June 27, 2008

Understanding Color

_o0w5478.jpgPhoto by Scott Bourne

Photographers should understand color. While it’s tempting to simply photograph color when you find it, there may be times when you’re shooting a commercial job or approaching a serious fine art project when you want to “design” a photograph. That is, you want to plan how colors work to make the picture stronger. This may include introducing color, asking a model to change the color of her dress or just finding a colorful background.

In order to understand the power of color, you should be familiar with some terms and tools used by illustrators and designers.

Let’s start with the color wheel. This is a great tool for finding analogous colors. These are the steps on the color wheel between any two primary colors. (Think about the blues and greens in a typical Peacock.)

The color wheel is also perfect for finding complimentary colors. Just pick any color on the wheel and then pick the color directly opposite. Those two colors are complimentary.

Hue is another color term photographers should understand. A hue refers to the gradation of color within the visible spectrum, or optical spectrum, of light. While it’s very technical, hue occupies a strong part of the formula used to create RGB values and these are the values used by programs like Photoshop to render color.

So what can you do with color? One of the primary uses of color by photographers is to establish mood. If you want a soothing picture, use a big blue background. If you want to make a bold statement, use the orange sky. Lots of green promotes feelings of renewal or fertility.Another way photographers use color is to draw attention to a specific part of the picture. Place a bright red sun where you want the viewer to look in the photo. Or use similar colors to pull the viewer through the photograph, and use unexpected colors in the foreground to convey movement.

If you want to learn more about how color can impact the design of your photos, pick up any one of a dozen great books on color in your local library or bookstore. Think of it as a powerful tool in your gadget bag.

Perhaps folks could list their favorite resources for this in the comments section.

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. A great site for playing around with color is Adobe’s Kuler Flash webapp thing:

    http://kuler.adobe.com/

    If you go into the ‘Create’ section, you can play around with a color wheel that will stay confined to certain color combinations, such as complimentary colors. It’s a pretty slick way to play with color. (Something similar is built into Illustrator CS3.)

    Colour Lovers is somewhat similar, as it allows you to share color schemes (http://www.colourlovers.com/)

  2. A great site for playing around with color is Adobe’s Kuler Flash webapp thing:

    http://kuler.adobe.com/

    If you go into the ‘Create’ section, you can play around with a color wheel that will stay confined to certain color combinations, such as complimentary colors. It’s a pretty slick way to play with color. (Something similar is built into Illustrator CS3.)

    Colour Lovers is somewhat similar, as it allows you to share color schemes (http://www.colourlovers.com/)

  3. I had a professor once who said that the eye is naturally drawn to the color red first in any image. Because of that statement, the placement of the color red in an image is something that needs to be thought out. This is something I always remember when photographing or working on a graphic design.

  4. I had a professor once who said that the eye is naturally drawn to the color red first in any image. Because of that statement, the placement of the color red in an image is something that needs to be thought out. This is something I always remember when photographing or working on a graphic design.

  5. Once you have a great image, don’t forget to process it on a calibrated monitor! It doesn’t do much good to tweak an image with wonderful color on a poorly-calibrated monitor (the colors would just wrong to everyone else!) I use a Spyder (http://spyder.datacolor.com/index_us.php). :)

  6. Once you have a great image, don’t forget to process it on a calibrated monitor! It doesn’t do much good to tweak an image with wonderful color on a poorly-calibrated monitor (the colors would just wrong to everyone else!) I use a Spyder (http://spyder.datacolor.com/index_us.php). :)

  7. Hey Scott… you got great color here for sure. But also great timing…look at this birds left foot!

  8. Hey Scott… you got great color here for sure. But also great timing…look at this birds left foot!

  9. I’m still learning about photography, but as I read this post, it reminded me of a photo I took a few weeks ago. I really like the image, and I realized that it contains some very basic complementary colors: orange and green. Maybe that’s why I find it appealing?

    Carrots

  10. I’m still learning about photography, but as I read this post, it reminded me of a photo I took a few weeks ago. I really like the image, and I realized that it contains some very basic complementary colors: orange and green. Maybe that’s why I find it appealing?

    Carrots

  11. Can you ever use gels on a flash to create color when there is no or limited color naturally? Or, as in the avian photography, will it just not work at long focal lengths?

  12. Can you ever use gels on a flash to create color when there is no or limited color naturally? Or, as in the avian photography, will it just not work at long focal lengths?

  13. Color is very important in any art form. Sadly for me its a bit harder seeing as how I’m slightly color blind.

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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