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 and let Dmitri have the floor.
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 and are real world examples of this; they were shot on Ilford Pan 400 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.
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 like you can tell their stories.