Punch Up The Color

This is a really nice image,” I tell Jay, a photo workshop participant. I’m teaching a landscape photo workshop, and this afternoon we’re doing image critiques.

“I like the horizontal line, the foggy atmosphere and the silhouetted person on the sidewalk. But there’s one thing I would do different.”

“Maybe crop out the side of the tree?” Jay asks.

“No, I think the tree is okay,” I reply. “I think you need to crop out the red stop sign. Everything in your shot implies a tranquil, sleepy scene except the bright red sign. Red distracts the viewer from the man, and implies danger and action. This scene is all about calm. To improve the image, you need to use color that supports the image concept.”

Color is a critical design element in an image. Some photographers, like Pete Turner and Eric Meola, have based their careers on photographing color. Color is their subject matter, not a supporting element. But for many photographers, color is an afterthought in their images. I’m guilty of this mistake, as well. I could change the color in postproduction, but this doesn’t excuse my oversight when I captured the image. Color needs to be considered in every image.

What color is best for your shot? That’s the million-dollar question. But the good news is that learning color theory is simple, and once you understand what color implies, you can use this knowledge to create stronger images. Just remember one concept when you’re composing an image: Design elements need to support one another and point in the same direction. Harmonious design elements create a strong image. If one design element goes against the concept the other elements imply, the image won’t be as strong as it can be.

Color Theory

Before we can look at individual colors and color combinations, we need to have a basic understanding of color theory. One of my favorite questions to ask in a photography workshop is, “What are the primary colors?” Usually, more than half the class replies red, green and blue. We live and work in such an RGB world that it makes sense that these are the primary colors. If you’re looking at the visible spectrum of light, such as computer monitors or LCD projectors, then red, green and blue are the primary colors. This is the additive color theory model.

But photographers work in the pigment- and paint-based world. When you’re looking at colors in a scene, you want to use the traditional, or subtractive, color theory model. This theory states that red, blue and yellow are the primary colors, and equal part mixtures of these colors result in the secondary colors of green, orange and purple. Continued mixing of these colors results in an endless array of hues. But to keep things simple, let’s just look at the primary and secondary colors and what they imply to the viewer.

Color Significance

Color has been studied and analyzed since the 1400s and Leonardo da Vinci. Designers, painters and photographers use these established theories in their work. Entire advertising campaigns are based around color and its implied meaning. But color significance can be different from a cultural standpoint. We think of white as representing purity and innocence, a perfect choice for a bride’s wedding dress. But in some cultures, white signifies mourning and death. Different cultural color associations may affect how you use color in your image.

Following are popular colors and their established meanings. The next time you’re composing a shot, study the colors in the image. Do they help or hinder your concept? Once you recognize the color significance and use it to your advantage, you’re on the way to creating better images.

Red. Red is one of my favorite colors to use in an image. Red implies love, danger, heat and action. Red catches the viewer’s eye and is hard to overlook. Since I shoot a lot of adventure sports, red works well. Adventure sports are often about adrenaline-pumping action, and red supports this concept well. But red can have two different meanings in an image. On one hand, red signifies love, warmth and positive feelings, but red also can be used to signify danger, anger and jealousy. If you’re creating a stock image illustrating two people arguing over a traffic accident, red faces would help symbolize anger. But a couple embracing with red skin tones would signify love.

Blue. Blue has the opposite effect of red. Blue implies calm and tranquility. Blue signifies cold, as well. I photograph a lot of assignments in Alaska. One subject I encounter every year are towering glaciers. These glaciers are frigid blocks of ice. What camera technique can I use to help imply cold? For starters, I want to use a neutral white balance like Daylight, and not Cloudy or Shade. While I use Cloudy white balance for many landscape images, this white balance will add an orange tone and warm up my icy cold glacier, not the right effect for blue fins of ice. Use blue to support cold scenes or to contribute to calm, tranquil scenes.

Yellow. Yellow is a friendly, welcoming color. Just imagine how many front doormats have bright yellow sunflowers on them. Beyond the attractive flowers, yellow is inviting people into your home. Yellow implies cheeriness, happiness, hope and high energy. If you want to photograph young kids and illustrate the exuberance and joy of playing in the park, yellow is a good choice. Yellow is an advancing, eye-catching color that will attract a viewer’s attention and create optimism in an image.

Green. To create an eco-friendly image, green is your color. Green symbolizes the natural world, spring growth and good health. Green creates a soothing feeling and promotes harmony with the surrounding environment. Many advertisers use green to convey an underlying tone to the product they’re advertising. If you’re selling a medicine that makes people healthy and eliminates their stress, green is a good choice. I was hired to shoot images to illustrate how visiting Alaska “brought you back to nature.” We used numerous sweeping green tundra landscapes to help convey this feeling.

Orange. Orange is another eye-catching color that attracts the viewer’s attention. Think of how many distress symbols and objects use orange—safety vests, traffic cones, buoys. Orange stimulates creativity, enthusiasm and appetite. It also represents warmth. Similar to red, I like to use orange in my adventure-sports imagery. Orange is hard to ignore and bound to get a reaction from the viewer, a great choice for a gripping adventure-sports shot. Climbers summiting a peak look terrific in bright colors. Orange parkas create tension and interest in the shot, perfect for the image concept. If you have blue skies in the shot, then you have a dynamic complementary color pattern. Put the same climbers on the summit in brown coats, and you may not even see them. You don’t want calm, relaxing colors in this image as they defeat the image concept of determination, perseverance and endurance.

