Street Photography - To B&W Or Not To B&W?

I recently did a bit of street photography with a couple of my photog buddies.  Generally, I take more pictures of things than people on the streets and taking photos of strangers is something that remains outside of my comfort zone.  I'll have to write more about that at a later time.  Suffice to say for now that on this particular photo outing I chose to mostly photograph street performers.  It feels better since to me since they are putting themselves on public display so I don't feel so weird about snapping a shot.

What I  really want to talk about is how street photography images are processed.  I'm only two years into the art of photography and I'm always looking for examples of the type of photography that I dabble in.  I've looked at a lot of inspiring street photography examples and I've noted that many photographers choose to process their street images in B&W.  I've wondered for some time why that is.  As I considered how I'd process my images taken on my recent outing, the idea of doing B&W conversions was at the forefront of my thoughts.  However, I resisted the idea for a number of reasons.

B&W conversion - not my preference for this image.  It seems a little too contrived to me.

I prefer this color version because it's true to what I saw.  The colors are somewhat muted due to the low sun creating harsh shadows.   It kind of gives the image a faded, dated look that seems to fit.   

One of my biggest concerns about B&W street photography is that it may come across as cliché.  While there are certainly many B&W street images that I really like, I'm rather adverse to doing something solely because it is "just what you do" based on a trend.  I don't want to go B&W just because that's what a lot of the great street shooters do.  For me to consider a photo to be a true reflection of me as an artist, I need to make the decision to go B&W for myself because it fits my preconceived vision for the image or because it's what the image "needs."

Another concern I have is whether a B&W image might be come across as impersonal or detached.  Veiling an image in monochrome sometimes has the effect, at least to my eyes, of creating distance between me and the subject.  This "distance" might seem chronological or personal.  Maybe it's that B&W images create an association with old photographs.  Maybe it's because street shots are often taken from a distance without the subject's awareness and a B&W representation might emphasize that disconnect.  This distancing effect is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something that I keep in the back of my mind as I contemplate whether to go the B&W route with a picture of a stranger.  I think that there is a certain risk of jeopardizing the potential connection with a subject and ending up with a sterile looking image.   On the other hand, a carefully composed and processed B&W can make for a powerful and engaging shot.  It's just something to think about as you contemplate the B&W route.  Does the end result draw you in and help make a connection with the subject or does it create distance?  Is that your intended effect?

If I'm honest with myself, I think one of the reasons I am sometimes resistant to B&W photography is because I'm largely color blind.  Huh?  Wouldn't that mean that B&W would be ideal?  Maybe, but the thought of processing in B&W for that reason just doesn't sit well with me.  I do struggle sometimes to get accurate color representation and it can be very frustrating.  To process in B&W because my eyes don't perceive color like most folks in the world seems like a defeatist attitude.  If I'm going to do it, I need a better reason.

This is B&W conversion just didn't feel right.  I tried several methods and all seemed forced.  I purposely brought in the sun flare and its effect is lost in the B&W conversion. On the other hand, the performers stand out from the shadows better in this rendering.  

This is what I wanted - warm sunlight visibly streaking into the scene, bathing the performers.  I let the sunlight color the scene gently, creating a subtle faded look.  

So, what are some good reasons to process street shots in B&W?  The most common reason I hear is that it removes the distraction of color.  That concept struck me as odd at first.  I hadn't really thought of colors as being a distraction.  Maybe that is because I don't see color as vividly as most people.  There is definitely something to this.  In an urban scene, there will likely be plenty of distractions in a shot: cars, signs, buildings, lights, and, of course, people other than the subject(s).  All of these people and things will be sporting differing colors and that can create some visual clutter.  Processing in B&W levels the playing field, minimizing that distraction.  From there, careful contrast adjustments or a bit of dodging/burning can help lead the viewers eyes to the subject.

A B&W Lightroom preset worked well here.  The bright colors behind the girl on the bench are taken away and competing elements in the scene, such as the city skyline are less conspicuous.

A busy scene, a few bright colors, and harsh light create a lot of distractions.  The image could certainly be tweaked but B&W seemed like the best fit.

Another case where an image might benefit from a B&W conversion is when the subject is in a low contrast environment, such as a heavily shaded area.  I have found that it can sometimes be easier to add contrast to people and their environment in a shaded setting than a color rendering.  This can be used with great dramatic effect.  In instances where the subject is shaded but there are large areas of blown out skies, I find that a B&W conversion can help to deemphasize the disparity in dynamic range.

A B&W conversion can also evoke emotion and change the mood of an image.  The distancing effect might be purposely used to emphasize the idea of isolation or loneliness.  You might make a subject look stronger or more powerful with a high contrast B&W rendering.  Subtle toning of a B&W image with a warm or cool tone can completely change the way an image might be perceived.

B&W really fit the mood I was after here.  Distracting color and blown highlights were subdued.  I found the B&W conversion to be more dramatic, giving more attitude to this musician.

The color version could also work and perhaps if I hadn't engaged in conversation with this guitarist, I might have kept it this way.  He came across as a frustrated, struggling artist and I felt that was a bit lost in the color version.

Hopefully I've provided some examples and food for thought that will be helpful the next time you snap some shots of folks on the streets and contemplate a B&W conversion.  It was not my intention to make an argument for or against B&W street photography.  Like any photographic technique, I do think that the decision to go B&W should be carefully considered to determine if it is the right tool for what you are trying to accomplish.  It's a great technique when used discriminately.  There are no absolutes and only you can decide what looks and feels right.