The Art of Colour Matching

If your street photography is entirely black and white, look away now. Little of what I’m going to say in this article has anything to do with taking pictures without colour. It’s all about the art of colour matching.

The idea of matching various components of the image is not, of course, limited to colour photography. For example, in the absence of colour you can match shapes — and this has long been a favourite ploy of street photographers shooting in black and white. A bent elbow here, another bent elbow there. Voila! You’ve found two matching shapes in otherwise unrelated subjects — and the picture looks more satisfying as a result.

Exactly why images look more satisfying when there are correspondences within them is not at all obvious. Is it because we like to be reminded of coincidence? When coincidence is evident — as when two people assume the same unusual stance, or when two matching colours establish a bizarre commonality between otherwise unrelated parts of the image — there’s a satisfying sense of connectedness. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on our part.

When we’re cut loose from the world — when the doctor snips the umbilical cord and says: “That’s it, kid, you’re on your own now” — we start to grow as individuals. Some people lose any sense of connectedness to nature, to the world around them, and even to other people. Yet even they may respond to the “irony of correspondences” when a photo shows unlikely (and possibly misleading or even non-existent) “connections” between unrelated parts of the image.

Man on a Bicycle
Take my featured image (above), which shows a man on a bicycle, waiting for the traffic lights to change. His purple jacket matches the purple chairs and the purple lettering on the window. Purple is the dominant colour in the picture. There’s plenty of red (the bike, the backpack); there’s a solid rectangle of yellow — which fortunately is somewhere near the centre; and finally a touch of blue and a barely noticeable squiggle of green.

The picture “works” because of the colour matching and it would certainly look less interesting in black and white. Does the colour matching make it more meaningful? That depends on how you look at it. The cyclist is completely unaware that he shares the same colour as the table and chairs — and, in a further extension of the coincidence, his blue jeans match the half-concealed blue table as well. He has a double connection to the establishment where the managers are so proud of the price of their beer.

I think colour does add meaning to the picture. The subject looks like he knows his way around town. He’s dressed for the part: a real street warrior. That his surroundings should echo his personal colour preference seems perfectly natural. You could almost imagine the whole of London turning purple as he races through the streets ahead of him.

Man on a Tricycle
Here’s a completely different example of colour matching (below). In this image there’s no single outstanding colour which connects the man on the tricycle to his surroundings. They all do. All, that is, except for the garish advertising sign on the back of the man’s vehicle. It’s the one jarring note of modernity in a photo that otherwise makes you think nostalgically of a changing world.

man on rickshaw

First there were hand-pulled rickshaws, then there were tricycle rickshaws — like the one shown — to be followed by motorised vehicles like tuk-tuks and taxis. As a means of transport the tricycle rickshaw is a vehicle in transition, neither fully mechanised nor entirely unmechanical in the help it gives to the operator via gearing and braking. It spans two eras, belonging to both at the same time.

The pastel browns, blues and reds of the rickshaw tricyclist are echoed in the crates and awnings of the background. In fact, the background is so close to the street it’s almost foreground, with the passing vehicle just a metre or so in front of it.

Again, I ask whether the colour matching makes the image more meaningful? I think it does. Apart from the fact that the tricycle and background both have the “feel of the street” (perhaps from a patina of dust, or from the muted shades of old materials) they both make a perfect foil for the new, glossy advert which undoubtedly provides a bit of extra income for the rider.

The rickshaw rider is moving out of the frame rather than into it. I timed the shot so the vehicle and rider would be seen against the striped awning rather than the crates. I’m glad I did. This man is not cycling into the future so much as leaving the past behind. I hope he finds a passenger soon.

The Pilot
To complete my trio of colour-matched street warriors, here’s another image (below) which I’ve called “The Pilot.” He’s not, of course, the pilot of the aircraft behind him. He’s just a guy who happened to be standing in front of it at the time. Nonetheless, his blue shirt and (look carefully!) red belt match the colours of the airplane perfectly.

man in fron of possibly fake aircraft

I have no idea whether this plane (or glider?) is “for real” or whether it was once a funfair attraction. At any rate, it’s found a permanent — or at least immobile — home on the forecourt of a filling station to the north of Bangkok. The dude with sunglasses saw me taking his picture and gave me a Lewis Hamilton smile. He seems so connected to the plane in every possible way I could scarcely pass up the opportunity.

Whatever else it does, colour matching links together the various components of the image to create satisfying harmonies and correspondences. Like the Chancellor’s annual Budget it all adds up and I “commend it to the House.”

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