Without a question, modern technology is 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. Additional complexity like white-balance becomes easier to deal with, thanks to digital cameras where the photographer can change those settings in the RAW-Format afterward.
Following are some of the reasons why Black & White is still popular amongst Street Photographers.
Emulating the Masters
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 70’s most icons didn’t make the transition but continued to shoot in Black & White. Exceptions like Joel Meyerowitz or Saul Leiter were pioneers with their beautiful color work but also had to fight a lot of criticism.
But the better part stayed loyal to the monochrome 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 Black & White. Quite interestingly, Vivian Maier also had a collection of color images which mostly remained unpopular, with her monochrome work overshadowing the colorful variants.
For landscape or portrait photographers, there are icons like Sebastiao Salgado or Helmut Newton who put out impressive black & white images. But looking back, the past decades have been dominated by color work.
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.
Focusing on the Subject
Apart from this historical fact, there a few characteristics that make black & white advantageous in comparison to the color alternative.
Street Photography is one of the hardest and most fast paced genres, leaving little to no time for the composition. Where studio photographers can take all the time they want to create their image very carefully, Street Photographers have to react on the street very quickly.
This can be very difficult and the composition doesn’t always come out like the Street Photographer had imagined. Often, you observe a nice scene that really catches your interest, but you also face the problem of distracting objects in the background.
Especially very colorful objects can distract the viewer and sidetrack the attention. To restore the original focus of the image it can be helpful to display the picture in Black & White.
This way the content becomes the king and the look becomes less important. Since Street Photography often tries to show a story or the interaction of people, then the simple beauty like a portrait would, black & white can help to emphasize the content, by fading out distracting colors.
While beauty itself often isn’t the sole subject, the contrast of light & day 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.
Often times it is more interesting for the viewer when not everything is revealed, but there is still room for imagination. This kind of images works very well in black & white. Increasing the contrast also adds to this effect. Colors often would be too distracting and take away from the mysterious atmosphere.
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.
The Film Look
When I started my journey into photography, I didn’t want to invest too much money in a camera. In consequence, the 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 black & white, some noise can actually work very well, because it resembles the old analog look. You don’t need an X100F to begin with. A RicohGr works wonders, even in low light situations when embracing the film look.
Later on, the noise wasn’t an annoyance anymore due to the low camera quality but became an aesthetical 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 sufficiently.
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.
Colors Have To Match
Where light and darkness can become subjects on its 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?
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 black & white doesn’t work most of the time. For doing that, color is too complicated, especially in uncontrollable situations like Street Photography.
Because of that, black & white is often the “easier” choice reducing the complexity and difficulty of an image and remains the Street Photographer’s favorite choice.
Is Black & White easy?
One often misused misconception is converting a bad colorful picture into monochrome and hoping that it turns out better. I agree that Black & White 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 is badly framed won’t be better in Black & White.
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 Black & White, you will focus more on the light & shadows, while color requires you to have a look at every possible combination of annoying colors that could break your image.
Nonetheless, there is a huge amount of Black & White released on Social Media every day. Standing out from the mass 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.
Either way, stick with a style for more than only a few images and don’t switch back & forth. Black & White 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.
About the Author
Sebastian Jacobitz is a street photographer from Berlin, Germany, he runs the great Street Bounty street photography blog. You can see more of his work on his Flickr stream. This article was also published here and shared with permission