I shoot mostly in black and white. Actually, that’s not technically true. I think in black and white, I compose in black and white, but like most digital photographers I shoot in RAW and convert my images to black and white.
Except when I don’t, which is about 25% of the time.
Color at night is a weird thing. Minneapolis (and St. Paul), like a lot of other cities, is primarily lit by high-pressure sodium lights. These are the lights that give everything this sort of gold/yellow hue and make the sky orange. Here is where the fun starts. As soon as you do even a simple white balance for these lights, you’re making a compositional or artistic choice to change reality. There is no “white balance” under these lights, because they are not white lights. The city is yellow at night, and it’s ugly - especially in photos. Of course, when you are out walking around in the city, you don’t really *feel* this because you’re both used to it and your brain compensates for it. But it’s a harsher version and spectroscopically narrower light than, say, warm white incandescent bulbs.
In addition, it’s really easy to end up with a lot of different light sources with different spectrums. For example, a lot of “security” lights are mercury vapor which really lean to the green end of the spectrum. There could be full-spectrum white LEDs which are becoming more and more common. Car headlights have different spectrums as well. It’s not unusual to have ALL of these light sources in a single night photo, so there is no simple matter of choosing a white balance. White balancing for one makes another weird.
So most night photographers do some kind of color change - extreme like going to B&W and simply not dealing with it, or some other degree of compensation to make the image more pleasing or interesting. A lot of night photographers create a signature style based on their choices for manipulating color. Some go for fairly realistic color palettes, others will flip hues or do other changes to create a more obvious effect with various degrees of realism. At the far end of realism is kind of cyberpunk / sci-fi style that looks like some kind of scene from a movie.
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For me, I prefer when the composition of the photo still holds the strongest interest, with the color being supporting. If the strongest subject of the photo is the crazy color palette used to depict the scene, then it’s not a good photo.
So that is part of the reason that I wanted to work in black and white at night for the bulk of my work. I wanted to concentrate on composition, light and shadow, arrangement and not use color manipulation as a crutch to prop up otherwise dull images (not to say my B&Ws are not dull anyway, but that’s another topic). But color is also a valid compositional element, and there have certainly been times when a photo is better, or works well in color and fails in black and white. I try to keep an open mind about the image. It’s also one of the reasons I just shoot in raw, I want the flexibility of deciding what is better for any particular image.
Split toning is a whole other avenue, and I’ll talk about that in a future post…