For the longest time I was convinced that street photography looked better in black and white. It makes sense; Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Gilden and all the other masters all shot in black and white, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. During the course of this winter I was definitely feeling bored with my photography. I thought it might be the lack of good shooting weather and the general blah of the winter months but then I started thinking more about my self-imposed monochromatic style. I wondered if it was truly a choice or whether it was a crutch I was leaning on that was keeping me from growing as a photographer. Well a while ago, completely by accident, I re-discovered color which prompted me to go back and take another look at some of my favourite black and white images.
Sometime this February, completely by accident while editing some shots old shots for publication, I stumbled across a way to enjoy color in my street photography. I happen to be fooling around with different white balance settings and tone controls in Adobe Camera Raw and found that with subtle alterations of the overall color cast I could bring back some of the mood I lost when converting to black and white. Straight out of camera, I never felt the colors truly represented the feel of the city when the shot was taken, something was missing and I think it was the cameras attempt to guess at a neutral white balance that stripped out the gloom of a cloudy day or the warm tones of a sunrise or sunset. As well, every environment evokes an emotional response that can be conveyed by color, regardless of whether those colors actually exist in the scene. Through the use of some subtle color toning I’ve been trying to narrow down the colors and shades that make me think of Ottawa, what colors the city feels like. Inducing slight color shifts to the entire image I’ve found also helps tie together all the discordant colors you find on the street, creating a base they can all relate to.
Shooting in black and white definitely makes many things easier; three main elements of any picture are composition, color and texture, removing color simplifies things a great deal. With street photography especially, very little is under your control; an otherwise interesting subject wearing colors that don’t fit in the overall image can ruin a shot. Removing color however means that you have to really much more heavily on texture to create a visually interesting image. Shooting with an eye on color has definitely been more challenging, but it’s given me a new tool to rescue images that I found boring in black and white.
After a few month of experimentation, I’m definitely sold on color as a completely viable option for street photography. I’m not going to be abandoning my black and white roots completely; if this experiment with re-creating some of my old black and white shots has taught me anything, it’s that not every image works in color just as not every image does as well without it. What this experiment has done is given me a new tool to express feeling and mood in an image and helped bring me out of a rut I didn’t even know I was in. Next time you’re bored or feel uninspired, try taking a look at your image library and seeing if there’s techniques or styles you always use and try doing the exact opposite. You might find you’ve been needlessly limiting your own potential and creativity. You can see the rest of the colorized versions of my previously popular shots on Flickr.