During our Foto Ruta photography events in Buenos Aires, we constantly emphasize the important role color plays in the lively and animated cityscape of many Latin American metropolises. Color has the power to infuse an image with structure, mood, and symmetry, among many other things. A photographer can use color to draw the viewer’s eye to a subject, distract from another, or turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. Look no further than the Instragrams on your Facebook Feed for evidence of that. Of course, Buenos Aires’ streets are unique and rarely ordinary. Any smart photographer would take advantage of the quirky, playful street art and colorful streets that somehow complement the classic, 19th century European buildings of Buenos Aires — if you know how.
We are used to seeing classic street photography in black and white. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and other photography masters are evidence of this. They probably shot this way because it was more convenient, considering that digital photography didnt exist in their time and color lab work was much more difficult. Even today, it is easy to see why artists choose black and white in a city — the sharp, symmetrical lines of a city skyline or urban scene are aesthetically pleasing that way, creating a sense of timelessness.
Not surprisingly, googling “street photography” will result in almost all black and white results. But a city can really come to life when color is added to the mix.
Just like any other artistic medium, colorful street art has grown to be a particularly powerful tool to communicate and to self-express; and conveniently for us, in the last five years Buenos Aires has become one of the more street art-friendly cities in the world, mainly because of low surveillence and police cooperation with the artists.
The street art is beautiful enough that with just a snapshot, you’ve got a good picture — but a combination of careful attention to perspective, composition and color-balance can create a unique picture that is about more than just the painting on the wall.
Try getting down on the ground, don’t be afraid! Point your camera in all sorts of directions, pretend your lens is a frame, and find angles that highlight the kind of movement or energy you are trying to convey. In this case, while the photograph is underexposed, it adds a sense of light etherealness to the photograph, as if the man was walking up a stairway to heaven (instead of down Avenida 9 de Julio during his lunch-hour).
Color is all over the streets of Buenos Aires, not just in the form of street art. Any color can be used to break the image into slivers that are pleasing to the eye. Trust your eye. It knows what is beautiful, and usually you have to play around a bit to reach that “aha!” moment.
Don’t focus on convention or things tourists are supposed to take pictures of, because they rarely convey the true spirit of a place. It’s usually the small details, like a bike resting against a painted wall, that make some of the best pictures. There’s a reason things catch your eye. Step back, look at the way the colors of the paint and pipes on the wall complement each other. Ignore the people wondering why you are taking a picture of a bike against a wall instead of posing in front of a famous statue — they don’t get it, they aren’t artists like you!
Patiently frame your image until it is truly a composition, and not a snapshot. Taking those few extra seconds to line things up makes all the difference.
Once you start looking at the world through a photographer’s eye, you see artistic potential in things others don’t. Sometimes a simple photograph can tell a story, and it will tell more of a story with the tilt of a camera and a splash of color…I can only imagine how these shoes ended up on the sidewalk New Year’s Day in New York City…
Playing with depth of field is a great complement to color, as one of my favorite street photography tools is opening the aperture to shrink the depth of field to focus in on one subject, adding drama to an otherwise ordinary scene and bringing out the color and texture of something as simple as fruit. This picture is also an example of how strong of a role color has in visually pleasing compositions, no matter what depth of field you are implementing.
So in the end it’s a combination of assessing your surroundings, picking a different angle, and taking your time to shape your image with a healthy combination of perspective, balance of color, and finding a good subject (or subjects). The good thing is that Buenos Aires has a bit of everything, and plenty of subjects to test your skills on. And Foto Ruta is a great way to discover it!