How to make more powerful color photographs
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Why color photography?
The first question you must ask yourself,
“Why shoot color pictures?”
Personally, I like all photography. I like shooting black and white, color, digital, film, phone, whatever format. Ultimately, I am passionate about pictures which excite me, spark joy in my eye and mind, and pictures which inspire me to LIVE MORE in my real life.
Anyways, I like color photography because color photography brings out more joy, excitement, and optimism in life. The world is also a colorful place — in terms of spirit, philosophically, and physically.
Generally, black and white photography is good to evoke timelessness, nostalgia, solemn mood, and often darkness and despair. You can of course make optimistic, joyful pictures in black and white, but it is more difficult. Also, I think generally colors are better to evoke joyful emotions, because there is something about colors in itself which sparks some sort of emotions within the human soul.
Color photography is more challenging
I also find that color photography is more challenging than black and white photography. Why? When you add color, you add another variable, and another level of complexity to your pictures.
Generally, I think a strong picture must be both simple and dynamic.
It is very hard to make a simple color picture. Why? Because colors often distract more than add to a picture. We must use colors to direct the eyes of the viewer — to have the colors lead their eyes around the frame.
Now being a color photographer is very difficult, because at least in street photography—you cannot control the colors in the real world. You can control how you frame your scenes, when to hit the shutter, but ultimately you are at the whims of reality. Reality will present certain colors to you, and you will have to make the choice of how to paint with your camera.
Don’t Trust Color Theory too much
I’m a bit skeptical of color theory in photography and art because ultimately — they are all just theories.
Also, too much focus and nerdiness on color theory can harm us as visual artists and photographers. Why? We must as photographers first focus on making good pictures and being ACTIVE in the real world. We shouldn’t just go out, trying to follow some theory, and then take pictures.
First take pictures, then understand the color theory afterwards.
Study color theory, then go out and take pictures.
Color theory should be a tool for us to understand our color pictures after we shoot them. We should use color theory to analyze our pictures afterwards.
There are multiple color theories out there such as “opponent process color theory” and on “complementary colors”.
For this guide, we will stick to the basics, the primary colors of Red, Yellow, and Blue (RYB Colors).
The biggest inspiration I get from color theory, composition, and visual art is from Piet Mondrian. He was able to distill emotion, structure, and tension— just using black lines, white, and Red, Yellow, and Blue to make a powerful picture.
In order to better understand his colors, lines, and compositions— I’ve used the iPad and Procreate app to make my own sketches and drawings, based on his pictures. I like the placement of his Red, Yellow, and Blue figures — and I like the dynamic tension and composition created through his pictures:
Red, Yellow, Blue
To start in color photography, let us limit our palette to the primary colors of Red, Yellow, and Blue.
Personally I like Red, Yellow, and Blue as a color combination, because I find them the most BOLD, ENERGETIC, and compelling. Also, these colors combined are naturally balanced, and pleasing on the eye.
Here are some pictures which include Red, Yellow, and Blue (all in the same picture) which I like:
Out of all the colors, RED is my favorite. It is the color of blood, drama, war, danger, power, and attention.
In your photos, always look for RED:
Bonus points if you can make a portrait or picture of someone dressed in red, against a red background:
You don’t need to just photograph people in red outfits. Look for red objects, and fill the frame with as much “redness” as possible:
Or, look for a “pop of red”— where the background is a mostly neutral white, grey, or black — with a little bit of red in the subject, to make them “pop” out of the background:
Red is good. Physiologically there have been studies where people who wear red lipstick, red dresses, red suits, red clothes —are rated more attractive. They certainly court more attention.
Lesson: If you want your subject to really pop out from the frame, either have them put on red clothes, red lipstick, or look for subjects in all red.
Assignment: Spend an entire day and only photograph the color red.
When I think of the color blue, I think calm, relaxation, and peace.
The most prominent color of blue comes from the sky and ocean.
Also, we perceive objects further away as more blue. If you are on top of a mountain range and look at faraway mountains, they will appear more blue, the further away they are.
Personally, I like the color blue — because it is calm and peaceful. When I see people wearing blue clothes, they are “inoffensive” to the eye, and I feel I can trust them.
To better isolate the colors, and study the color pictures you shoot, turn them into graphic illustrations. For example, I will open up a picture in Photoshop, apply a “Gaussian blue” filter to isolate the colors, then use the “eye dropper” tool to select the colors, then using the “polygonal lasso tool” to draw the shapes and fill in the colors:
Here a “Cubist Cindy” picture I made:
Yellow: we think danger, caution, we think bumblebees, attention, authority.
This is why “danger” or “caution” signs are usually made in yellow. Specifically, yellow background with black text.
Yellow is also one of the most “loud” colors— this is why if you want to be flashy, you get a bright yellow Lamborghini.
Also note, the color of GOLD most clearly resembles yellow. And humans have always valued gold as money, currency, and power. Therefore, we might have been socialized to value the color yellow as having power and influence.
Also, note that most advertising for fast food, or almost anything — is usually yellow. And often a combination of both Yellow and Red — to catch your attention the most:
Yellow makes us feel uncomfortable too:
We also like the color yellow — because at the most extreme brightness — the color is more yellow (not white). Note during sunrise or sunset, where you can see the yellow colors. These warmer Yellow colors relax us:
Personally, I find more orange scenes in photography. Also, note that the color of orange is very close to yellow:
Practical Color photography assignments
- For a month, only shoot color pictures, using ONLY JPEG. By only shooting JPEG (not RAW) it will help you to focus on training your eyes to SEE COLORS, rather than processing your colors to look more colorful afterwards. If your camera has it, set your camera JPEG processing setting to “high contrast color” or “high saturation color” mode.
- When you go out, give yourself an assignment, a “creative constraint” of only shooting one color. Only choose the color RED, YELLOW, or BLUE. If you see any other color, just ignore it. This will train your eyes to become more sensitive to only one colors.
- Draw and paint your own colors. Pick up a copy of CREATIVE EVERY DAY, and use the primary colors of Red, Yellow, and Blue. Make your own pictures or drawings on your phone, iPad, with crayons, markers, or pens.
- Study all visual art: To learn how to become a better photographer and learn better color theory, study more art in general. Not just photography. Photographers usually aren’t very good in controlling their colors. Personally I like Piet Mondrian, Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, and Andy Warhol and Basquiat for their colors.
- Wear colorful clothes: Train yourself with color coordination by making a more colorful wardrobe. Mix and match colors. Study fashion photography, like Guy Bourdain. See how they paint their pictures with colors.
Ultimately with color photography, have fun. Be like a big kid running around with crayons or markers—except, you have a camera instead.
Paint your own world,
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