THE THEORY OF COLOR
In color theory, there’s a color wheel that illustrates and organizes color hues, showing relationships between colors. The wheel shows primary colors: red, yellow and blue. In between each of them are the secondary colors—the colors created when you mix two of the primary colors together: orange, purple and green.
Within this circle it becomes clear what colors traditionally complement each other, as they will appear opposite each other in the circle. For red, it’s green, while blue is opposite to orange, and yellow has purple as its complementary color.
By having an understanding of complementing colors, you can deliberately search for these colors in your frame, making your image more dynamic. That’s why blue skies seem to call for orange balloons floating in them. Green foliage looks dynamic with a pop of red, and a yellow hat looks stunning against a purple wall. Often, we’re drawn to color intuitively. Complementary colors are pleasing to the eye. How they play together in your frame can make or break your image.
|Play with these elements to see what works for you and your artistic vision.
Balance: Does the frame feel balanced in the way color elements are arranged? Is one side of the image too heavy with color while the other side feels too light? Is there a running thread of a single color popping up within the frame to bring cohesion?
Symmetry: Arranging the colors in your shot symmetrically can be soothing. The eye is drawn to this kind of harmonious balance.
Asymmetry: On the contrary, placing colors in the frame in a more off-kiltered way can bring visual interest and an "unexpectedness."
Repetition: Just like with lines or shapes, the repetition of color within a frame can be visually attractive and can draw in the viewer.
Framing: Whether you use your color to frame your subject or you use something within the shot that frames your color, a frame within a frame can be a great visual technique.
Of course, like most things, the rules of photography also can work effectively when they’re broken, and compelling color combinations can be found in the unlikeliest of places. A wide range of colors in the spectrum can work well together, not just complementary colors. You’ll find yourself drawn to certain combinations intuitively, like a darker hue against a lighter one, for example.
When testing, trying and experimenting, the art of color photography can get quite interesting: intense, expressive, even playful. I gravitate toward the more playful, whimsical side of color use, as I often fill my frame with as much color as I can—rows of colored shoes, art supplies or vibrant graffiti, all of which make my heart sing.
And, yet, as appealing as a multitude of hues can be, another effective, and somewhat unexpected, approach can be to attempt a kind of harmony with shades of a particular hue. A monochromatic study (just one color at a time) within your frame can feel soothing and deliberate. Imagine a blue sky meeting a blue sea and even a blue boat, or green leaves against green grass. You have to depend more on the shade of the color and a play of light to get the variation of the color composed in a visually compelling way. When you do, this celebration of a single color within a single image can be very effective.
THE COMPOSITION OF COLOR
Once you understand how colors work together, you can seek out color in your world and choose how you’d like to include it in your photography. Beyond the actual color itself, you also must consider the placement of that color within your frame.
Where the color is and how it’s arranged can make all the difference in creating a strong image. You may choose red Converse shoes standing on green grass, but where you choose to place those shoes in your frame is as important a choice as what colors you choose.
By tapping into the basic concepts of composition, you can use tried-and-true techniques to create and compose a compelling image. Consider things like balance, symmetry or asymmetry, repetition and framing as you choose where to place the elements of color in your images.
THE SYMBOLISM OF COLOR
Being aware of what kind of effect particular colors may evoke is another way to add a layer of emotion to your images. Red can symbolize passion or danger. Blue may be calming or soothing. Yellow is usually sunny and cheerful.
Color can stir intense feelings. Understanding what message your color choice may be sending can be helpful as you decide which you choose to use.
Making deliberate decisions based on color communication also can allow your artistic intention to shine through in your work. The obvious examples may be expressing your playful side with bright, happy colors or using a subdued color palette to express melancholy or introspection. Although using color like this may be something you’ve done on a subconscious level, making conscious choices can add a new dimension to the stories you tell through your images.
THE SUBJECT OF COLOR
Obviously, a color photograph isn’t made up of color alone. The subject matter has a huge role in defining your image—it’s also telling a story.
The key is to use color to support, emphasize or even contradict that. You can do any of these. When your subject matter is punctuated by colors that fit it well and make sense, the color isn’t usually the main focus of the shot.
When you choose to use color to help tell a story in a different way—through high drama or heavy saturation—your subject matter might become more interesting. Using unusual or unexpected color choices in your composition often can bring so much attention to the color itself that it’s a true part of the subject matter.
There’s no right or wrong way to use color. The object is to use it intention-ally, to see color as an element of your image that’s as important as any other element, like texture, light, shape, perspective or even expression. Be mindful of your artistic intentions and use color deliberately to boost your creativity, improve your photography and have fun in the process.
MORE COLOR CONSIDERATIONS
|Take these elements into account for more expressive images.
Weather: A bright sunny day will boost color saturation, while inclement weather mutes colors. On the grayest days (fog, clouds or rain), it can be hard to find color at all.
Time: Different times of day illuminate color in different ways. In the early-morning or last afternoon hours, colors soften with a warm glow. At midday, you’ll get a much stronger and sometimes harsher effect.
Light: Plenty of bright, indirect light is often your best bet to getting the colors you see captured truest to life. On the contrary, shooting indoors using only ambient light can make everything yellow-orange, unless you’re using a flash.
Processing: A lot can be done to enhance color in the digital darkroom. A simple tweak of contrast or brightness or a boost of saturation can help to brighten up your colors.
Photographer and writer Xanthe Berkeley is a contributor to Shutter Sisters; find her online at www.xantheberkeley.com. Tracey Clark (www.traceyclark.com) is the founder of Shutter Sisters and author of Elevate the Everyday: A Photographic Guide to Picturing Motherhood (Focal Press).