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When I started doing street photography, deciding whether to shoot in black and white or colour was as simple as that.
Whether to shoot in black and white or to shoot in colour.
I’ve since learned that’s not enough for your photography to stand out – especially your colour photography.
For that to happen, you should be actively using colour rather than passively shooting in it.
Since picking up this eBook on colour photography, I’ve been trying to use – i.e. not just shoot in – colour in my street photography too.
Or at least thinking about it more when deciding which images to keep and which to ditch while editing.
I’m sure it’s made a difference, so to help you improve your own work, here are some reasons and theories why, if you shoot colour street photography, you should be using colour too.
Using colour in your street photography
Monochrome and colour street photography both have their own separate elements that make up good images.
For black and white, these are such things as light, shadows, silhouettes, shapes, and textures.
However, none of these make as quick a visual impact as colours do, which instantly convey mood and atmosphere and help the viewer to feel certain emotions.
Understanding how these responses function and controlling them in your compositions will make your work more potent, so being a passive observer of colour in the world when shooting means missing out on these opportunities to do so.
Making intentional choices of what colours go in your frame and using them in a purposeful manner is what will elevate your street photography.
Understanding the basics of some colour theories can help you do this.
Using visual weight in your street photography
You can use colour in your street photography to create a narrative. What is the focus, and what should the viewer’s eye be drawn to?
Pale flesh tones stand out against a darker background and can make a face the centre of attention. A single flash of bright colour in a shady scene will mark that element out as important.
These elements are ‘heavy’ in terms of visual weight – the eye registers them first.
So decide which parts of your image you want to stand out and how colour can be used to direct the viewer’s attention towards them by applying weight accordingly.
Consider too how the elements that carry visual weight are distributed throughout the frame. Don’t crowd them out or drown them in background noise.
Often, when it comes to the palette of an entire photograph, less is more.
Using balanced and contrasting colours in your street photography
Depending on how they’re used, colours can bring either balance and harmony to your street photography, or contrast and harshness.
Think of a scene from nature dominated by greens and blues. Nothing feels out of place. The similarity in the hues communicates the sense that the objects in the frame belong together.
But if you want to add drama and tension, you can juxtapose opposites.
Imagine that scene from nature again, but this time with the addition of a figure wearing red. The person will stand out visually, and the colour codes them as ‘opposite’ to their surroundings.
They’re marked out as different and apart from their environment. A narrative has been created.
We can transfer these ideas to the urban scenes of your street photography, as shown below.
The man exiting the subway blends into the feeling of the image, thanks to his grey shirt.
The other man’s umbrella, however, brings a splash of life to another otherwise gloomy street scene.
These may not be the greatest images ever taken but they do illustrate a point: that you can use colour (and its visual weight) to give both balance and contrast in your street photography.
Use colour to make your street photography stand out
There’s no shortage of people shooting street photography these days, and any cursory look at the places it gets published online will show you that monochrome is probably still king.
Here’s a personal opinion, though.
The work that impresses me the most is almost always colour. And not just work shot in colour, but work that uses colour.
As colour has the most immediate impact of any element of a photograph, I can understand why this is.
With many people removing the most eye-catching thing they could use in their work, it often blends into one nondescript monochrome feed on my screen.
And then the good colour work stands out even more.
Using colour in your street photography means learning and applying something extra that you may not have thought about, whether you shoot in colour or not.
This extra layer of complexity is not easy to master, but if you get even halfway good at it, your work will stand out.
It will stand out from the endless monochrome shots, and it’ll even stand out from the people who simply shoot in colour.
… p.s. my colour street photography improved very quickly after reading the Captivating Color eBook from Digital Photography School. You can check out my review of it here, or go get yourself a copy from here.
… p.p.s. if you found this post on using colour in your street photography useful and think others will too, why not share or pin it?