Is Black & White Street Photography better?

I more-often-than-not shoot Black & White for both film and digital work. Recently, I’ve started to question whether or not shooting in Black & White actually does make your street photography any better?

For the longest time I’ve felt that, particularly for street work, Black & White feels more authentic perhaps even more legitimate. But is it really? Join me as I make fun of myself a little and try to delve a little deeper into the mystical world of Black & White versus Colour shooting.

Can you tell your story better?

In my opinion a Black & White Photograph can tell a timeless, ageless story. But, that doesn’t make it better, just different. In the same way a Drama is different from a Comedy (or lack there of, amirite).

Your narrative isn’t somehow better by converting your shot to Black & White, a terrible subjectless boring photo is still just that no matter how it’s coloured. What does happen is that the elements around your subject, the background, the other people, the subtle out of focus creamy bits become less distracting as they’re not bright blue or whatever. This can help immensely with separating your subject and with your narrative storytelling. But really, all wanky terms aside, B&W sometimes makes it easier for the viewer to concentrate on what you as the photographer want them to.

In the same way, a BW conversion can be used to highlight or extenuate certain elements of a shot. Shadows and bright street lights tend to pop more as a Black & White, so do beams of light and buildings in direct sun. However, that’s not to say these elements can’t look great in colour, they just seem to pop a touch more in BW (again, YMMV).

But, JC some street photography doesn’t make sense in Black & White

The classic red lady walking by a red wall, the balloon over someone’s face, the busy marketplace or neons shining on a puddle rarely look truly amazing as a Black & White frame. These sorts of shots are colour for a reason, the elements that they depict need to be in colour for the viewer to understand them. The colour helps tell the story within the picture and assists in deepening the impact. Judge each frame on it’s merit and what elements you want the viewer to consume, rather than arbitrarily selecting a preset.

Did I just make a poor photograph?

Probably. If you think it stinks then it probably stinks – no conversion or preset in the world will save it from its terribleness. I take comfort in the fact that even HCB had to suck at some point, it helps me weed through the horrid and blurry shots I’ve took for some reason while out on the street.

Don’t feel terrible, everyone fails. Frequent failure is all part of the street photography game, every time you step out there and walk the beat you’ll almost always fail more than you succeed. But, when you find that one banger of a location, wait for the right light and NAIL the perfect subject in the right place in the frame it’s pretty hard to beat.

Can converting a bad shot to B&W save it?

Chances are, if you’ve taken a poor photograph it’s just that and there’s not a preset on the planet that will save it. I would suggest rather than wasting time editing the bejesus (read: flogging a dead horse) out of a poor shot spend that time out on the street learning and shooting. More time shooting will increase your failure rate for sure, but at the same time increase the keepers. You’ll learn too. You’ll learn about the right locations, when the light is right, how the foot traffic flows, what it’s like when it’s busy, what it’s like when it’s not. These are all things that you need to know, not how to best manipulate a terrible shot.

Take my suggestions for what they’re worth – not much. But, if you’re after some first class advice on the editing topic: I’d suggest finding a couple of simple presets that work for you and stick to them, it’ll make defining your personal style easier and speed up that export/import/edit time dramatically.

That said though, I have on occasion “saved” a few borderline shots with the old Black & White conversion trick. In these cases you’ll know it when you see it – the shot usually lacks something. Once you’ve flipped it to BW the editing focus will become clear. Like with the above shot, it’s not particularly interesting or spectacular. To my mind it’s just LESS boring as a BW frame, the blacks are dark and the whites pop, forcing the viewer to focus on the lady on the left in white before moving across the frame. Not interesting but at least the viewer interacts with it a second longer than if it were a meaningless colour shot which was too “busy”. Just my two cents though, it is a boring shot after all.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day a bad photo is just a bad photo and converting it to Black & White won’t save it. Black & White is just another tool in your digital or analog tool chest, a stylistic decision made to highlight certain elements of a shot. It won’t make your photos better, if you want to be better get closer, get out there more and study up.

So, the answer to the original question of Is Black & White Street Photography better is maybe, sometimes and if the mood is right.

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I've been taking terrible street shots on and off since around 2014. I started this site in a attempt to better understand the process of photography and write about it at the same time. While I’m obsessed with gear like pretty much all photography nerds, I’m also obsessed with good photographs that make us feel something. I hoping that through this site my photography will develop into something that makes you feel something (other than complete disappointment, of course).

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