How to Use Color in Your Photography
Color is an inherent part of our world. Knowing how to use color in your photography should seem natural, but it isn't. I made some garish color mistakes more times than I care to admit. Fortunately, learning how to find harmony with color isn't that hard if you understand some basic concepts
Color Demands Attention (at the cost of your subject)
Knowing how and when to use color depends upon the story you want to tell. After all, photographers are visual storytellers. Our strongest photos have some kind of message.
Sometimes color conveys the message. Other times color gets in the way of the message.
On the podcast, I referenced a post called The Dominance of Color when discussing whether I should use a color or black & white result for my photo. There are a few examples on that post, but one in particular was a photo of my Labrador Retriever, Milo.
He's an odd creature, billed as a White Labrador. There's really no such thing, he's just a very pale yellow lab. However, you pretty much think you're looking at a white lab when you see Milo.
That is, until you take a photo and freeze him in a moment.
Then you see shades of yellow creeping in here or there. I noticed a small red botch above one of his eyes in the portrait, too. These aren't things you really notice around Milo, but they're hard to ignore in this photo.
My solution was to convert the photo to a black & white image. That's when I saw the dog that I know, without this extraneous color information to change my view of Milo.'Shape is the enemy of color.' - Josef Albers Click To Tweet
Color Sets the Mood of Your Photo
We associate colors with moods. Mad people see red. Sad people have the blues.
These phrases didn't come out of thin air. You can excite emotions with your use of color. We have active and passive colors at our disposal.
Active colors are warm colors, like yellow, orange and red. They don't just mean anger. Red may also indicate energy and excitement. Red is passionate.
Using active colors in your photos can trigger emotions and help tell your story. Warm colors associate with life. That's why many sports teams wear Red to put the team in a winning mood.
Passive colors are cool colors, like blue, violet, purple. They define reason, professionalism and tranquility. Sometimes that tranquility descends into sadness.
When you think or reason and professionalism, it's no wonder that the most popular colors for ties are blue. Red isn't even in the top 10 list. Men who wear these ties want to convey confidence in their action. Red may be a power color, but it also signifies a potential for conflict or recklessness.
Working With the Color Wheel
One of the reasons I like using this tool is that you can upload a photo to analyze the colors.
Let's upload a colorful image and see what kind of color palette we get in response.
After uploading this photo, here are the colors that the Adobe Color Wheel assembled into a palette for us.
I'm going to bet that the color palette results aren't quite what you expected. Yet each of these results comes from placing a circle over part of the image.
The sky, her dress, skin tones and the wall are all in there.
We can move those circles around and pull out different colors. Imagine if I chose her hair instead of the sky, or used the skin tone from her face instead of her thigh.
If you want a closer look at those colors, I published the color palette for you to review. There are plenty of other published color palettes on Adobe Color. If you have Creative Cloud, you can save these palettes and then import them into Photoshop or other CC tools to use for color grading or design.
An important part of using this technique is identifying colors that are there, but don't stand out to the human eye. That's because the presence of surrounding colors and make us think a color is one thing when it's really something else. The second color from the left is a good example. The wall doesn't appear to be that color, but it is.
Using Color Harmonies in Photography
Let's define some of our terms to help you understand what colors work together.
Your complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel. One example you probably already know – because it's used repeatedly in movies and their posters – is the teal and orange combination. We often use this in photography for portraits, to varying degrees. That's because skin tones are primarily in the range of orange. Even brown skin tones are essentially a darker shade of orange.
We have a nice color contrast with teal colors.
If you look around, you'll find other popular combinations, like purple and green or blue and yellow.
Analogous colors are near each other on the color wheel, as in this example.
When using analogous colors, try to keep this technique in mind.
- Use one color to dominate
- Use another color to support
- Use the last color as an accent
We think of black and white photos when discussing monochromatic photos, and that's true. You're simply using various shades and tints of the same color to create your image.
However, you aren't limited to just black (no color) and white (all colors) in the spectrum. You see this method used quite often in graphic design and advertisements, but it's just as valid for your photos.
Your neutral colors are often earth tones. They provide a calm background based upon colors found in nature. You often see neutral colors used in architecture exteriors and interiors.
Interior designers think of neutral colors as tones without color. That isn't really true, but neutral colors serve a purpose – to let the bolder colors stand out.
How to Use Color in Your Photography
There are a variety of ways to use color in your photography, but you have to consider them in advance. It's nice if you can walk around and find perfect color harmonies. It's possible.
Unfortunately, a lot of places in the world are just full of chaotic color choices. I learned that in my school lunchrooms.
Bring Your Own Colors
The simplest in concept is to just bring what you need in order to design your scene. That could be with wardrobe or set pieces that have the colors you want. Lee does this with backgrounds for her food photography and choices of the food and containers or set pieces she chooses.
You can get seamless paper in various colors for portraits, and then choose wardrobe to work with it.
Find Some Cool Colors
Sometimes you can find a location that has just the perfect color. I came across a great blue wall in Havana and just waited for the right person. An older woman in a bright yellow dress came by and it was the perfect color combination.
She wanted a peso, but that's another story.
Use Flash and Gels
Using color gels with portraits is a very popular technique these days. Wedding photographers use color gels on backgrounds all the time, and you can turn a plain wall into any color you want.
I'm a fan of the MagMod Starter Flash Kit, and I also bought the MagMod Artistic and MagMod Creative gel packs, along with their MagMod gel wallet. These things aren't cheap, but they're durable and easy to use.
The system works with magnets, so it's very easy to add gels or other modifiers, even when you stack them together. The gels aren't those flimsy sheets or small things that require rubber bands or velcro to mount. They are a firm polycarbonate material, each labeled with their color.
It's a great system designed to last.
Please note that those are Amazon affiliate links. There's no extra cost to you, but I'll receive a small commission if you purchase based upon my recommendation.
Use Creative White Balance
This technique often works in combination with flash & gels, but you can use it without those. Change the color temperature to suit your color needs, warming up the scene or cooling it down. You can use a corrective flash gel, like a Color Temperature Orange (CTO) or Color Temperature Blue (CTB) to offset the white balance color and make your subject appear normal.
Use Color Grading in Post Processing
Another popular trend is to change the color after the shot. You can do this in Lightroom or Photoshop with the Hue/Saturation/Luminance sliders, or a number of other tools.
Lookup Tables, or LUTs, are gaining popularity as a way to color grade your photos. I use LUTs from Lutify.me, which work with Lightroom as Profiles
Yes, that is also an affiliate link.
Color Accuracy Tools
We discussed a number of cases for artistic color use, but sometimes you need to make sure you're capturing and delivering accurate color results. If you're shooting photos for a brand, then it's imperative that you get the colors right in your photos and prints.
You can do this at the point of capture and in your post processing.
I use the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photo during my photo sessions to get the right color profile on the spot.
It works with Lightroom to create a DNG camera calibration based upon the lens and lighting for your photos. All you have to do is remember to take a clear photo of it in the same conditions as your subject.
The next tool is the X-Rite ColorMunki Display tool to ensure that your monitor shows correct colors.
This is a big deal not only for accurate colors for brands, but also to make sure that what you see on your screen is what you get when you print.
Those are also affiliate links.
Is Color Your Friend or Enemy?
I love color. It's full of information and great to help tell your story. Except when it gets in the way. It's your call to decide whether to use color, how to arrange it, or when to leave it out of your photos.
It all comes down to the story you need to tell. Color is just a tool, but a very powerful one.
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