I thought that it might be interesting this month to examine the powerful element of color in photography. So I’ve chosen some images for our discussion this month that rely heavily upon color for their success.
A BIT OF HISTORY
This may seem amazing to consider now, but I remember vividly when our staff of over 20 newspaper photographers first were confronted with having to shoot color on a regular basis. It was 1987 and we had shot only the occasional color assignment: it was a special-order event that would warrant color in the paper, and the paper was very, very bad at reproducing it! This all changed when a new color press was purchased and installed. Then color was expected on all of the section fronts, and we needed to learn how to shoot it, and fast.
When you’ve spent your photographic life learning to translate the world into interesting and compelling shade of gray, adding the element of color to the equation can be a bit intimidating. But we slowly got the hang of this new world order. Now of course, color is the norm and black and white is the art form. Funny how the number of really great photographs hasn’t changed at all though!
THE CLASSIC COLOR WHEEL
I think that it’s very helpful to have a bit of understanding about the classic color wheel and how it explains color and how we experience it. First developed by Sir Isaac Newton in the 1600s, the color wheel is an explanation of how we perceive the world.
Colors opposite each other tend to vibrate when placed next to each other in a composition. This will provide your image with contrast and a sense of vibrance. (We’ll see this in a moment in some of the images.) Anyway, enough theory! Let’s look at some photographs.
‘Descend,’ by Ana Matos.
Color is such an important element in this photograph, isn’t it? The blue gives me a feeling of cold, and also a vaguely medical feel. Maybe it’s from all of the hospital dramas on television, but blue has become synonymous with that type of show. Is this a subway escalator, of something else, Ana? I really like your use of the vanishing point here.
‘Prognosis Negative,’ by C.J. Schmit.
This is a strange and funny image to me…C.J., is that a dog wearing the gas mask? Judging from the look of the eyes, I think it might be. But I chose the image because of the way the use of the green tones in the post processing creates a feeling of sick, queasy unease: perfect for a gas mask photograph.
‘Red Three,’ by Greg Williams.
Now here’s a powerful, simple image, all about the color: black and red and nothing else. Black and red are such powerful, emotional colors when used together, aren’t they? My only criticism of this image is that I don’t find the composition compelling…might there have been a better image to be had at this production?
‘River of Gold,’ by Joe Chan.
Here’s a great example of the color wheel at work: notice how the orange tones in the foreground are almost directly opposite the violet tones (at the top of the image) on the color wheel. Almost no other color would have been as compelling when placed next to the gold. These are considered complementary colors in color theory.
‘Music in His Bones,’ by KBT Images.
This nice image by KBT illustrates another color wheel point: the blues and violets that dominate this image are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. This creates a different type of color relationship which in this case seems to increase my sense of saturation and color intensity overall. Colors next to each other on the color wheel are analogous colors.
‘TullY’s Corporate,’ by Preconscious Eye.
Putting aside the question of HDR for this discussion, look at how our color theory is being applied in this image: the reds and red-oranges are analogous colors, while the green structure is complimentary. So we have an explosion of muted color in this image, don’t we?
‘Untitled,’ by Tilak Thapa.
This one is straightforward, isn’t it? Red and green, opposite colors on the wheel, complimentary to each other. Great contrast and punch happens when these are paired up and we see it here.
‘Wingtips,’ by John Nefastis.
Finally, to finish out this group, a monotone image! Notice how this image works precisely because there is no color intruding upon the composition! Beautiful and suble, it’s all about the graphic shape of the wing juxtaposed against the two strong horizontal tones in the distance. A brilliant, golden sunset, while pretty, would have diminished the strong graphic nature of this photograph, wouldn’t it?
So there are my picks for June! Let me know what you think about this set, and any thoughts you might like to share about your own use of color theory in your photographs. If thinking about color in this manner is new for you, I urge you to read the material that I’ve linked out to in this article, and think about how you might apply it in your own photography. It is sure to enrich your understanding of the world around you and your shooting!
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog