Why is Street Photography Dominated by Black and White?

When I think about street photography, I see black and white. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to think this way, or maybe there’s some other driving force here. Regardless, I hadn’t really thought about it or questioned it until Rachel Fus struck up a conversation on Twitter (@fusphoto) about the recent street photography post:

fusphoto: 15 photos from @EpicEdits’ Flickr Challenge http://tinyurl.com/2afs7uc Y r only 3 of these color? #photo

epicedits: @fusphoto Most are b/w because most of the submissions were b/w. Not surprising given the topic.

fusphoto: @epicedits street photography? how so?

epicedits: @fusphoto You don’t think street photography is typically dominated by b/w? Less so w/digital, but I still see more b/w street pics.

fusphoto: @epicedits this is true but y? the “streets” are infused with color yet people don’t use it. the merry-go-round for instance. WTF?

epicedits: @fusphoto Never really thought about the why of it… I have my ideas, but maybe I’ll post a blog discussion this week to hear from others.

[tweetmeme]And so here we are. Rachel brings up a good point and it really got me thinking. The streets are full of color, yet most street photos are either captured or published in black and white. WTF indeed!

Now, nobody’s saying that street photos can’t be in color, or even that the best ones are only in black and white. There are tons of examples out there that break the “rules” in this arena. But I have two thoughts on why street photography is closely coupled with black and white images.


brainwash NOW!
Creative Commons License photo credit: ranjit

Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Robert Frank, and countless others have taught us that street photography is black and white. William Eggleston would be a strong exception to the rule, but a lot of the “old masters” shot in black and white. Why? Probably out of convenience more than anything, though I’m sure a few of them have always loved the black and white end of things.

At any rate, a lot of the recognizable masterpieces in street photography are black and white images. If you see enough of that, your brain starts to make the connection… street photography = black and white. So I’m going to argue that we’ve been brainwashed by the masters.


For my second reason why street photography works better in black and white, I’m going to get all “deep” and stuff.

what you are worrying about right now is a distraction from what's really important in your life
Creative Commons License photo credit: Torley

Color is an element of every photo. Just like framing, composition, subject matter, lighting, exposure, etc. But color is one of those elements that can essentially be turned off. Street scenes can be very busy with lots of distracting elements as is, and color will often add a level of complexity that leads to sensory overload in an image. Background elements can be a major distraction: the bright green car, the guy in the red shirt, the neon sign, and so on. My thought is that if the color isn’t adding something important to the image, it doesn’t need to be there (and it might even hurt having it there).

I’m not going to get much “deeper” than that… you get the point. But don’t be too quick to attack — these are just my own opinions and observations on the matter.


Do you agree that street photography is dominated by black and white? Why or why not? Is this changing as we go further into the digital age of photography? I’d love to hear some thoughts on the topic.

25 thoughts on “Why is Street Photography Dominated by Black and White?

  1. Bryan Davidson

    It’s pretty clear that street photography is dominated by B&W, but whether or not it should be is a valid question. As the photographer of the merry-go-round picture, I made the decision on color vs. B&W without categorizing the photo as a “street” photo. I also try to think about whether color would add anything to the photo and with that picture I didn’t think it did. I wanted to emphasize the contrasting shapes and movement and color didn’t add anything to that purpose.

    As Brian said, street photos are dominated by B&W for historical reasons, but I don’t think it should be a requirement for the genre. To me, it’s more about seeing and capturing a moment than specific aesthetic requirements. If a photo works better in color, leave it in color.

  2. Topslakr

    If I’m shooting film, I often grab B&W for street photography simply because I can more easily push it farther. If I arrive and find I don’t have a lot of light, I can easily shoot 400 speed B&W at 1600 and still get usable shots. It’s more difficult for me to do that with color film and still get something I’m happy with.

    If I plan to be in a dark area and I want color, I’ll bring along my digital.


  3. Eric

    4 of my top 10 most popular/interesting photos on Flickr are “street photography”. 3 of those 4 are color (and one is an HDR no less). Not that I’d take Flickr groupthink as authoritative, but I think it shows the genre doesn’t *have* to be B&W.

    When I choose to process a photo in B&W and color, I don’t tend to think about the genre but rather the qualities of the photo itself. I tend to choose B&W if the colors are “wrong”, or if there’s extreme contrast (blown highlights, deep shadows), or if there’s an ugly color cast, or if the colors are just plain dull, or a distraction. I’m more likely to choose color as the default simply because the world is color and I like color – but particularly if color adds something to the composition, provides for its own sort of contrast, stuff like that. I apply the same logic for landscapes and architecture as I do for street scenes.

