Street Photography: Is Black and White Best?

A few days ago, I came home from work and sat down at the computer to see what folks were up to on Facebook, and I saw the “Photographic Society of Madras” was hosting a talk by an American street photographer, to start in 15 minutes – and it was only a mile away!  So off I went.

I enjoyed a three-hour presentation by Craig Semetko, who shared some of the photographs from his first book, “Unposed”, as well as some of the stories behind the picture – what was going on, how he spotted it, and how he got the shot.  He also shared some of the photos from his upcoming book, “America” – which  are the ones you see when you first go to his website, above.  I thought the roller coaster in the ocean was especially good – but unfortunately out of my price range for the time being.

Semetko’s earlier work is in black and white, while later photos are more and more in color.  He shared a few recent photos from India that would have been a shame to take in black and white, given the bright colors here.  But personally I thought the black and white work, as a whole, was much more striking than the color photos.  I asked him how he decides whether to use black and white or color.  As a part of his answer, he offered an interesting quote by Ted Grant: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”

He went on to explain that color can be trickier because invariably there will be a color in the scene that takes away from the scene by distracting the viewer from the subject they ought to be focusing on.  Which is an interesting point that says a whole lot about photography in general.  Too often, a photo misses the mark because there is simply too much going on, and the viewer doesn’t know quite where to focus or what is the photographer’s message.

This is why Ted Grant’s quote, while it may seem hyperbolic, makes sense.  In a black and white photo of a single person, you automatically go to the face – especially the eyes, first.  And if the person you’re photographing is the main subject you’re trying to capture, the lack of color makes it easier for the viewer.

A few photo pairs are interesting to consider in light of these statements:

Night Chef

Night Chef

Selling Smoke for Luck

Selling Smoke for Luck

Watcher in the Temple bw

Watcher in the Temple

Which is better, the color, or the black and white? I deliberately selected photos I think illustrate Semetko’s/Grant’s point – of course there are plenty of times the color version will be superior. But I suspect in all three pairs, the first place your attention went was to the eyes of the subject.  Something to think about the next time you’re out snapping photos.

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