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.
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.