Colour is everywhere. We’re surrounded by it, we can’t avoid it and therefore we tend to take it for granted when we take photos. But take it for granted, and you’re likely to end up with mediocre photos. Just because colour is everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to how it affects your images. We see so many average photos each day – in magazines, on the internet, in books – that sometimes it’s easy to forget that colour photography can be a magical, evocative medium.
We’ve put together seven tips to help you get the most out of colour. At the end of the article is a section of links to photographers who use colour to create powerful photos. With a little bit of thought, so can you.
Now is the time to start using colour to create powerful photos. Colour is an important part of a photo’s composition (unless you’re shooting black and white of course), although you may not have thought of it that way before. Colour is as much as part of a photo’s composition as other building blocks such as shape, form, texture, lines and light.
1. Use Strong, Bold Colours
Deep, saturated colours have impact. The key to using strong colours successfully is in keeping the composition simple. Including lots of different colours in a photo lessens their impact. For maximum effect, stick to a few blocks of bold colour.
This photo is a good example of strong but simple colour. The composition can be divided up into two large blocks of colour; green and blue.
Tip: Use a polarising filter. Polarising filters work by blocking reflected light off non-metallic surfaces. The result is deeper, purer colour, including the sky. Compare these two photos, they were taken one after the other, the bottom one with a polarising filter, the top one without. The sky in the polarised photo is dramatically darker:
2. Use Subtle, Pastel Colours
Colour photography isn’t just about strong colour. Colour photography can be very subtle, almost monochrome. You’re more likely to get pastel colours on a dull cloudy day. This type of light, which is so soft that there are almost no shadows, is ideal for subjects like portraiture, flowers, still life and waterfalls – anything where too much contrast could ruin the photo.
You can also desaturate colours by using the Hue/Saturation command in Photoshop. This is a good way of controlling colour in post-production.
This photo of an old wooden chair has soft, subtle colours; nothing bright or attention grabbing.
3. Use One Colour Against a Neutral Background
The two most important elements in the composition of this photo of an old car are the colour and texture. The neutral grey of the background accentuates the car’s blue paintwork. Placing a strong colour against a neutral background emphasises the colour because there are no competing hues to detract attention from it.
How do you find a neutral background? Anything that’s grey or black will do, and it can also work if the background is in deep shadow.
4. Let One Colour Dominate
Let one colour dominate. The colour becomes the main subject of the photo, as in this photo of plant pots against a terracotta coloured wall. Terracotta is the dominant hue of the photo. The effect is even stronger when the dominant colour is a primary colour (red, yellow or blue). You can see that in the photo of a blue wall used to illustrate the next point (below).
5. Colour Balance
This diagram is called a colour wheel and explains the relationships between different colours. Colours close to each other on the wheel complement each other. If you want to create a photo with a calm, mellow feel, then use colours that are close to each other on the wheel. Good examples are a blue sea underneath a blue sky – or an autumnal woodland scene composed of yellow, red and brown hues. This photo of a blue wall is another example, it uses the colours blue, green and purple which are all close on the wheel.
The opposite approach is to create a photo with high colour contrast – you do this by using colours that are on opposite sides of the wheel. For example, a girl wearing a yellow dress against a bright blue sky. Or red flowers in a green field:
Red, yellow, orange and brown are warm colours. Blue is a cool colour. Green and purple are somewhere in-between. Warm colours appear to come forward in a photo, and cool colours to recede. If you place a warm coloured subject against a cooler coloured background, the subject stands out. You can see this effect in the photo of the red flowers (above).
6. Colour Temperature
Light has colour. The light cast by the setting sun or a candle has an orange cast, for example. The light in the shadows of a sunny sky has a blue cast. Our eyes adjust to this automatically.
Your camera will adjust automatically as well, but only if you set the white balance setting to automatic (check your manual for instructions). It also comes with preset white balance controls. These are normally daylight, shade, cloudy, flash, tungsten and flourescent; although they may vary from camera to camera. You can set these to match the light source that’s lighting your subject.
You can give a photo mood by setting the ‘wrong’ white balance. Understand this concept, and you can use it to create more powerful photos.
Tip: If you’ve set your camera to record photos in the JPEG format, then it’s important to set the white balance correctly when you’re taking the photos. This is because white balance can’t be adjusted afterwards in Photoshop. You can change the colour balance, but this isn’t the same as changing the white balance, and you may be left with a colour cast that you can’t eliminate.
If your camera is recording photos in RAW format, you can adjust the white balance afterwards with the RAW converter that you normally use. This is a good reason for shooting in RAW, as it means you can fine tune the white balance setting in post-production if required. You can also change the white balance for artistic effect.
Try this for shooting portraits. Set the camera’s white balance to cloudy. This creates a photo with a beautiful, flattering warm tone. For those of you familiar with film photography, this is the equivalent of using an 81B filter with daylight balanced film.
The top portrait was processed with the white balance set to daylight, and the bottom one with the white balance set to cloudy.
Landscapes can also benefit from a warm white balance. But some landscapes benefit from a colder light balance. Waterfalls, for example, can look beautiful in cool light, as can any wintry scene.
In the waterfall photos above, the first had the white balance set to daylight; and for the second I moved the colour temperature slider in my RAW converter towards the blue end of the scale to give it a cold colour cast. Neither of these is necessarily right or wrong – it depends on your own preferences and the atmosphere that you’re trying to create.
Cool colours balance warm colours – but only when the area of cool colour is much larger than the area of warm colour. If both were of equal size, the warm colour would dominate the composition. Create balance and harmony within the image by placing a small patch of warm colour against a large area of cool colour. The two balance each other out.
The warmth of the artificial light in this photo of Vence by is balanced by the expanse of the deep blue sky. Note the different colour temperatures of the light sources in the photo. The artificial lights are orange, and the night sky and background, lit by the fading daylight, are blue.
7. Colour and Emotion
Colour has emotional value – when you see colour in a photo, you will have an emotional response to it, especially if colour has been used strongly in the composition.
The same colour may evoke different emotions depending on the context in which it’s used. It may also provoke different emotional responses in some people than others (this is more likely when the people are from different cultures). But generally speaking colours provoke a near universal response.
Red, for instance, is a warm colour. It can also mean danger (it’s the colour of blood) or anger (seeing red).
Blue is a cool, relaxing colour. Think tropical islands under a clear blue sky. But it can also be a cold, frigid colour. Imagine a dark, wintry scene with ice and snow.
Green is fresh and vibrant, like plants and trees in the spring.
This photo of bluebell woods has a peaceful, tranquil mood that’s reinforced by the use of blue and green colours.
Where to Find Further Inspiration
One of the best ways to learn about photography is by studying the work of talented photographers. These are some of our favourite colour photographers – three acknowledged masters and five contemporary photographers who display their work on Flickr. Bear in mind that some of these photographers shoot in black and white too, but we’ve chosen them because they have a strong colour vision.
- Steve McCurry – world famous photojournalist and National Geographic shooter.
- David Muench – master landscape photographer.
- Ernst Haas – a master of colour photography.
- Borealnz – Beautiful pastel colours, combined with textures. Lots of floral images and landscapes from New Zealand.
- Felidae – Soft colours and lots of light tones.
- Zemotion – Beautiful colour photos from Jingna Zhang, a fashion photographer based in Singapore. Her use of colour ranges from subtle, desaturated hues to bold, in your face colour.
- Himitsuhana – Beautiful pastel, almost monochrome colours. A restrained palette and sophistocated imagery.
- Stuck in Customs – Bold use of colour and HDR techniques by Trey Ratcliff.