Let’s face it, color street photography is less popular that it’s black and white cousin. And you’ve probably had one or two shots already that showed you that color too could be powerful, but it’s just been a one-off photograph. Enter this guide with many street photography tips on making stellar color street photography. Inside you’ll find out:
– 2 simple ways to make color street photography work
– The painter’s secret to amazing color images
– An easy way to make your images unmistakably yours
– & more
Let’s dig right in…
- Why isn’t there more color street photography?
- Cameras and settings
- What makes good color street photography?
- How to shoot great color street photography
- Color street photography tips
- Shoot Solo color
- Like with like
- Make the colors fight
- Watch your ISO
- Bunk boring color
- Be smart about the time of day
- Go for non-local colors
- Own your palette
Why isn’t there more color street photography?
Even as a newbie to street photography, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that color images are much rarer than black and white images. Why? because of tradition and aesthetic choices.
When photography was invented, it was in black and white, color was simply too much of a complicated process to do. With such a head start, many simply continued with the monochrome tradition even when color film was invented.
But that’s not all, there’s less color work because the biggest criticism leveraged against color is it’s realism. A man waiting for a train in front of a large clock in color is just a man in a train station. However in Black and white (being further removed from reality) the same photo becomes an allegory for the passing of time.
While it is true to a certain degree, you CAN remove your color photograph from reality with a strategy painters used for millennia (more on this later). Plus, with color, it is easier to “brand” yourself and make photos that are immediately recognizeable. More on this below.
Cameras and settings
You don’t need any particularly special street photography cameras for doing color shots. But you’ll want a larger sensor camera or if you want to keep it small sensor, make sure it’s a relatively modern camera.
I’m saying this because I shoot a Ricoh GRD IV, a small sensor camera form 2011 and very often it simply struggles with color. They are just plain ugly if you ask me.
What about settings?
The only recommended setting I have is to put your camera in RAW so that you have an easier time post processing your images. But that’s just general best policy in order to have the most data so that you can push your images further in Lightroom.
If you have that camera, I remember a Ricoh GR photographer in Inspired Eye Street photography magazine. He had quite stunning Cuba work and I asked him what his secret was, turns out all he did was put his camera on Bleach Bypass and pushed the saturation in Lightroom. If you have a GR camera, this combination gives stellar results.
What makes good color street photography?
What makes a good color shot is the same as what makes a good street photograph: The eye, heart and mind. A combination of technical excellence, great composition and emotional resonance.
Add to the extra factor that if it’s truly a good color shot, it would simply not work that well in black and white. If it works both in black and white and color, chances are it’s not a good color shot.
It has nothing to do with the photograph itself being good or not, if the image looks just as good either way, the colors are probably superfluous making it by definition NOT a good color shot. Take a look at this photograph side by side:
When I shot this in a McDonalds when I used to live in Korea (I am a nomad with wife and 2 kids), what attracted me was the strong shape, but mainly that gorgeous red. If I remove the color like on the left, it’s just not that great of a shot. It works but definitely not as well as the color version.
How to shoot great color street photography
Assuming you have the basics of a great photograph (eye, heart, mind) there are really two main factors at play in order to make it a great color shot. And depending on the image, the first factor or the second is more important.
One thing I remember most about my mom (She was a cancer survivor that perished in the Haitian Earthquake of 2010) is how, every time I would step out of the house to hang out with my friends, she would stop me and yell “Are you going out with THIS?”
She would look at me from head to toe and then she would proceed to tell me that the short and pants I was wearing did not match at all. She would invariably force me to change into “something more appropriate”, because “what would people think when they see you?”.
By the way…my mom always told me “You never know what you’ve lost until you’ve lost your mother”.
She was right. It’s been a decade now and that wound can rip open at any time. But I digress: she was also right for the colors too! Some colors go with other colors and not others and it has nothing to do with taste.
If you want to do color street photography, there isn’t a choice, you HAVE to know your color combinations. What color goes with what. Because if your colors don’t go with each other, well the photo fails on a color level.
There are quite a few basic color coordination you must know (aka color schemes, I cover them all in this course), but I cover the two basic ones in the tips below.
Great color street photography isn’t just about the colors. It’s also about the thinking behind the colors. Just like the iceberg graphic shows, there’s much more than simply shooting something and color and calling it a day, there must be some thinking about what the colors mean.
So you will have to pay attention to the hidden meaning of colors, it makes your photographs much more interesting because of the symbolism behind them.
In short: Make sure your colors work together and watch for their hidden meaning
Color street photography tips
Here are some tips to get you started shooting color right away, the first two are all about color coordination.
Shoot Solo color
This is probably the easiest photograph to make in color. It’s simply shooting the image in such a way where the whole frame is basically a single color.
