If you’ve ever wondered why so much street photography is shot (or edited) to have a high contrast monochrome look, this guest post could be for you.
It features an insightful theory from Dmitri Tcherbadji; a very keen film shooter who I’ve known for a few years now.
When Dmitri submitted his piece, he was a little concerned he might be saying something everyone was already aware of.
However, I know that’s not the case, as it’s something I had never even considered myself.
Maybe you have, but there’ll be plenty of people (aside from me) who can learn a little something here so I’ll shut up, let Dmitri have the floor, and come back with some thoughts afterwards.
The street photography look
“One of the questions I had back when I was starting with photography was what’s with the crazy contrast in street photos?
Due to lack of education on this topic at the time, I attributed it as a genre gimmick.
It was 2009; the inception of HDR and high-contrast, high-saturation images. Crazy was normal back then.
However, even today street photos remain predominantly black-and-white and high in contrast.
If I had studied the history of photography, I would have known why sooner.
But instead, the answer came to me suddenly and recently.
I’ve been shooting film for a while but I’d never push-processed it until recently. I never had the need to.
The technique became necessary when I decided to take some photos of a local band at a dimly-lit venue.
Push-processing is a method of keeping the film in the developer for longer-than-usual periods of time. This effectively gives the film a higher ISO rating, allowing me to shoot at faster speeds.
However, doing so comes at the price of a higher contrast in the resulting image.
The images here were taken with my Canon QL25 (you can find one for yourself from eBay), and are real world examples of this; they were shot on Ilford Pan 400 (also available on eBay here) pushed to ISO 1600.
Incidentally, pull-processing is the opposite of the above. It yields a lower contrast in the images and is used as a way to tame over-exposed images.
How push-processing helped develop the street photography look
Street photography is always quick. You don’t get to spend a minute getting a perfect focus on your subject (even with autofocus).
That’s why shooters often choose to take images with small apertures (high f-values) which give a much deeper depth of field.
However, this more forgiving focus setting lets less light into the camera and thus requires a more sensitive (higher ISO) film.
This cannot be solved with a slower shutter speed because of the nature of street photography: lots of quick motion with a high potential to become one big smear.
In many circumstances, the film has to be so sensitive that a rating typically required to comfortably shoot street – around ISO 1600 to 3200 – isn’t commonly available.
So we push the film. We push-process it and it ends up with a lot more contrast.
Of course, a street photograph does not have to be shot this way; especially now with digital cameras that can shoot at ISO 3200 no problem with little noise and no contrast artefacts.
But for decades before that, push-processing was common.
As we know, this gave the photographs more contrast.
This led to high-contrast monochrome becoming a ‘street photography look’, and remaining so even to this day.”
I love this butterfly effect kind of stuff.
Thinking about timelines and how something in the past led to where we are today is fascinating.
Of course it’s a lot easier to join dots up when looking back, and sometimes dots get joined that perhaps shouldn’t be, but it’s still an interesting thought exercise.
This example talks of how the malicious killing of a dog in the 1940s led to many of the world’s problems today.
Dmitri’s point is far less complex and with far less serious consequences, but I like it.
I like the idea that a manual workaround developed for a technical analogue issue decades ago continues to affect the look of a lot of #streetphotography being uploaded to something like Instagram today.
I don’t know why I like that idea in particular. I just do.
And I thank Dmitri for sharing it with us here.
If you have any film photography work that you’d like to share, you might want to check out Dmitri’s site Analog Cafe. A place where film photographers can tell their stories, it’s open for submissions from people just like you.
Alternatively, you can tag your Instagram posts with @analog_cafe to have them reposted there. 😀
Want to get your work on My Favourite Lens too?
Go here and see how you can. 🙂