Photography Tips » 5 Reasons Why Street Photographers Love Black And White Images

5 Reasons Why Street Photographers Love Black And White Images

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Black and white street photography is undoubtedly popular, and for very good reason. Although the black and white medium isn’t a standard or a rule, I will discuss here 5 reasons why it is so prevalent in street photography. I will also address street photography in color, and why this, when done right, can be incredibly impactful.

1. Long Tradition of Black and White Street Photography

Black and white street photography by Federico Alegría
Photo by Federico Alegría

In historical terms, photography saw light in a monochromatic way. After some development, it evolved into a panchromatic state. This evolution allowed the film to react to different waves of light. Later on, color film appeared, but for some reason, it wasn’t popular among photographers.

There are at least two possible reasons why. The first is that black and white film is easier to develop than color film. The second is that monochrome photography has a certain aesthetic quality that makes it so intriguing.

To human beings, black and white isn’t the usual way of viewing the world. Black and white photography shows us an alternate reality that we can’t perceive with our own eyes. This translates into a really fascinating way of seeing life.

2. Social Homeostasis

 Photographer Federico Alegría captures a compelling black and white street photograph.
Photo by Federico Alegría

Social homeostasis is just an elegant way of saying “copycat” attitude among photographers. Due to the aforementioned long tradition, most photographers have consumed a large amount of monochrome photography. They have grown up seeing an array of fantastic black and white photographs shot by the great masters of the past. This exposure will inevitably influence the contemporary style of black and white street photography.

3. Black and White Masks Mistakes

Beautiful photo by Federico Alegría
Photo by Federico Alegría

Since the arrival of digital photography, selecting color or black and white went from a “pre-production” decision to a “post-production” choice. Black and white is much more forgiving than color photography when it comes to mismatching colors, chromatic aberrations, and contrast decisions on our favorite raw development software.

The black and white medium can improve images shot in color that don’t look as striking as they potentially could. This is one of the main reasons why a lot of photographers prefer the results of black and white conversions rather than the original color photograph.

4. Color on the Streets is Hard

An excellent black and white street photography example by Federico Alegría
Photo by Federico Alegría

As street photographers get up close to reality, there is little to no control of the things that happen in front of the lens. This lack of control over composition results in colors that are not meant to be together. This inevitably causes a reduction in the aesthetic quality of the photograph.

Beyond appearance, this mismatching of colours results in another huge problem. It distracts the viewer’s attention from the real message of the photo. If a photograph has a lot of colors, our focus gets lost within the colors clashing together in front of our eyes.

Black and white photography has the power to transmit the message of a photo in a more effective way than regular color photos. That doesn’t mean color photographs can’t be compelling. I’m just saying that effective color street photos are challenging to achieve.

5. Black and White Street Photography is Aesthetically Pleasing

Well, it is true, black and white photographs look really effective. They have a mindblowing aesthetic quality when developed right, and they are capable of captivating our attention right away. There is no doubt that most photography looks really lovely in black and white.

My Personal Opinion on Color Street Photography

Colour photo by Federico Alegría
Photo by Federico Alegría

It wasn’t until I understood that I was looking for the Kodachrome look, that I genuinely embraced color as a thing in my photography. Apparently, this look made many photographers fall in love with color because Fujifilm decided to embed a color profile in their cameras that emulate this classic film.

Every time I shoot, I’m expecting two things. The first is to achieve a photo that can be part of my portfolio. The second is to create a beautiful color street photograph. Trust me, they both are highly unreachable yet not impossible goals to achieve. What I’m trying to say is that color street photography is impressive, but it is tough to do it right.

For me, street photography is simply just one of many approximations to reality. As said in the words of Graciela Iturbide, “photography is just an excuse to see the world”. Photographs can be highly striking, compelling, powerful, poetic and aesthetic, but they will never be able to compete with the authentic experiences of life the photographer felt while taking them.

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