Understanding color in photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Understanding color in photography

by David Peterson 3 comments

Get ready to be told the following. “Your photos are so colorful. Your camera takes such good pictures!” When you hear these words, don’t say a word. Just shrug your shoulders and let them think what they want to think. Cameras have gotten better over the years, but they aren’t the reason some photos have vibrant colors while others don’t.

So far, we've had a few tutorials on color, its importance, and how to get the most out of your less colorful shots. The aim of this next article is to bring all of this knowledge together to build upon what we know about color and take it to the next level. Understanding color is absolutely essential to becoming a great digital photographer. It is one of the first steps toward consistently creating photos that amaze you, your friends, and perhaps even the photography community itself.

The most important thing about understanding color is knowing how to find it. As you are no doubt aware, not everything in life is colorful. On gray days, brightly colored things just aren't as bright, and everything seems to blend together in one very blasé and usually pretty dull image. At other times, the sun's light is so strong and harsh that it effectively neutralizes any color in the scene, resulting in washed out and equally dull images.

Color. It’s all in your head.

To make things more complicated, our perception of color is completely dependent on the scene in front of us. It is relative to other colors present. While a tree might look a vibrant green to you while you are looking at it, a picture of the tree somehow seems to lack the same punch. Why is that? It is because, even when you are looking directly at the tree, you still see other differently colored objects in your peripheral vision.

Color isn't color. It is the perception of color. To create color in your images, you need to create color contrast. You need to find things that, when framed correctly, clash in the right way. Even on a gloomy day, you can still find brightly colored things to set against the otherwise gray backdrop. Have a look at this image of an old snow groomer. Even though it was a gloomy day, this photo still has a lot of color in the right places.

On the whole, this image isn't extremely colorful. But it certainly isn't dull either. Because the bright red snow groomer stands out on its own, it adds a lot more color to the photo as a whole. A lot of the time, color contrast is the result of creating contrast in general, which amounts to isolating your subject and drawing attention to it. If you want to add color to your photos, find a colorful subject and frame the shot in such a way as to draw attention to it.

The Most Colorful Times Of The Day (And Night)

Sometimes it isn't even about finding brightly colored things that add contrast, but going out during the times of the day when the natural color contrast is high. This is yet another reason why so many photographers love to go out in the early morning and twilight hours. The sun's light gives the clouds and the ground a yellow tinge that makes everything magically appear more colorful. Shadows are very pronounced at this time, much more than any other. If you use this to your advantage, it can be a very good thing.

Nighttime is underrated in photography. It is one of the most colorful times there is. The hard part is taking advantage of it. You will need a decent tripod and a willingness to experiment a little with different settings and shutter speeds. Go out and find some bright lights. Setup your tripod and frame them in the shot while trying to include passing cars and other lights.

The longer you keep your shutter open, the brighter the lights will be. This is yet another area in photography where you can never be totally certain which settings work the best. Play around with different shutter speeds until you find one that gives you the right brightness and color. If you get them right these kinds of photos will really pop, and they’ll impress your friends!

The number one reason most amateurs don’t take colorful photos

Here’s another tip that I’ve found to be very useful in getting more color in my shots while shooting in manual mode. Try taking a few photos with a faster shutter speed every time you go out to do a shoot. A lot of beginning photographers don’t know that they are overexposing their photos. When you bump the shutter speed up a few notches, it results in photos that are a little darker but generally more colorful.

Sometimes it’s good to trade brightness for color. Sometimes it isn’t. You should always have a variety of different exposures for every kind of photo you want to take. Your camera’s light meter is sophisticated, but it doesn’t meter the scene perfectly every time. By taking a variety of exposures at different shutter speeds, you give yourself a buffer against your camera’s somewhat error prone light meter. This allows you to pick the most colorful exposures every time.

Remember, color is the perception of color. If you focus on creating color contrast and take advantage of the most colorful times of day (and night), you will take colorful photos every time you go out.

I want to see how you are making your photos more colorful. Are you finding colorful subjects that stand out against an otherwise bland backdrop, or are you taking advantage of the most colorful times of they day? Do you notice a difference when you increase your shutter speed just a little bit? Let me know and send me your photos. I’m exciting to see what you are up to.

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  1. Stella says:

    I'm enjoying reading your article. Very informative.
    Thank you

  2. Addriene says:

    I feel so much happier now I udnretsand all this. Thanks!

  3. Elray Marais says:

    Not only are Camera's getting better, it also helps when you have a good Brand that you KNOW how to use.
    Also computers are so much better now and the image projected onto the screen is SOOOO clear.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.