Visual Design: Using Color in Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Visual Design: Using Color in Photography

by David Peterson 6 comments

Color is one of the six classic design elements, which also includes shape, form, line, texture and space. Like the other design elements, good use of color can evoke emotion and give the viewer something to think about.

Color is one of those things that was see all the time but often don't notice, at least not on a conscious level. Sure, a beautiful field of bright red flowers will immediately catch our eye, as will a brilliant red sunset. But what we don't notice is how subtle shades of color can affect mood and our perception of a scene, or how brilliant colors can send a strong subconscious message about what we're seeing.

There are a lot of theories and ideas about how color affects mood, composition and therefore photographs, but for at the most basic level, color can be separated into two very general categories: cool and warm.

Cool colors are those on the blue-green end of the spectrum - these colors invoke feelings of tranquillity, peace and calm. On the other end of the spectrum are the reds and yellows, or warm colors. These colors are more inviting; they invoke feelings of happiness, optimism and excitement. Depending on the context, they can also make a viewer feel angry, irritated or even hungry (ever wondered why so many fast food logos are red or yellow?)

Complimentary, analogous and monochromatic color

But learning to use color in photography goes beyond simply choosing one color over another. When you learn how to use colors together, you can create truly striking images. Start by learning your color wheel, and look for contrasting, or complimentary colors in the world around you. A yellow flower photographed against a blue background, for example, is engaging to the eye because blue and yellow are complimentary colors (on opposite sides of the color wheel). You can use complimentary colors in the foreground and background, with the subject and background or with two or more subjects. Blue flowers photographed with yellow flowers will look equally as striking as that yellow flower against the blue background.

Another way to use color is to choose analogous colors. Analogous colors are those that are next to each other on the color wheel: blue and green, for example, or red and purple. When using an analogous color scheme, try to make one of the two colors the focus of the image, and use the second color to enhance the overall image.

A third way of using color is to focus on monochromatic scenes. A monochromatic scene consists of varying shades of a single color. The key to a successful monochromatic image is to find scenes with good contrast throughout the image--you want the photo to have a dark version of the color, a light one and a good range of tones in between.

Color Saturation

Another color quality to pay attention to is saturation. Saturation refers to the richness of the color. An image with dull colors, such as a pale green meadow on an overcast day, has very low color saturation. A field full of bright orange pumpkins on a sunny morning, on the other hand, has very high color saturation.

Saturation is one of those things that you can tweak in post-processing if you're not happy with the way it looks in your original image. Some cameras will even let you adjust color saturation before you start shooting, so start looking at each scene with an eye for how rich you would like the colors to appear. If you think they could use a bump, try changing your camera's setting or do a little playing around in Photoshop after the fact.

Both types of saturation have their place. An image with lower saturation seems softer, dreamy and idealistic. An image with high saturation seems bright and exciting. Think about the feeling you want to convey with your image before deciding how much or how little saturation would best suit the scene.

Include blacks, whites and neutrals

A bright color against a white background can make a bold statement, and black can create drama. Neutral tones like gray and brown will draw attention to a brightly colored subject. Carefully chosen neutrals, blacks and whites combined with a bold color will make for a much more compelling image than if you simply isolate that bold color against other muted or scattered ones.

Controlling Color

It's easy to fall into that trap of considering only your subject and how it relates to the objects around it, without thinking about the color. But color can add emotion and drama to scenes that you wouldn't ordinarily think would inspire such feelings. And you have more control over the color in an image than you might think. This doesn't mean you need to paint your poor cat green or dress him up in a tutu to create a colorful subject (though that would probably be kind of funny, albeit perilous). Instead, pay attention to how you frame color and how you can use light to enhance it.

Time of day, for example, can add a particular color cast to an image, which can dramatically change the way the scene is perceived by your viewer. Photos taken in the early part of the day or in the late afternoon will have a warmer cast, which will make the scene seem inviting and cheerful. Photos taken at mid-day or at twilight tend to have a cooler cast, which is more relaxing and peaceful. You can also control color by composing your image in such a way that a particular color becomes the focus, while other colors become less important.

Don't Overdo It

Color is a wonderful tool for creating an engaging image, but it's very easy to go overboard with it. Complimentary colors can look striking together, but too much color can make your viewer cringe. If your scene contains a very strong, bold color in the foreground, don't include a lot of other bold colors in the surrounding scenery or in the background. Too much color is confusing to the eye and will make for a feeling of chaos throughout the image.

Know when not to use color

Some images just look better in black and white. You may choose to completely desaturate an image (which is just another word for making it black and white) if you find that there are too many colors distracting you from the composition or the subject itself. Conversely, black and white is a good choice when the colors in a scene just aren't that interesting or present. You may also want to use black and white if the contrast in the image calls for it - for example, if there is a good range of tones between the highlights and the shadows.

As always, experimentation will make you a better photographer, so try assigning yourself some color projects. Find a good monochromatic scene, and then experiment with different color compositions. Try doing a photo shoot where your primary focus is on color, with subject taking a secondary position. Or assign yourself one color each day, and see if you can create a series of images that follows the color wheel. Whatever you choose to do, learning to recognize color as it relates to mood and composition will give you another useful tool in that photographic arsenal, and a colorful collection of compelling images in your portfolio.

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  1. Stacey says:

    I enjoyed this article, however, blue and yellow are not complementary colors.

    • Danielle says:

      Yes, reading that yellow and blue were complimentary made me cringe lol because it is purple and yellow, blue and orange.

      • David Peterson says:

        Thanks, I'll make it clearer in the article.

        They're not exactly opposite, but they are on opposite sides of the color wheel, which is what I meant. Colors don't need to be exactly opposite for the effect to work.


    • Rishkabob says:

      yes. It is actually orange and blue.

  2. BigD says:

    Just an FYI. It's compl-E-mentary not compl-I-mentary.

  3. Ray. Jones says:

    Hi David,
    i echo the previous message and I my wish for you & your family is that every day of 2013 is filled with exciting new opportunities & good health to enjoy them all.

    Thanks for all you do for us struggling photographers!!!!!!!
    Cheers..... Ray.

  4. Jukita says:

    Dear David,
    Thank you so much for all your great tips in photography. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and all members of your family.

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