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 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.