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.
This eBook helped me to realise this, and since reading it I’ve been trying to actually use colour in my street photography too.
I’m sure it’s made a difference already and the knowledge I’ve picked up from it will only help me with my future work also.
If you want to improve your own colour street photography, it’s important to know some theories. I’ve got two to talk you through here, along with why using colour is so important.
Read on to learn more.
The importance of 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 not maximising the 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 these next two colour theories can help you do this.
Using visual weight in your street photography
Visual weight is what makes certain elements of your photograph draw the eye first. There are various ways to achieve this, including shape, size, and placement of objects in the frame. Colour is another, and the one that we’ll concentrate on here.
Think about pale flesh tones standing out against a darker background, making a face the centre of attention. Or any other single flash of bright colour in a shady scene that marks that element out as the most important.
These elements are ‘heavy’ in terms of visual weight – the eye registers them before anything else.
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.
In the image below, the car and traffic cones stand out from the background. Their visual weight is greater thanks to them being a brighter colour.
Using balanced and contrasting colours in your street photography
Depending on how they’re used, colours can bring either balance and harmony or contrast and harshness to your street photography.
Think of a scene from nature dominated by greens and blues. Nothing feels out of place. The similarity in the hues gives 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.
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 either balance and harmony or contrast and harshness 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.
However, the work that impresses me the most is almost always colour. And again, this is not just work shot in colour, but work that uses colour.
When you consider colour has the most immediate impact of any element of a photograph, more immediate than the silhouettes, shadows and shapes of monochrome work, this makes total sense.
This means many people are removing the most eye-catching thing they could use in their photography, often making it blend into one nondescript black and white feed on my screen.
And then the good colour work stands out even more.
Learning how to use colour will not only help your work stand out from the monochrome crowd, but also from those who only shoot in colour. Visual weight and balanced or contrasting colours are two ways to do this.
I learnt about them – and quite a few more easy-to-implement theories – from the Captivating Colour eBook from Digital Photography School.
You can read my review of it here, or pick yourself up a copy here.
If you’re serious about improving your colour street photography, I highly recommend you do. 😀
… p.s. if you found this post on using colour in your street photography useful and think others will too, why not give it a share?
2 thoughts on “Two Simple Ways to Use Colour in Your Street Photography”
Hi, very a nicely written blog and very useful tips. I have found your blog via Reddit, and I am interested what’s up in Shanghai.
I have started my blog but don’t have an idea yet for the name and content. I have a post about long exposure photo lens, maybe you’ll be interested.
Thanks Gregorz. Good luck with your own blog.