How to Photograph in Color


A young Balinese woman dressed in yellow and standing against a yellow painted wall in rural Bali, Indonesia.


Do you have a preference for color or black and white photography? For me it’s very much horses for courses. While I love looking at black and white photos, when it comes to my own photography I allow the image to determine the outcome.

Much More Than a Pretty Face

I met this young woman in a village in rural Bali. I liked the striking color and patterns on her dress and noticed the tiny yellow decorative touches on her forehead and neck. I asked for permission to make her photograph. She seemed quite shy so I made sure I worked quickly. I noticed a yellow wall nearby and was attracted very much to the idea of wrapping her in harmonious color. I gestured for her to move in front of the wall and I proceeded to make several quick exposures. I doubt the entire process would have taken much more than a minute.

Painting With Light

Naturally the color of the wall wasn’t my only consideration. It also needed to be lit in a way that would be beneficial to my subject. Fortunately it was illuminated in nice soft light. If it was not I may not even have noticed it.

Over the years my eye has become sensitive to light and I’m able to identify great light almost instantly. Folks are often a little bemused when, given the option of a grand building’s facade or brand new drapes I’II, more often than not, direct the subject to sit on a step or stand in front of a relatively nondescript wall. The lesson here is that it’s the light that determines the background as much as it determines where to place the subject in portrait photography.

It seems to me that, when working in color, your photographs should express and explore color wherever possible. Color is a major element of composition and can be at least as important to the success of your image as the subject. In fact color can actually become the subject of your photography. This concept is clearly evident in a lot of abstract painting.

Here are some ways by which you can explore color:

  • Monochromatic Color

Where your image is based upon one dominant color.

  • Harmonious Color

Where colors in the image are from the same side (e.g., adjacent to each other) of the color wheel. Images consisting of either warm colors or, alternatively, cool colors fall into this category.

  • Complimentary Colors

Colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel are said to form complimentary relationships with each other. They vibrate so strongly against each other that their own uniqueness (e.g., the warm color looks warmer and the cool color looks cooler) is enhanced. This vibration even has the effect of creating a greater sense of 3-dimensional space within the image. In photography complimentary colors can be described as follows:

Primary Colors            Secondary Colors

Red                               Cyan

Green                           Magenta

Blue                              Yellow

You’ll notice, from the above, that in each case we are placing a primary color against it’s direct opposite (i.e., complimentary) color. You may also notice that, in each case, a warm color is being contrasted with a cool color. If you’re looking to produce dramatic color images, look to base your composition upon the relationship between complimentary (e.g., opposite) colors.

Contrast Also Exists Outside of Color

In the case of the above photo there was enough contrast between the light and dark floral pattern on my subject’s dress. I employed harmonious color, bright and happy though it was, to calm the image down. I think it works a treat and I love the way the busy pattern on her dress is contrasted against the smoothness of her skin

Here’s Your Challenge

I’d like to encourage you to, whenever possible, explore color at an ever deeper level in your own photography. I’m sure color was a major part of the design of our subject’s dress and, no doubt, a major reason behind her decision to purchase it. I’m sure glad she did.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru