If you can find different people — or even a selection of objects — bearing the same colour within a street scene, you have a good chance of getting a satisfying photo. Better still is the occasion when people and unrelated objects share the same colour. That almost guarantees success.
For want of a more definitive phrase I’ll call this phenomenon “colour matching.” It’s what we do when we decorate and furnish a room, or get dressed in the morning.
Not all street photographers bother with colour matching, many of them opting out of colour altogether to concentrate on black and white. Maybe they are the sensible ones. Black and white photos always look good when you frame them and hang them on a wall at home. They don’t interfere with your existing colour scheme; instead, they enhance it by providing neutral contrast.
The Impossible Problem
As I’ve said elsewhere (my blog is full of colour musings), the battle with colour in street photography is constant and ongoing. It’s presence raises a fundamental problem which is almost impossible to solve.
It’s this: the streets contain a riot of colour. There are bright yellow markings on the road, bright orange cones, red warning signs, along with multicoloured cars, handbags and hairstyles. Shop windows have touches of colour coordination — and passers-by are as varied as a box of Smarties.
If you take a standard, wide-angle shot of this polychromatic world you’ll have a truthful image, but it may not look very pleasing to the eye.
So what do you do? (And this is where we get to the crux of the fundamental problem). You have a choice. You can continue to take the standard, truthful shots, making sure your system reproduces the colours accurately. Or you can be very selective, photographing only those subjects that show colour matching and coordination.
Expressed in the terms I’ve suggested, the choice would seem to lie between truth and falsehood; between true but ugly photos and those which are false but pleasing.
The Difficult Solution
There’s only one way to find a solution to the impossible problem. You have to prioritise your choice of subjects. It’s no less truthful if you take a typical scene when the colour combinations are pleasing, as long as you’re not consistently leaving out vital elements of our contemporary culture merely for the sake of art.
Unfortunately, you may have to overlook promising subjects that would make ideal content if found in an alternative location, or adjacent to differently coloured objects. You have to become very selective in what you photograph. At the end of the day (literally) you may still have plenty of images, but they’re likely to be in various styles: uncoordinated among themselves, although each one may individually demonstrate a mastery of colour matching.
I don’t think you need to worry too much about the variety of styles. When you have enough images you can sort them into harmonious sets. Personally, I think this is more enterprising than the blanket imposition of a black and white colour scheme to all your work.
Loosely Matched Colour
I’m not suggesting you attempt to control the colours too tightly. You can have fun with them, as my featured image (above) shows. I liked the “in-your-face” portraits of the ColorFun banners and waited until I found some matching colours in the passers-by.
In the photo, the prominent red bra in the centre anchors the composition. The strap of the bra below points to it, emphasising its role. Three passing shoppers wear a shade of pink which actually clashes with the red bra, but it doesn’t seem to matter. As long as there’s some colour matching you can still have fun. Luckily, there’s enough red in the banners — and in the bag at bottom right — for the fight between the colours to be evenly matched. (Note: the word “fight” appears on one girl’s tee-shirt).
Closely Matched Colour
It’s relatively easy to obtain an image with closely matched colours, but the result is often less exciting than when matching colours fight among themselves.
In the image immediately above (taken in Hong Kong) the artist has already created a backdrop using harmonious colours. All you need is two passers-by to complement the effect. The two I’ve chosen are ideal, partly because their colours are neutral but also because the stripes of the woman’s leggings echo the many stripes in the mural. Similar stripes are made by the zips in the man’s backpack.
Everything in the image is harmonious, except for the woman’s trailing foot with its huge stacked heel. She negotiates the perilous descent with skill — and the next step looks like it may be even higher, although we can’t see it. Her balancing hand, the man’s wristwatch, and the stacked heel form an inverted pyramid, suggestive of instability. Without this hint of danger the excessive colour matching would make the image uninteresting. That’s always the danger when you match colours.
A Study in Yellow
In the next shot (above) I’m relying largely on the subject’s pensive expression to lend interest to the image. With his friend this man was moving a portable stall through the market in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The yellow of the wood matches the colour of the advert on the side of the passing truck. The man’s black clothes and headgear match the electrical hob hanging from the roof of the stall.
Again, I’ve made the image work on its own terms. But if I were to set it beside another internally harmonious image the two would not necessarily hang comfortably side-by-side. Nonetheless, because black is one of its most prominent dominant shades, it looks at ease with my final picture (below) of two repairmen at work on a motorbike.
The contrast between the two images is not one of colour — because they share a similar shade of red highlights — but in the actions of the subjects. The man in Chinatown is pausing, calmly, whereas the mechanics are caught mid-action in dynamic poses. You can’t see their faces clearly, so the picture relies on their activity for its visual interest.
Truth Will Out
I don’t think the compositions I’ve shown here are any less truthful for having been plucked from the riot of colour on the street. I like to bring order to the reality I see, but I’m not always willing to accept the order which others — architects, designers, and town planners — have tried to impose upon it.
What matters? The end result. The finished image. A truthful statement that pleases the eye.