Colors That Pop :: Digital Photo Secrets

Colors That Pop

by David Peterson 0 comments

Just about everyone who takes photos has heard the expression “colors that pop.” But what does that mean, exactly? What’s the difference between a color that “pops” and one that fizzles? Read on to find out.

When you hear somebody use the expression "those colors really pop," what he's talking about is not necessarily just bright colors, but colors that seem to leap off the page (or the computer screen). That is, colors that are the first things you notice when you look at an image. In case you need a visual example of what I mean, let's take a look at a couple of different photos:

[ Top image u by Flickr user spapax]

In the first example, there are a lot of colors, but they don't really resonate. When you look at this image, there isn't any single color that really stands out as one of the first things you notice when you view the scene. I’ll go into the reasons why that is in a moment.

In the second example, the orange color appears to pop off the page. Now, the colors in this scene aren’t necessarily brighter or more vibrant than the colors in the first image, but for some reason they fit with that expression: they "pop."

The difference between the first image and the second image is in both the careful choice of color and in the placement of that color. In the first image, the colors just kind of are. It's clear that the photographer chose the scene for something other than color. Now that doesn't make it an inferior photograph, it's just that it's not an image that has necessarily got much to do with color. In fact, you could easily convert this photo into a black-and-white image and it wouldn't lose much—it might even gain in terms of simplification and the emphasis of other qualities that are not as obvious in the color version, such as form.

The second image was clearly shot with color in mind. The photographer used complementary colors, which is one very effective way of getting colors to "pop" or stand out in a photograph. Now, if you haven't spent a lot of time reading about and attempting to understand color theory, you may not have much more than a shaky idea about what a complementary color is. So let's start with a very simple lesson in complementary colors. Don't worry, we're not going to delve into complicated theory, just basic color wheel stuff.

The color wheel

The graphic below is a basic color wheel, which essentially takes all the colors of the rainbow and places them in a natural orientation, or the way they would appear in a rainbow. When you put the colors of the rainbow into a circular format like this, the relationship between the colors becomes obvious. Colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel are complementary colors. When you place a pair of complementary colors together into a single image, you get colors that "pop."

Now, finding scenes that naturally contain complementary colors is easier said than done. Yes, complementary colors can and do occur in nature—think of a red rose framed against its own green foliage, or an orange flower against the blue sky. Definitely be on the lookout for subjects or scenes that contain complementary colors, but don't limit yourself to only those complementary colors you find in nature. You can also plan ahead.

For example, let's say you want to take your kids out for a photo shoot. It's the springtime, and there are fields of wildflowers growing in various places around town. Think carefully about the colors of the flowers in those areas, and plan to have your children dress in complementary colors. That is one very simple way that you can ensure that the colors in those portraits will make that coveted popping sound.

What if you find yourself out and about and you think, “This is a great opportunity to capture some portraits,” but you really didn't spend any time in advance thinking about dressing your subjects in complementary colors? If you can't find a scene with colors that complement your subjects’ attire, consider looking for a neutral background instead. Browns and grays in the background of your photograph or in the nearby surroundings will really make the colors your subject is wearing stand out. The reason why this works is because your viewer’s eye will always be drawn to color before it is drawn to neutral shades. Look for earthy tones such as a stone wall, a road, or the bark of a tree.

Another thing to pay attention to is distractions—even if you got the combination of colors right, anything that is distracting in the photograph will actually lessen the impact of those colors when your viewer looks at the image. The reason why this is true is because distractions are just that: they are distracting, they draw the viewer's eye away from the subject and away from the colors, and therefore those colors no longer pop in the way that you'd like them to.

Exposure compensation and white balance

Another way to make colors look richer in camera is to make some adjustments to your camera’s settings. When you overexpose a photograph, the colors tend to become washed-out—so it makes sense that slightly underexposing can help make those colors look richer. Now I do want to caution that you shouldn’t underexpose to the point where you end up with clipped shadows (areas of lost detail), so pay careful attention to your histogram to make sure you’re not going overboard. But a simple exposure compensation of -1/2 or -1/3 might be enough to give your color photos that extra punch.

You can also add color with your white balance setting—this is a commonly used technique when shooting sunsets, which sometimes don’t look as vibrant in camera as they did in real life. To make those sunset colors pop, try changing your white balance setting to “cloudy.” On a cloudy day, there is naturally more blue in the light, so your camera will add warmer colors to compensate. And when it adds warmer colors to a sunset scene, you get oranges and reds that are much more brilliant.


What if you get home and discover that you really didn't get those popping colors you were hoping for? Maybe there were just too many competing colors in the environment or your subject was not wearing eye-popping colors. You can always resort to post-processing and add a little bit of color saturation to make the colors in the photograph look more brilliant. One wonderful way to do this is to desaturate all but one color—for example, let's say your subject is wearing green; you could desaturate all the other colors in the scene so that only the green clothing remains. Everything else will become black-and-white, and your viewer’s eye will be naturally drawn to that one area of color.

How it’s done

This is a pretty simple thing to do in most post-processing applications—instead of just doing a general desaturation (which is what you might do when creating a straight black and white photo), you would go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, then select the individual color channel you want to desaturate from the “Master” dropdown list. Drag the “Saturation” slider all the way to the left to remove that particular color.

You can also selectively saturate some colors and desaturate others—this is great for when, say, you want to make purple flowers more bold, and make the foliage and background more neutral but not necessarily black and white. To do this, you would drag the “saturation” slider towards the left but not all the way there—just enough to deemphasize the colors you don’t want competing with the main color. And then you can pump up that main color a little by dragging the saturation slider to the right.

And you can, of course, saturate or desaturate all the colors in an image, too. To do this you would just leave that “master” drop down menu alone and move the saturation slider—in the absence of being told to saturate or desaturate one specific color, your software will apply the change to all the colors in the image.

Always take care when you’re in post processing to make your changes while viewing the file at 100 percent magnification. This is important because sometimes changes in saturation can increase the digital noise that is visible in your photograph, and that can make your image look soft and mar detail. Too much saturation can also create anomalies like loss of detail and unnatural looking transitions between colors, none of which is really going to be obvious to you unless you’re looking at the details. So make your changes while zoomed in, and back off if you notice anything happening to your image that doesn’t look photo-realistic.

  • Nikon D90
  • 200
  • f/27.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 60 mm

Last Tulip Standing by Flickr user Bill Gracey

Watch me showing you two methods for creating Selective Color photos in my "Post Processing for Photographers" course.


Don't be afraid to play around with those post-processing tools, but also don't be afraid to play around with colors in real life situations, too. Remember that when using complementary colors it's always best to have one color be more dominant than the other—equal amounts of two complementary colors will prevent either color from really popping the way you'd like them too. Experimenting will give you the best idea of what works and what doesn't, but more importantly, it will help you pay more attention to color in your photographs in general, and that will help you master the art of creating amazing photos that really "pop."


  1. Shoot with color in mind
  2. Basic color theory
    • look for complementary colors
    • use neutral backgrounds
  3. Eliminate distractions
  4. Camera settings
    • exposure compensation
    • white balance
  5. Post processing
    • desaturate all but one color
    • reduce saturation in all but one color
    • watch the details and don't go overboard

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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+.