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Thoughts On Color Photography :: San Francisco

Thoughts On Color Photography :: San Francisco

By Travis Jensen

You may or may not have noticed, but I have yet to post a color picture on here until now, seven posts deep. It’s not that I don’t like color - quite the opposite actually - rather San Francisco just looks way better to me in black-and-white, though I’m sure some will disagree. All good. Different strokes for different folks.

For one, the light in San Francisco is far from ideal for color photography, in my opinion, and this is coming from someone that spends a lot of goddamn time lurking the streets with a camera. It’s often foggy with overcast here, especially during our summer months, which makes for beautiful, moody black-and-white’s. My personal favorite - but not so good for those that fancy vibrant, sun soaked color. Color photos shot under these conditions often appear dull and oversaturated to me, like some sort of wonky Instagram or VSCO filter. Some people dig the look, but it’s not so much for me.

Secondly, like New York, San Francisco is dense and can be somewhat gritty and weathered in appearance, giving the urban landscape an almost crime noir, Gotham-esque type feel that’s literally begging for black-and-white processing… This is especially true in neighborhoods like The Tenderloin, Mission (I’m talking Mission Street, not that nightmare hipster hell on Valencia), Excelsior and parts of The Financial District, North Beach, and Chinatown. Couple this moody black-and-white feel with some interesting and eclectic individuals that call these 'hoods home and you’ve damn near struck gold.

If you’re keen on shooting color photos in San Francisco, especially on the street, your best bet at catching good, soft light is roughly November through January/February, namely mid-to-late afternoon. And even then, nothing is guaranteed as the weather constantly changes. One minute, it will be sunny and warm - not a cloud in the sky (which is no good for any type of photography), then the fog will start rolling in over Sutro Tower or the Bay and boom, it’s 20 degrees cooler, with slightly dampened streets under a smoke grey sky. Again, perfect for black-and-white, but not so much color.

Below’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Below are a mix of some of my favorite personal color snaps, all shot on the streets of San Francisco during different seasons and under various lighting conditions. In some cases, you’ll see where the photo wouldn’t have really worked without the use of color, this is especially true for the first and last photos. And in other cases, well, I don’t know… Guess I’m even a sucker for punchy colors every now and again.

::

San Francisco Giants World Series Parade – October, 2012. Take note of the sky. This is the overcast I’m talking about.

Young Jay-Jay has handles! Excelsior District – November 2013. Here’s some mid-morning winter light… Not bad.

Ross Alley – Spring 2010. Here’s an example where I found a nice pocket of light in the cut, while the sun was directly overhead, not a cloud in the sky. Get creative in harsh light settings.

Gangster Chick – Market Street, December 2010. I actually used a small flash on this shot - just a subtle pop, which worked in my favor as it startled the chicken, hen or whatever, creating the fan effect.

Grabbed this while lurking through Portsmouth Square with Van Styles. September 2013. The light was a goddamn nightmare, I remember, so I focused mostly on the bird, trying to eliminate as much of the sky as possible. You can see a couple of small highlight issues above. Whatever, I’m not trippin. I like how the colors all sort of match here, everything from the bird to the shirt, leather jacket, cig butt, rings and dry, leathery skin.

Stockton Street, March 2012. If you’ve ever been out on the street with me, you know I’m always looking into windows. No, this ain’t no Peepin’ Tom shit, just a little trick for finding good photos on the street when the light’s toasty.

Tenderloin, June 2010. Typical summer afternoon here. The light’s not particularly good, per se, but the color combos are working for me.

Card Trick Hustler, Market and Powell streets - January, 2009. Here’s some of that mid-to-late afternoon winter light I referred to above.

Diggin this candid, snagged on 4th and Mission. Spring, 2014.

This photo was literally taken one minute after the one above. That shit never happens! Spring 2014.

This photo was snapped within an hour of the two above. I love everything about this photo. It’s like street theater. Though the Hesher dude on the phone wasn’t all that stoked. A few seconds after snapping this, he put his hands up like, “WTF are you doing, Weirdo?!” I gave him the thumbs up and kept it moving… Save the drama for your momma, my dude. Spring 2014.

Pimpin Ain’t Easy. Tenderloin, May 2010.

Hair Did. Lower Bernal Heights, January 2012.

Harem. Upper Market Streeet, December 2012.

Yo, I don’t even know what’s going on here. Powell and Market, December 2010. More overcast… That good winter light is never guaranteed. Peep the background sky. Straight blanketed with fog.

Some of the Excelsior District homies. Excelsior and Naples, February 2013.

Jupiter! Got damn lucky on this one. As you can see, dude wasn’t stoked, but I was determined to get the shot. June 2013.

Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to everything. These are just general observations from my personal experiences. I’ve seen some beautiful color photographs come out of San Francisco. However, at the end of the day, I believe B&W truly trumps color here, tenfold.

Do you. Be easy. Be Safe.

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