Exploring Color Photography

To start exploring color photography let's look first at how to create harmony through the use  of a single colour.

Exploring Color Photography: Harmony

The photograph below could virtually come under the monochrome photography tips section as it is composed mainly of one hue.

afternoon nap photograph of a chinese woman who lives next to the canal in Shaoxing, China

Above: Afternoon Nap by Anne Darling

It is this restricted palette of warm colours of reddish-brown hue that creates a mood of relaxed harmony which goes well with the sleeping subject.

There are many vertical and horizontal line within the composition which also add to the calm mood. The lines of the woman's body and the horizontal of the chair arm are the only diagonal lines which act as a counterpoint and draw your eye to the sleeping woman.

Contrasting colours can also create harmony but the mood would be more upbeat and the lack of strong colours in a composition make a visual exploration of the subtleties of similar hues possible.

photograph of a sandy environment with an orange blanket - photo made in China

Above: The Orange Blanket by Anne Darling

Exploring Color Photography: Spot Colour

Too many colours in a single picture can be confusing. A photograph is sometimes more successful when there is one color that outweighs the rest.

The colours within the photograph above are mostly of a similar hue, i.e. a warm reddish brown. The use of a single spot of colour which is more intense lifts the image out of the ordinary while retaining the harmonious mood.

While the orange of the blanket is a fairly strident or aggressive colour, within the context of other warm colours which are near to it on the colour wheel, the effect is vibrant rather than discordant.

Although the blue of the sky is almost opposite the orange of the blanket on the colour wheel, the blue is less saturated than the orange and so does not compete with it, allowing the orange to dominate.

Exploring Color Photography: Complementary Colors

Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel form pairs called complementary colours.

These complementary pairs are yellow and blue, orange and purple, green and red.

woman doing her washing in the canal, Shaoxing, China

Above: Wash Day by Anne Darling

Making one of these pairs central to your composition will give a dynamic, but balanced, feel to your composition.

In the photograph left, the red of the woman's gloves and shoes and the red bucket form a complementary pair of colours with the green foliage.

The two strong diagonal lines that meet at the woman's feet help to keep the viewer's eye within the picture frame and create a strong composition.

For complementary colours to work well in this way, they need to be equally saturated otherwise they will be unbalanced.

Exploring Color Photography: Primary Colours

Photography tips on colour wouldn't be complete without talking about the three primary colours. In painting, these are red, blue and yellow, however, Leonardo da Vinci said that there were four primaries, the fourth one being green.

Woman doing her washing in the canal, Shaoxing, China

Above: By the Canal, Shaoxing by Anne Darling

The photograph above uses all four primaries which is potentially confusing as each one struggles to dominate. However, each colour occupies a relatively small area of the photograph and the whole is held together by the dark green area of water.

Unusually, the subject is facing away from the camera and although the bar of soap tells us what she is doing, the real subject of the picture is the abstract coloured shapes.

In painting, green is not considered a primary colour as it can be derived from a mixture of blue and yellow, but psychologically it seems to carry as much weight as red, yellow and blue. Perhaps this is because of the abundance of green in the natural world.

Digital photographs can be viewed on a computer monitor by the addition of coloured lights. This is known as an additive colour system and the primary colours of this system are red, green and blue.

The beginnings of exploring color photography are credited to James Clark Maxwell who gave instructions to photographer Thomas Sutton in 1861 which led Sutton to create the first ever colour photograph using the additive colour method.

Recommended Reading

Creative Techniques for Color Photography by Bobbi Lane

exploring color photography

In Creative Techniques for Color Photography, photographers learn to maximize color skills to create images that match their own unique visions with this practical and comprehensive guide to creative color photography. The science behind color-what it is, how we see it, and how it changes-is explored in depth.

Presented are the scientific principles behind light; the technical aspects of film and processing; and information about how weather affects results, how to use filters and photographic gels to maximize color saturations, and how to correct unwanted color casts.

An artistic study of color is also included, with commentary on the properties of color and shade, the psychological effects of color, the tenets of color harmony, and the uses of advancing and receding colors.

Also discussed are alternative processes such as using daylight film in tungsten lighting (and vice versa), using extreme close-up to capture details, and using color infrared film to capture invisible light.

Mastering Color Digital Photography by Michael Freeman

exploring color photography

Digital cameras and powerful image-editing software applications provide today's photographer with all the tools needed to control the world of color. In Mastering Color Digital Photography, renowned photographer and author Michael Freeman provides a thorough look at the essential ways of dealing with color that will help traditional photographers enter the world of digital photography with confidence and excitement.

Using helpful tips and exercises, he covers everything from capture and calibration to workflow management and output. Photographers will find expert guidance on sensitivity, color temperature, and exposure, and invaluable advice on making the most of color as a design element. Examine subjective and cultural response to individual colors and combinations, the many ways of digitally altering a photo's tones, and how to capture and reproduce color precisely.


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