#357. On location: the colourful streets of Marseilles

By pascaljappy | Opinion

May 28

A recent trip to streets of Marseilles, the vibrant Mediterranean capital of France, was a thought-provoking illustration of the age-old debate: colour or black & white ? The city is both very graphic, bathed in vertical sunlight (in the summer months, at least) and also very colourful. What form of photography best describes this ?

Alcyon, houari sail boat in the port of Marseilles, photographed with a Sony A7r camera and Zeiss OTUS 85/1.4 lens in monochrome

Alcyon, the houari in the port of Marseilles

In a first installment describing that trip, I published a set of (mainly bright) high-contrast monochrome photographs that was all about depicting the bright light in Marseilles, showing how it bounces off old walls and weathered shutters, creates deep pockets of dark shadow under parasols and helps you draw using only edge contrasts and textures.

In this second part, let’s make the most of the rich colours of the city’s streets to convey a completely different message. Let’s explore streets such as this:

One of the colourful streets of Marseillesor this:

tags and graffiti in a colourful street in MarseillesWhile not very pretty as such, they are a treasure trove of colourful wall art, shop windows and architectural chroma-delirium. Something my fantasy Monochrom M246 would suck at 😉

Colourful shop fronts on the streets of Marseilles Colourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streetsColourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streets Colourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streets The real question here is “would these look as good in B&W ?” I won’t show you monochrome interpretations of these and will let you make up your mind for yourself. My personal opinion is a resounding YES (and, no, I haven’t converted them to B&W to check for myself, not yet).

So let’s dig deeper into colour. Let’s get rid of anything that isn’t colour.Colourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streets Colourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streets Colourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streetsColourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streetsOn a side note, is it really art when all you’re doing is photographing someone else’s graffiti ? Some photographers shy away from it, feeling it’s an inferior use of pixel space.

With which I disagree entirely, as the process of selection and post-processing makes the final image your own. Compare the photograph below to the one near the top (itself a crop of the original frame), for instance. And did Weston grow the peppers he photographed?

Colourful graffiti in Marseilles' old streetsEnd of derailment, back on original track.

Here’s the interesting part: even for the more colourful photographs above, I think there would be a very valid B&W version to create with enough time and talent to spare.

The fact is, I find it very difficult to take photographs in which colour plays a dominant role and feels essential.

There’s no shame in that.

Ansel Adams created a fabulous legacy of monochrome work but his photographs in colour were nowhere near as interesting. So, I’m in good company, phew 😉

Closer to us, Sebastiao Salgado, possibly the most influential photographer alive, never go accustomed to working in colour. His dislike for slides and for the poor colour fidelity of colour films directed him straight to black & white in his early years and he has never turned back since. More interestingly, he sees colour as the subject itself, a subject that grabs the attention and dignity from what you are really photographing.

I wholeheartedly agree (and so, probably, do the like of Michael Kenna and Pentti Sammallahti). Colour photographs work when colour is the subject or strongly contributes to the mood. If it gets in the way of reading the frame, steals the light from your subject or intrudes too much in the composition, it shouldn’t be there, however beautiful. Unless, of course, your photograph is all about the beautiful colour.DSC09257 That’s not to say that there aren’t photographers out there that don’t excel at both exercises. Steve Mc Curry, for instance, is renowned for his use of colour (which some deem overboard) but no one could argue with the quality of his B&W efforts.

But it’s one thing to be good at colour and B&W as separate exercises and a lot more difficult to produce images in which both the luminance and chroma layers of information simultaneously play an equally important role in spelling out the message. It’s like engaging both your left and right brain hemisphere at the same time, a feat few seem proficient at.

Below, I’ve tried to include of couple of my own, from that day, that work in that way, but they’re a minority. Ernst Haas is one of the very few photographers that come to my mind as producers of photographs that are diminished by loosing either their colour or their structure.

Here, the subject is the sheet of paper on the right and the colourful patch on the left grabs your attention enough to create a dynamic interplay with it. In B&W, this would probably not work.


Here, there’s not much else to talk about than colour. Muddy grey would be boring and the Yin-Yang yellow-purple background effect would be lost.DSC09225

Here, B&W would work with a bit of effort, but I feel the unusual colours really add to the mood. In B&W, this would simply read “derelict”, not “artsy”.DSC09235In most other cases, it’s quite obvious to me that stripping colour out of my pics would do little to harm them. It’s probably dow to high contrasts, due to the lazy time of day I walk about (and which favour black & white) and the type of subject my eyes are drawn to.DSC09246DSC09240 DSC09241 In the end, I suppose it’s all a matter of personal preference and will power. The will to analyse every photograph and decide which way it works best and why.

Here’s a colourful scene. The OTUS 85/1.4 (yes, I’ve had it soldered to my A7r) does a fabulous job with colour and bokeh here (when doesn’t it?)  The image is lively and rich and (to my eyes) works well in both renditions. But do you prefer it in colour or in B&W ?


And what is your preference for your own photography? Do you have specific subjects to which you ascribe a type of processing? Do you work in a more random manner? Are you a B&W-only or colour-only person?

And can you help me become Ernst Haas? 😉


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  • PaulB says:


    Personally my preferences run to B&W, though I tend to shot more in color; particularly with film, since processing is easier here. Though with digital I tend to set my cameras for B&W jpegs so I can see what possible. And I do have an eye for color images that are a bit monochromatic, or moody.

    Deep down I also need to suppress a lust for a dedicated monochrome camera.

    Funny thing is, in looking at your boat image above, I prefer the color image. In this case the color differences provide the “extras” that would satisfy my desire for texture and tone in a B&W image. Which are missing in this image to my eye.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Well, I refrained from converting most of these to B&W because I knew I’d probably prefer them that way. But some still seem better in colour (to me, at least). Those I mention in the text, and my personal jury’s still out on that sail boat. It’s more lifelike in colour and “fresher” in B&W. I need to let that one sit a little longer 😉

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