Purple. Purple (or violet) signifies uniqueness and royalty. Purple is a good choice to show something that’s special. Purple is also uplifting and calming, and a color used to reflect spirituality. If I wanted to photograph a woman practicing yoga and really focus in on the spirituality of the image, purple would be a good choice to use in the image.

Examples: Color And Image Concepts

Now that you have an unde
rstanding of primary and secondary color meanings, let’s look at a few examples of how color contributes to the image concept.

Take a look at these two kayaking images. One image is whitewater kayaking, the other image is sea kayaking, but the image concepts are totally opposite.

The whitewater kayaker is paddling off a 60-foot waterfall, a very bold, risky activity. This image is about drama, danger and action. The kayaker’s boat is red, the perfect color to support this feeling. Would blue or green be a good choice for his boat? Absolutely not; these colors wouldn’t be harmonious with the other design elements and would weaken the image concept.

Next, look at the sea kayaking shot. This is a person kayaking on a calm, foggy morning in Prince William Sound, Alaska. I want to convey the wilderness feel and peaceful nature of this activity. In this case, a blue boat is the best choice. Blue conveys cool and calm, perfect for this concept. Green also would work well, but red and orange would be a step in the wrong direction for this image concept.

Complementary Colors

Another effective way to bring some snap and pop to your images is using complementary colors. Complementary colors are colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. When these colors are used side by side in an image, they make each hue more vibrant and intense. Use this color relationship to your advantage in your images.

Red And Green. Red and green used side by side make each hue more vibrant. Imagine a red maple tree surrounded by green pine trees. The maple tree just seems to jump off the page. This is due to both shape and the complementary color pattern. I once shot an assignment in the Virgin Islands. I photographed red kayaks traveling across the transparent green ocean as our group paddled around St. John. I couldn’t believe how the red sea kayaks seemed to vibrate in my images, all due to the complementary color pattern.

Blue And Orange. Have you ever wondered why images from the desert Southwest look so dramatic? Sure, the towering spires and arches are stunning subject matter, but consider the color palette of this arid landscape. Most of the sandstone is orange, and many days the sky overhead is blue—a perfect complementary color pattern. The blue and orange complementary colors make Delicate Arch even more dramatic. The desert Southwest is one of the most obvious complementary color patterns in nature.

Yellow And Purple. The last complementary color pattern is yellow and purple. Finding this color pattern in the summer is easy. Many fields of wildflowers are composed of violet and yellow flowers. Just point and shoot—the colors will help you create a striking landscape image. If you can’t find a natural complementary color pattern, try making your own. Set up a purple-colored seamless background, and try photographing a model wearing yellow. Your model will “pop off the canvas.”

There are other parts to design that are important to consider as well. Line, shape, form, texture and pattern all play a role in your image concept. But color often sets the tone for a shot. I’m headed back to the Virgin Islands this winter for another kayaking shoot. Since I know the water is green, we’re bringing red kayaks for the shoot. Those boats are going to look good!

Create Your Own Color Using Gels

More often than not, you have to work with the colors you get in a scene. You can eliminate a distracting color or maybe include more of a color you like. But wouldn’t it be great if you could create the color you want in your shot? This is easy to do—all you need are gels.

Have you ever been to a stage performance and watched the lighting during the show? At one point, the lights are bright orange and yellow, matching a cheery scene in the play. But then the next moment, the lights are deep blue during a cold, sad scene. Theatrical gels are being used to change the color of the lights, and photographers can use the same gels on their strobes.

Gels come in a few different styles. Some gels are color-correcting, or CC, gels. These gels are used to change the color temperature of a light to match what the photographer needs. I sometimes put color-correcting green gels on my strobe when I’m photographing employees under fluorescent lighting. I’ll set my white balance to Fluorescent, gel my strobes with green to match this white balance, and everything will look neutral in the final shot. I also often use orange (CTO) and blue (CTB) color-correcting gels in other mixed lighting environments.

Gels come in a wide variety of theatrical colors. You pick the color you like for the image, and add this to your flash. If you want to create a scary scene, add a red gel to your light. If you want to photograph someone in mourning, how about using a blue gel? Rosco (www.rosco.com) produces a wide range of colored gels for almost any use. They offer gels in precut TTL flash sizes, as well as larger sheets for studio strobes. Numerous other companies like Honl Photo (www.honlphoto.com) and Rogue Photographic Design (www.expoimaging.com) offer speedlight-sized gels.

One of my favorite complementary color patterns, and the most effective using gels, is blue and orange. The technique involves counter-filtration of the flash using Incandescent white balance.

Here’s how it works. First, set your white balance to Incandescent (or Tungsten). This white balance will render daylight blue. Next, determine your daylight exposure, and underexpose the ambient light by 1 to 2 stops. This makes the blue sky an even deeper blue, a rich color to use as a background. Now, attach full CTO (color temperature orange) gels to your flashes using gaffer tape. Gaffer tape won’t leave a residue and holds well. Aim your flashes at your subject, determine the right output, and fire away.

Whatever the flash hits will render close to neutral since you have orange gels on the flashes. I adjust my white balance so my subject has a slight warm tone (orange) against the deep blue background. Warm advances off of cool, and you have an orange/blue complementary color pattern that makes your image pop!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. Visit www.tombolphoto.com.

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