Getting Good Colour in Street Photography

Colour is both the joy and bane of street photography. If you get it right you can make a great photo; get it wrong — which is all too easy — and your photo will be ruined. In that case your only option is to convert it to black and white.

Digital photographers are burdened with colour complexity. Instead of shooting, as film photographers once did, with a particular stock such as Velvia or Kodachrome which imparted a characteristic “colour look,” photographers now have limitless options. Yes, the camera’s sensor has a colour profile, but subsequent processing enables us change colours globally or individually. We’re spoiled for choice.

Problems are compounded by the way in which colours are displayed on various monitors, which may or may not have been optimised. Add to this the capacity of the human visual system to make its own counterbalancing corrections based on knowledge and memory — such as its determination to see white paper as pure white — and you have a cocktail of challenges hard to swallow.

So what’s the best method of tackling these challenges? I think most photographers attempt it by instinct, selecting colours that look right to their own eyes, working with well adjusted monitors — and sometimes by simply forgetting about colour altogether and letting it take care of itself. To use a slang expression with no visual connotations: they “play it by ear.”

The Non-Colour Option
Playing it by ear leads eventually to shooting in black and white. I don’t blame street photographers for taking this option because today’s streets are full of riotous colours that are hard to control.

Ironically, it was never this way in the days of black and white film. Cars were black, people were dressed in black or grey. No one had coloured hair except for redheads who probably wore hats. Even brown “raised a frown in town.” Essentially, the photographer was looking at a black and white scene, brightened only by the peach-coloured complexions of pretty women.

My point is: in the early twentieth century, a black and white photo was a reasonably accurate interpretation of a street scene. Today it isn’t. We have to come to terms with colour and master its complexities.

What Is “Good” Colour?
I’ve called this blog post “Getting Good Colour in Street Photography,” so I need to define what I mean by “good.” This is where my comments become subjective.

I appreciate a wide range of colour styles and combinations when I see them in other people’s photography. On the other hand, I have personal preferences as to what “looks right” in my own pictures. As far as these are concerned, I like colour palettes that are harmonious, perhaps with contrasting notes such as a patch of red in a sea of green.

In fact, green is the one colour that never looks right to me in a photograph. I grew up on a farm surrounded by trees, fields and such like, so I’m aware of the hundreds of shades of green which make up the English countryside. But whenever I see a photo of a closely-mown lawn I simply don’t believe the colour. Go to Google Images and search for “closely-mown lawn” and you’ll see what I mean.

Fortunately, lawns are rare in street photography. Brightly coloured clothes are not. Yesterday I saw a woman wearing a shade of pink I’d never seen before. Its intensity was unbelievable: well outside the gamut of Adobe RGB (along with sRGB, one of the two main colour “spaces” used in digital photography).

I like the colour in my featured image (above), where the storekeeper in Camden Market, London, has cleverly selected an harmonious range of leather coats and displays them proudly on the sidewalk. You could argue that the brilliant yellow of the sports vests on the right tends to upset the colour scheme, but I think they enliven it and make the photo less “tasteful.” After all, the Rolling Stones’ “distressed tongue” tee-shirt indicates taste in a big way, although it may not be to everyone’s taste.

Here’s another shot from Camden, taken shortly afterwards. I like the way the storeman handles the dresses with thick gloves (which would have stood out better in a contrasting colour).

Factors Affecting Colour
In no specific order, the chief factors affecting digital colour are: light, exposure, distance, sensor, and processing.

1. Light is by far the most important factor because it’s the source of all colour. Pigmented objects merely hold back certain wavelengths of light and reflect the rest.

I was tempted to add “time of day” to the five factors, but the change in light’s colour temperature from cool to warm as the evening progresses is (in a sense) a function of sunlight itself: the angle at which it passes through the atmosphere.

2. Exposure makes a huge difference to colour shades, lightening them or making them darker depending on whether you increase or decrease the exposure.

3. Distance reduces colour saturation, the atmosphere eventually adding a blue cast to the image, even on a clear day.

4. Sensor types, as I’ve mentioned, have unique colour responses, some of them favouring green at the expense of red and blue. A photographer’s choice of camera is often strongly influenced by the appeal of certain colour sensors when compared to others.

5. Processing introduces the Joker in the pack: the one factor which can change all the others. If someone’s cyan-coloured bag is ruining the shot you can easily tone it down in your photo editor. In fact, you can alter the hue, saturation and brilliance of any colour individually, or apply either global routines or customised presets to the whole image.

To the above list you need to add all the subjective factors affecting colour vision, such as age, colour memory, retinal fatigue and the way in which background colours strongly influence the perception of colours in front of them.

Subjective factors play a huge role in colour photography. On the xRite Colour Challenge I scored 4 points — pretty good, considering the worst score for my gender is 16,021,602 (low scores are better, zero is perfect).

Colour Affects the Choice of Subject
Inevitably, when I see a colour combination that looks right, I’m always tempted to take a shot, even if the subject doesn’t meet all the other criteria of a street photo: contrast, form, decisive moment, and so on. My solution is often to find the right colours in a scene then wait for a neutral-coloured subject to join them.

Sometimes a scene is readymade. Here, for example, is a woman in a multi-coloured dress, sitting in a huge window on a sunny day in central London above a costume jewellery store.

There’s hardly any colour in the picture except for her dress, so I can get away with placing her at the top of the image. The eye is drawn naturally towards her, while first reading the name of the store below.

Behind tinted glass the woman’s dress cannot be depicted with accuracy. Does its colour have the freshness of Spring? Not quite, but I’m prepared to compromise — unlike the designer of those viciously uncomfortable chairs.

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