    I will say that one reason B&W is overrepresented in street photography may simply that skin tones are very very hard to get right. If people are in shadows or if clouds are making the sun go in and out or there are ambient lights of unknown temperature…. skin tones will just look weird, especially once you start playing with sliders in Lightroom. B&W cures those ailments.

  4. Miki

    I shoot black and white because:

    1) You’re right. A lot of color on the street is distracting. I’m shooting for emotion or to frame a particular person and I want the viewer’s attention on certain things, not a distracting riot of color.

    2) B&W is more forgiving under uncertain light conditions.

    3) Light and shadow do amazing things when you pare away the rainbow of colors that surrounds street life. Objects become more simple and you see objects for what they are rather than how they look.

  5. Zack Jones

    I think street photography just looks better in B&W than in color. I personally find myself spending more time looking at the little details of the photograph because I’m not distracted by one color that may dominate the scene. Perhaps there’s a retro or old school aspect to street photography that just makes it look better in B&W. Another genre that I like better in B&W is nudes.

  6. John Hagar

    I think street work is about people, for the most part. IMO, B&W is the way to shoot people. There are exceptions, but as I look at H. C. Bresson and others, B&W just works better for candid and street stuff.


  7. G Dan Mitchell

    Actually, if you look more broadly at street photography you will find quite a bit of it is done in color. However, your observation that many associate it with BW is worth thinking about. I think several things are at work here:

    There is often an odd form of “conservativism” among some street photographers – and it always surprises me that a genre that thinks of itself as so free-wheeling would be this way. But there are some strong notions about the “right” way to shoot street: should use film, should use an old rangefinder camera, should use primes, should use wide to normal focal lengths, should use a Leica (!), and so on. Among these notions are that the results should aspire to look like HCB, who shot BW this way because he really had no option.
    Speaking of HCB, while today’s notions about using this kind of equipment can reflect a sort of quaint “retro” feeling and a sort of photographic conservativism, this is opposite of what HCB was doing. At that time, taking a small, handheld 35mm rangefinder into the “street” and shooting “off the cuff” was a radical, new, and iconoclastic thing to do. It isn’t any more.
    I think there is also a equipment minimalist ethic among some street photographers – the idea that giving in to all of these new-fangled technologies like auto-focus and zoom lenses and digital capture will somehow detract from a focus on the subject. (In my experience, the opposite can also be true.)
    Also, street can be the entree into “serious” photography for many new photographers – and handling color is more complex in many ways than handling black and white. (I’ll shoot both.) Dealing with color, especially bright and gaudy street color, can be difficult. (On the other hand, quite a few photographers have come to enjoy the vibrant and intense colors often found in urban settings.)

    G Dan Mitchell

  8. pj finn

    I’m not a street photographer, but when street photography is mentioned, my mind too immediately clicks into BW mode. I would agree it’s probably conditioning, or brainwashing as you put it. It’s what I’m used to seeing so much of over the years that it’s stuck in my little head, much like how many of us who were born after the Great Depression are still under the impression, from growing up seeing a great archive of photographs, that times back then were so grim that even color ceased to exist.

  9. marc

    When it comes to street photography I feel that what’s happening in the photo is the most important feature. Most of us live in cities and see city life on a regular basis, so when it comes to street photography, we’re interested in capturing the moment. We want to capture what’s happening on the street and that is best shown in BW. Colour I find does distract (point #2) and unless the photo is trying to illustrate the colour pattern that the photographer sees, then photo needs to be BW.

    Long story short, street photography is more about what’s happening at that moment and moments are better illustrated in BW. It provides more emphasis on the figures in the image.

  10. Thomas

    Street photography seems to have caught on with the ‘Digital Age’ photographer, that said, I don’t think 99.5% of all this ‘street photography’ is worth a damn. I have been in photography since my father gave me a ‘Kodak Brownie” yes I am over the hill, in fact on the other side. Black and White is shot because these digital age photographers can’t get the color correct, no studio and they read Micky Mouse articles about the ‘Greats!’ they did NOT have color film in most cases. I do shoot with my Nikon D700, but my heart is with my Nikon F4.I grew up in LA listening to stories from guys who had worked at the movie studios, they taught me about B&W, and what it means. One word ‘Noir’
    I quote “Buying a Nikon doesn’t make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner.
    …Author Unknown

  11. Joanie

    While B&W film was great for how far you could push its limits, I think it’s the inherent moodiness in starker images that really speak to those who see the photographs. Color can be inconsistent for street photography, especially that done at night. I think there’s an unconscious desire within the photographer to keep things simple.