It doesn’t have to be 100% the same color, but a shade of it, or a color very close to it. So in this image the bench is NOT red, but close enough to red for it to work.
Like with like
There was two ways I used to bypass my mom’s fashion sense: I would dress in all black, or did the easiest color coordination there is: Take a shirt and pants of the same color. Like with like.
While solo color is making a single color the focus of the shot, like with like is a frame where there’s the same color but all over the frame. In the shot above the woman’s dress car on the left and right, and the sign are all yellow, making the frame work like you see below.
This provides good eye travel. If you take the “solo color” and put it side by side with the “like with like” you will see that the yellows spread throughout the frame make the eye go up and down, making the image more dynamic.
Make the colors fight
Absolutely nothing will make your images pop more than contrast. As you will see in this course, there’s about half a dozen ways to make your images contrast. Since this is an article about color, you’ve guessed it, a great tip is to shoot your images so that the colors fight with each other.
In the previous images above the colors worked together, but when you contrast them they fight against each other.
Watch your ISO
You can get away with great black and whites with just about any camera. I do not find that true for color images. Image noise can be masked as “grain” and look cool in monochrome, but in color the results are garbage colors. So watch your ISO, make sure it doesn’t go too high up or your colors will suffer.
Bunk boring color
So far we’ve looked at the colors of our subject. Now it’s time to look at the colors of the overall photograph itself. What’s the difference? If you look at the two shots above, on the left image the color is on all of the photograph, it’s like there’s a filter over the image (it’s just sunlight). On the right however the main color draw is not the overall light but the red pillar and the neon sign.
If you go out and shoot early afternoon for overall color, you are pretty much guaranteed to have BORING colors. How would I know? Because nothing is more boring than plain-day colors. It’s just human nature that what is familiar is boring, so if you shoot the colors people see most of the day, these colors will be boring. Again, not talking about the photos themselves, or if you find interesting color coordinations just that if you head out during “normal” times the overall colors of the photograph will probably be boring.
So a really great mindset to adopt is simply to always seek novel colors. Even non photographers routinely pull out their phones for a sunset shot when the colors are there. This is also the same impulse that you need to let guide you when shooting street: Find the colors that are normally unseen. Two ways to do this…
Be smart about the time of day
If you are shooting during the “normal” day, you’re probably best served looking for colors in your subjects. But if you are looking to make interesting photographs with interesting overall colors, the best thing to do is to vary your shooting time. Like the shot below, it’s tied to a specific shooting time:
The sun gives different kinds of light depending on the time, and each of these lights can give turn your photographs into a moody set piece.
Go for non-local colors
Reality is boring. It’s something painters “got” for millenias. That is why instead of painting their art with normal “local” colors, they instead go for non-local colors, colors that take artistic liberties.
Even as a photographer you are not tied to the colors that you see on your screen. Don’t be afraid to play around with your colors, street photography is plastic and the red you have in your shot doesn’t need to stay that exact red. You can change the colors and still keep “safe” like the colors above or, like below you can really go nuclear:
Just imagine your favorite painting right now. Which one of them actually has “real” colors? Or did they all take liberties on how the colors look in their painting vs reality?
In Lightroom, play around with this area:
And give your images a certain look. This leads us to…
Own your palette
This is a bit more for the advanced. With color you can “own” a certain look.You can’t really own the colors of course but if you keep consistent with your colors, they will end up associated with you. It’s easy to spot a Rembrandt painting for example because he always used the same color palette.
You would only need a vague familiarity with his work to recognize one out of a 100. Heck, even if you have no idea about his work, you can spot the odd painting here:
Did you catch it? one of them simply isn’t the same color palette than the others. And since we are speaking of color branding, what brand is this?
It’s Coke of course. How would you know that? It’s because they have consistencly used the same colors since forever. And by the way that exact red is a copyrighted red, meaning you can’t legally use it for your own brand. If that doesn’t tell you how powerful color branding is, I don’t know what is.
And by the way, why do you think Pepsi is primarily blue? That’s right, in order to clash against Coke in the color department. What smart cats. But give me Coke Zero any time of the day (Sorry, Pepsi fans!)
If you are serious about color, consider exploring your own palette of colors that you will be known for. Experiment with colors and then save them as presets, and keep reusing them.
Mix and match the tips! In the image above you have clashing colors + non local colors.
Color street photography can be quite powerful in it’s own right. The magic really comes down to color coordination and making the colors work at the image level or subject level. It’s easy to start if you remember “Like with like” and “Make them clash”.
If you are reading this, you are interested in color street photography, right? Then you’ll want to check out this course‘s module on color coordination, color psychology and post-processing. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.