It seems to me there’s a school of thought that street photography is inherently better shot in monochrome. For that timeless, classic, gritty look, of course.
However, most of the time I see a photograph that stops me in my tracks, or makes me stop scrolling on my phone at least, it’s a colour one.
There are a few solid reasons for this. If you only shoot street photography in black and white because it’s the done thing, perhaps reading on will give you a push to try colour too.
If you don’t want to, that’s fine also. I will reiterate this though. I always find a great colour street photograph to be more striking than a great monochrome one, and I can’t be alone in that.
You can learn more about how to make better colour photographs here. But in the meantime, let’s explore why colour can be so important.
Colour makes an instant impact
There are certain elements of a photograph, such as light, shadow and texture, that are important for both colour and monochrome work.
However, none of them make as quick an impression on the eye as colour does. They do play a part in making a great photograph, but just tend to be picked up more slowly and subtly than a hit of colour.
The effect of colour is direct – a big chunk of a primary shade or a bold multicoloured composition will leap off the page or the screen far quicker than blacks, whites, and greys.
In a world saturated with images that most of us skim or scroll past without giving any real scrutiny, getting people to pause and pay attention is half the battle.
The immediate impression colour gives can help you do that.
Colour creates emotion and atmosphere
The importance of colour in your street photography isn’t just about making that instant impact though. When used effectively, colour can help to tell a story and give your work visual and psychological depth.
A bright, vivid palette can communicate happiness, optimism, and excitement to a viewer. Conversely, an image comprised of deeper, more muted hues can signal a mysterious or sombre tone.
You can think of colour as a kind of temperature scale too. Reds, oranges and yellows are warmer tones, while blues and greens are cooler.
We can also understand the former as related to ideas such as intensity, passion and danger and the latter to represent nature, tranquility or melancholy.
Every culture uses colour to communicate ideas like these – we are trained to read these signs from childhood, so they work naturally as a part of photography, speaking to the right side of the brain as well as the left.
Great art of any kind makes its audience feel something, and that’s why colour is such a powerful and important part of photography. It evokes mood and atmosphere, and provides a shortcut to our emotions.
Colour leads the eye
An important part of making any photograph is defining your subject. That doesn’t just mean choosing your subject – it means composing your shot so that your subject is the focus of the image, and a viewer recognises it as such.
Concepts such as shape, light and shadow are relevant here too, but again colour is how you can give it the most visual weight. With this in mind, you could use colour to direct the eye to the most important elements.
This would mean not drowning them in a wash of similar tones, or making them compete for attention with too many other clashing details. A simple way to do it is to isolate your subject by having them as the sole element in that colour.
Think of a person in a red coat standing in a colourful textile market. No matter how strong they are visually, they’ll become lost visually amongst the array of bright shades behind them. The eye has to work to find them.
But place that person in a snow-covered field and they will immediately be recognised as the centre of attention, producing a clear and comprehensible image. The eye will instantly pick them out.
The same principle works with a block of colour breaking up a pattern, by the way, so long as they are sufficiently different tones or shades.
The natural importance of colour in your street photography
We’re constantly surrounded by colour, but it’s often not organised in a way that would make a well-composed photograph; especially in the streets of our towns and cities.
Perhaps because we’re used to it being there, we just take it for granted, and any significance or effect it does have is merely subconscious. We’re just too busy to stop and care.
A colour photograph is still a realistic interpretation of the world vs the more abstract, surreal one a monochrome shot gives you though.
This may be why colour can be so important to your street photography, and why learning to use it will help you improve your work.
A good photograph that actually uses colour is taking what we expect to see – the colour – and presenting what was an unorganised mess in the real world as a thoughtful and visually tight piece of art.
For all the instant impact, emotion and atmosphere colour brings, maybe this is why it’s so important. Because it’s what we’re familiar with.
Monochrome street photography is great too, but it feels like an alternate view of the world. Using colour well means showing a more striking, artistically enhanced, yet still naturally relatable depiction.
If you want to learn more about how to use colour in your work, I recommend the Captivating Colour eBook from Digital Photography School.