    Helen Levitt was a fantastic street photographer who started out in B&W but made the move to color decades into her career. The results were spectacular, but it was her eye and her technique that allowed her to retain her style and sensitivity to her subjects that kept the work in the same vein of the B&W work.

    Somehow I knew this topic would come up for discussion after I saw the entries. I find it infinitely fascinating that we’re still having the B&W vs. Color debate in the digital age. Photography tools may have changed, but certain truths haven’t. Excellent post, Brian!

  12. Thomas

    Before posting this question, perhaps you should ask the question ‘What is Street Photography?’
    I don’t think walking down the street and clicking like crazy would qualify as Street photography.
    I look at Flickr and realize what all those miss guided people call ‘street photography’ is a JOKE!
    A Canon 5D shooting street photography is akin to over kill, so is my Nikon D700, which I do not use on the street. Candid camera or street photography, good question!

  13. Bryan Davidson

    @Thomas: I would agree that most of the “street photography” on Flickr is not very good, and the definition of street photography is not strictly adhered to, but the same could be said about Flickr and “photography” in general. There’s a lot of great photography on Flickr, but sometimes you have to dig for it. Also, I assume you’re joking that digital photographers choose black and white because they can’t get the color right. That’s something that’s quite a bit easier with digital than with film.

  14. Rachel Fus

    Hello all!
    Thanks Brian for posting this discussion; I’m really enjoying everyone’s comments. I hope you don’t misidentify me as a black and white “hater” and to that extent I wrote a few paragraphs on my blog about my views.

    @Thomas @Bryan Do you know of a specific definition for street photography? I have yet to come across one and I know Brian didn’t give his contest participants much guidance in that department either. (I believe his exact directions were: “Street Photography: Interpret that as you will, it just needs to be in the realm of ‘street’ and ‘photography’.”)

  15. Duluk

    @Thomas – what is your definition of street photography? (you’ve given some vague hand-waving notions about what you think it isn’t; I’m asking you to state what it is) I’m guessing Dave Beckerman would disagree with your 5D comment (even though he no longer uses it, and I have to wonder if you would make the same statement about, say, a 40D).

    Do David duChemin and Bryan Peterson do street photography? Or is what they do street portraiture? If so, what is the significant difference?

  16. Bryan Davidson

    @Rachel – I wrote a blog post about street photography a while back and was unable to find a specific definition during my research. I think Brian’s requirements for the challenge were about as close as you can get for an agreed-upon definition. To me, a good street photograph has to be a good photograph first and foremost. The fact that it was taken in an urban environment can justify the “street” label, but it has no bearing on the quality of the photo. That’s why I don’t actually think there should be strict definitions for photography genres. Genres can be useful for organization, but they shouldn’t be used to judge quality.

    And to bring it back around to the question of black and white vs. color, it all depends on the image. Some pictures look better in B&W; some look better in color. Also, it seems that some photographers think of “adding” color to a B&W photo, while others think of “subtracting” color from a color photo. Due to the workflow of digital photography, most people think of subtracting color. Shooting with B&W film for a while can help tilt your viewpoint in the other direction.

  17. CyberGus

    Forget about flickr (and that is because most people there don’t know a thing about photography).

    The main interest to use black and white is to eliminate the color as an actor or subject in your image.

    (Please don’t confuse b&w photography from some masters who use to shoot bw because was the best film in that time)

    Color is an element in photography, design and in art in general. Is part of an element of communication.

    When the story is more important and color can take part of your attention from that, then is removed.

    Of course if your story is about how colorful are some buildings, you leave the color.

    So is not so difficult to figure out if you learn some basic image theory.

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  19. John Hagar

    “Forget about flickr (and that is because most people there don’t know a thing about photography).”

    I’m not sure that statement is accurate, well-meant or just troll bait. Might want to look at the “welcome to oz” flickr group and/or Vincent Versace’s work there. Maybe some of the best digital B&W available.
    ‘course, I’m on flickr, so what do I know?

  20. Thomas

    Black and white, color? these settings are the photographers call, not mine, not street photography, what the photographer is looking for makes the call. What is street photography? in the 50′s it was one thing, the 70′s another and today? it has become such an abortion I have no idea what it is.

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  22. Peggy Coleman

    I think Black and white stands out more. Our eyes see color, so for me to look at a black and white photograph is almost looking at something new!

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