New Tricks for an Old Dog: Is Your Style a Choice or a Crutch?

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 itís good enough for them, itís 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 Iíve 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 Iíve 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 donít 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 itís given me a new tool to rescue images that I found boring in black and white.

After a few month of experimentation, Iím definitely sold on color as a completely viable option for street photography. Iím 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, itís 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 didnít even know I was in. Next time youíre bored or feel uninspired, try taking a look at your image library and seeing if thereís techniques or styles you always use and try doing the exact opposite. You might find youíve been needlessly limiting your own potential and creativity. You can see the rest of the colorized versions of my previously popular shots on Flickr.

  • m r

    I thought the bw were great but colour suits your shots. The warmer tints keeps some of the bw charm, not pastichey, but the subjects are more contemporary. That lovely lens must help too. I guess that the camera processor has its own character and if it strips away too much then we should just add a little back.

  • Jesse Hildebrand

    It’s not so much that the camera strips away the color as that the white balance processor does almost too good a job neutralizing any warmth or coolness of the natural light

  • Amelia Bellamy-Royds

    I’ve been going through your album of colour versus black and white images, trying to quantify the differences in the impressions they create.

    To start out with, I should say that I personally generally go with colour for street and crowd scenes and any other “busy” shots (e.g., as opposed to portraits with simple background). The colour adds an extra dimension that helps the viewer process the image and understand what they are seeing at first glance. Certainly, in some of your images your main subject has brightly coloured clothes that help them stand out in the colour image — but of course that could also work the other way, if someone in the background is the one wearing colourful clothes.

    However, more generally, my conclusion wasn’t that one version of the photo was better than the other, but rather that they evoked different feelings, and that my eye was attracted to different aspects. Analyzing it, I think a lot can be linked to the basic anatomy of the eye, particularly as it relates to differential abilities in detecting colour (cone cells) versus greyscale (rod scales). Although many sources will say that rod cells (which don’t detect colour differences) are only used in low-light, and only create a low-resolution image, that is an over-simplification. Rods are still the most dominant light-sensor in most of the eye (and so are essential for peripheral vision) and are specialized at detecting motion and linear patterns.

    How does that relate to your photos. Well, when I look at the greyscale streetscapes, the linear perspective aspects of the streets and buildings really jump out at me in a way they don’t on the colour images. The eye skips around the black and white images, following the lines, creating sense of motion and restlessness (which is entirely appropriate for the Rideau Street context, and may be why you liked the effect so much in the first place). With the colour images, instead, I find my eye drawn most to sunlit areas or warm glowing skies, and from there to adjacent figures, where I tend to focus more closely on the nuances of facial expression.

    Take for example, the picture of the couple who have been shopping at Chapters. In black and white, my eye usually comes to rest on the man’s face, while in colour I tend to end up looking the woman. At first I though it was the intense look on his face from the high contrast of his dark hair, eyes and eyebrows against light skin, but his face also happens to be at the confluence of a number of lines in the image. She, on the other hand, is the centre of the lightburst from the sky behind (although to be fair, her glowing white smile is also higher-contrast when her face is in colour instead of grey).

    Similar effect with the photo of the three women (bottom of this page): in black and white, I focus on the woman on the right, whose eyes just happen to line up with the line of the pedestrian overpass. In colour, I focus on her friend on the left, whose face happens to be more sun-lit.

    For the gentleman eating his McD’s burger, the effect is different. The main subject is the same, but he doesn’t seem so desolate in colour. Is it because the yellowish glow makes the rainy day seem less miserable, or is it because my eye is less likely to be pulled past him along the lines in the sidewalk to the other people walking by?

    Anyway, that is one person’s perspective and it’s entirely possible that I am over-analysing things. But when you are picking out pictures to display (or to include in this book you are working on), it might be worth showing the different versions to different people and asking them what their impressions are, and what they think are the main subjects. I would certainly be interested to know if people who are shown the black-and-white versions tend to give different answers than people shown the colour images.

    By the way, as far as the particular expression of colour photos, I do like the colour-balance adjustments you have made. As you say, the automatic white balance can over-correct for the moody differences between grey and sunny days. I suppose to go back to an anatomical perspective, when you’re indoors or somewhere with a very uniform lighting, your eye adjusts to that and so you want your camera to, as well. If not you end up with indoor photos that we perceive as very unnaturally coloured. However, outdoors there is a different colouration of light in each direction you face, so as the eye switches from looking at shadow to sun we are more aware of the colour differences of each, and cancelling them out with auto white balance removes some of the feel of actually being in that scene.