Maximum Color With Minimal Equipment

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer as most of the U.S. starts experiencing some of the best weather of the year. The hot days aren’t too hot and the cool nights aren’t too bad either. All in all, late spring and early summer are ideal times to enjoy getting outdoors with your camera. And lest you think you can’t shoot great shots if you haven’t traveled to an iconic location like a national park or Caribbean island, rest assured that there’s something present in practically every location that makes for great photographs: color. The presence of bright, vivid colors on their own can produce interesting shots. Here are four tips to cultivate colorful photographs without the need for special lighting equipment or post-processing skills so you can make more interesting and colorful pictures all summer long.

Start With A Vibrant Scene

That sounds simple enough, of course, but it’s sometimes easier said than done. It’s important to think about the actual color content of the scene rather than just thinking about how you can dial up whatever color may be there once the image hits your computer. There’s a difference between a saturated picture and a colorful one. Colorful implies a variety of inherently vibrant colors, rather than just a single color or two that have been saturated to the point of unreality.

If you want to make a vibrant picture, you’ll have a much easier time if you choose a subject that’s inherently colorful. In the natural world, this might be a field of yellow flowers against a deep blue sky, or in an urban setting it could be colorful buildings, a street vendor’s stall full of colorful fruits or any brightly painted objects. The point is, colorful pictures come from colorful people, spaces and places.

So, keep your eye out for color in your daily travels, and when a place looks like it has potential, take the time to explore it with an eye toward color. Or, at the very least, make note of it and go back later to make colorful captures. Another approach is to think about the kinds of subjects that lend themselves to colorful shots and head out in search of them. Fruits and flowers, of course, make farmers markets and street vendors an ideal option. So do painted murals and colorful art displays. Any place where artists and designers have had a noticeable impact is likely to be a great place to begin your search for color.  

Use A Manual White Balance Setting

In many situations, when the color of a picture is also the content of the picture, proper white balance becomes even more important. Working indoors, an incorrect manual white balance—or a slightly off automatic white balance—can lead to unwanted color shifts and pictures that are too warm or too cool or pictures that simply don’t do justice to the actual colors you saw with your eyes.

To that end, carry a neutral gray card or other white balancing device and set your camera to RAW image capture. These techniques together not only provide for more accurate white balance in-camera, but they also allow you to make precise adjustments to color in post-processing without fear of losing fidelity.

Manual white balance is even more important when the color in a scene is coming from the light source itself. Think about a golden or pink sunset light for a moment. If you made a portrait with a strong orange hue at sunset with the camera set to automatic white balance, the camera itself will be working to neutralize that strong, saturated color. Then you end up with a plain old portrait rather than one made with vibrant, color-filled light. A manual daylight white balance or a color temperature dialed in to something in the area of 5400k will deliver the full intensity of that saturated, golden sunset light.

This premise holds true any time you’re counting on the color of the light source to impart color in the scene or when the color of the light source is creating a cast you may want to eliminate—such as the blue shift that comes when photographing in open shade. Dialing in a manual white balance, and shooting RAW with a neutral gray card for reference, are the ideal ways to ensure maximum color every time.

Consider A Polarizer

Many photographers think of polarizing filters as useful only for eliminating unwanted glare or darkening blue skies. But, in fact, polarizing filters can be incredibly useful for showcasing vivid colors. The reason polarizers work for this is actually the same reason they darken blue skies and eliminate glare—because both of those issues are a function of scattered light. By polarizing these light sources, our eyes (and camera sensors) have effectively blocked the glare from scattered light for a more accurate view of the detail—and color—behind it. This means that a polarizing filter will eliminate the highlights on colorful foliage, for instance, and have the effect of maximizing saturation.

Any time a highlight, reflection or glare is obscuring a colorful subject, it’s also minimizing the effective saturation. So, a simple polarizer remedies that and lets the full spectrum of color come through. Beware, however, that in some cases the boosted saturation and contrast can be almost too much, as can the total elimination of natural reflections. This is another opportunity for circular polarizer filters to shine because they don’t need to be all or nothing. They can actually be turned to eliminate a little or a lot of the reflections that block color or positioned anywhere in between.

Use Pattern, Repetition And Abstraction To Your Advantage

Sometimes a colorful scene is still perceived as a shot of a subject within a colorful environment rather than an image of the colors themselves. If what you’re going for is a photograph of color itself, you can avoid the traditional center of interest and action shots to instead put the focus on the color itself. This can be a bit boring if not done with care, so a great way to get around a lack of a single focal point or center of interest is to instead compose with an eye toward pattern, repetition and abstraction.

Colorful feathers, colorful foliage, colorful paints and pigments—all of these things lend themselves to interesting images even without context. So, instead of looking for a specific moment or a single center of interest, try to compose with patterns in mind. Get closer or use a macro lens to key in on smaller areas or simply crop out distractions and other competing elements from larger scenes. When a scene’s color is compelling enough, the lack of a traditional center of interest or identifiable subject matter can be inconsequential. In fact, it can help turn a photograph from a colorful picture of some specific thing into an abstract image of color itself.

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