Using colors effectively

Photography is nothing but a representation of light. Colors play a vital role in photography. The world around us is full of colors. So how does one make use of the colors beyond just capturing them as they are?

Fundamentals of Colors
For theorists, colors have a lot of aspects to them. For mere mortals like me, it is sufficient to understand the following terms –

  • Hue is the name of the color,
  • Tone or tonal value speaks about the darkness (shade) or brightness (tint) of that color.
  • Saturation represents the purity of the color. Intensity is another aspect which is closely related to saturation but has more to do with perception of the color.

The colors are also divided into types. There are primary colors and colors formed by mixing these up in various proportions. Visit your local library and get any basic book on colors to understand all this.

As a photographer, what is important is to understand how colors can create or destroy compositions. Going a little further, a good understanding also helps in post-processing of the image files.


Understand the Color Theory.

I have written about it in Composition Clichés – Part I. Read it up. The crux of the color theory is that there are colors which are complementary in nature and there are colors which are analogous to each other. Do a search for color wheel to understand this concept. The colors on the opposite parts of color wheel are called complementary and the ones close to each other are called analogous.

Complementary colors look out of place to the mind and so we become aware of them. This is an evolutionary thing. In the era when humans were primarily hunters, a speck of orange animal in the dark green of forest would immediately draw their attention and prevent them from being attacked. Similarly bright red apples are easily spotted from a distance and humans were able to feed themselves.So, being embedded in our evolutionary history, color theory helps photography too.

Complementary colors add drama to photographs and our eyes get drawn towards the places where these complementary colors are placed in the image, more so when the warm colors (like reds) are placed in an image with cool colors (like the blues or greens). Complimentary colors act on out sub-conscious.A photograph of bright red flower or an orange butterfly in front of green foliage seems to leap out to us. Such pictures attract us and seem to be three dimensional.

This was also the origin of the famous B&W images of some decades past that had some elements ‘highlighted’ in color, the so called selective coloring!

Analogous colors or the colors that are close to each other bring about a harmonious image. When there are shades of analogous colors in an image, our mind finds it soothing to look at. This is also a reason why people still find B&W images, sepia or other monochrome photographs, intriguing and pleasant to look at. (Further reading – Black & White)


Effects of colors on our Sub-conscious.

Apart from analogous colors being easy on the mind and complementary colors drawing our attention towards them, colors also affect our feelings.

Due to our evolutionary background, schooling and upbringing, we understand that red is dangerous, blue or green is fine. Red naturally attracts our attention and excess of it causes anxiety. Did you know that psychologists tell temperamental people to remove any red wallpapers they may have at home?

Dark shades of a color (hue), look depressing in comparison to pastel shades of the same color. High key images (with lots of bright shades) get associated with happiness. Any scene which depicts sadness but when shot in too high a key tends to confuse our senses. I am yet to see a good high key image of the wars that invokes the same pain and despair as do the low key images.

Piano Hall - Warm Light

(A typical Ukrainian Piano Hall – lit up in warm light. It looks comfortable. Whereas the same hall in the image below, with cool lights looks unwelcoming)

Piano Hall - Cool Light

Our brain associates warm colors with summers, warmth of home, comfort. Interiors of houses look good when they are slightly yellowish to look at. If you want to sell your house at a higher price, post images taken in warm light.

Here are the pictures of our cottages – Photo Gallery – Maini’s Hill Cottages (link opens in a new tab)

Robert Plutchik, a psychologist, plotted emotions on a color wheel. Many other researchers have also worked on similar lines. Cool colors like blue and green impart a feeling of depression, discomfort, perfectionism, cold weather and sometimes even cleanliness. Hospital operating rooms and intensive care units are photographed the best in cool colors, so as to give an impression of perfection and cleanliness, whereas hotel rooms can be photographed in warm colors to impart the comfortable look.

The use of colors is much more intriguing than balancing the color. Balancing the colors (Balancing Act (in Color)) is important from technical point of view, but playing correctly with colors, gives the image, its much needed character.

For that matter, even English language is unforgiving when it comes to colors.
A Red-Letter Day – Now that is an important day
Blue Blood – royalties do not get any colder
How about Black Deeds, Black Money, Black Market or even Blacklist…. depressing is it?

Colors are a very strong medium when used correctly. They can convey emotions and feelings. When used properly, colors can enhance the compositions. Learning to understand color goes a long way in enhancing photography skills.

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