How To Make Great Photos 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. I love looking at black and white photos. However, when it comes to my own photography, I allow the image to determine the outcome.

It’s important to remember that color is a critical element in composition.

For most folks color is the first and most important thing they think about, other than the identity and/or location of the subject appearing in the photo.

Actually there’s a lot to consider when thinking about color in our photos. And that’s true when we create the image, in camera, and also when we develop it on the desktop.

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 and was granted 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.

 

This version of the image of a young Balinese woman dressed in yellow and standing against a yellow painted wall in rural Bali, Indonesia features a more desaturated color palette in addition to a vignette to darken the areas of the image surrounding her face.

 

The Word Photography Means To Paint 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 the wall was illuminated in nice soft light which, I’m sure, was one of the reasons I noticed it in the first place.

It’s fortunate that over the years I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the descriptive nature of light and I’m able to identify great light almost instantaneously.

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 twofold.

  1. It’s the light that determines where to place the subject in portrait photography.

  2. It’s the light that should often determine your choice of background.

 
Abstracted Nature, Harcourt, Australia

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Explore The Expressive Nature Of Color In Your Photos

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 a photograph.

That concept is clearly evident in a lot of abstract painting.

Here are some ways by which you can explore color:

The interior of a chapel, illuminated with bluish light, made for a very tranquil and contemplative scene in a cemetery in Berlin, Germany.

Monochromatic Color In Photography

When an image is based upon one dominant color it can be described as exhibiting monochromatic color.

The image of the young Balinese woman, dressed in a yellow dress and standing against a yellow wall, is a great example of monochromatic color.

While there is some orange in her skin, as there is in everyone’s, and some red in her lips I’m sure you’ll agree that yellow is, by far, the dominant color in this image.

 

A beautiful and luminous statue of the crucifixion at the Bode Museum in Berlin, Germany.

 

Harmonious Color in Photography

Where colors in the image are from the same side (e.g., adjacent to each other) of the color wheel an image can be described as consisting of harmonious colors.

Images consisting of either warm colors or, alternatively, cool colors fall into this category.

A portrait of my friend, photographer Gary Bosely, in the town of Cowangie in the Mallee region of Victoria, Australia.

Complimentary Colors In Photography

Colors that sit 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.

A quick stop for a walk around and some photos at Pukerangi along the Taieri Gorge Railway Line near Dunedin in New Zealand.

Primary And Complimentary Colors Explored

In photography complimentary colors can be described as follows:

Primary Colors         Complimentary Colors

Red                               Cyan

Green                           Magenta

Blue                              Yellow

You’ll notice, from the above chart, 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.

In reality the world around you, more often than not, contains colors that have been diluted (e.g., desaturated) or mixed with other colors to form, for example, orange or turquoise.

While colors such as these might, I suppose, be considered somewhat less than pure they will, nonetheless, produce a quite striking result when placed together in the same photo.

If you’re looking to produce dramatic color images look to base your composition upon the relationship between complimentary (e.g., opposite) colors.

If the colors available to you are not directly opposite each other on the color wheel, fear not, you can still achieve quite a striking result by contrasting other warm and cool colors within the same composition.

 

The black and white version of the original color image of a young Balinese woman dressed in yellow and standing against a yellow painted wall in rural Bali, Indonesia.

 

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 to look good in both color and black and white renderings.

The fact that the tonality of the yellow wall and my subject’s skin were of similar brightness enabled me to quieten down the image while promoting the variety of shapes and tones in her dress.

Some folks might say this black and white rendering tells a different story. Perhaps, but I think this version of the photo certainly portrays a different mood.

And I think it’s the mood of the image that changes the way we read and, ultimately, feel about it.

I think it’s also true to say that, more often than not, most folks photograph better in black and white. Skin color, regardless of ethnicity, is problematic in digital photography.

Our cameras often over saturate skin color, which is rarely pleasing. Here’s just a few examples:

  • Babies when they’re teething

  • Adolescents with acne

  • Middle aged and older folk who develop variations in the pigmentation of their skin across their face, head and body

  • Anyone who’s been recently sunburnt

In the case of the black and white rendering of our Balinese beauty I love the way the busy pattern on her dress is contrasted against the relative smoothness of her skin. 

Make Better Color Photos Now

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 my 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