Colour in Photography
Colour has its language, too. It is one of the strongest forms of nonverbal communication for photographers. Exploring colour is like opening up new vistas of your photographic journey. Like any language, it may be unknown to you at the beginning, but once you comprehend and use colour, you will be able to speak the new language and communicate with your viewers. Colour is, in fact, a language of feeling, mood and emotion. Feeling through imagery can be more powerful than the written or spoken word since it shows rather than tell—a classical rationale of story-telling.
Colour and Emotional Response: It is a fact to the painters that different colours spark different emotional responses in a person. Although the same is true for photography, there are very few photographers who are conscious of this fact. In art schools we read that reds and oranges can cause feelings of excitement, warmth, and power in a viewer. Blues can create a sense of peace, calm and cool, while pastels stir thoughts of innocence and purity. Colour has even been responsible for bringing to mind long forgotten memories for some people. It is a skilled photographer who understands colour and employs it to draw the desired response from their viewers.
Basic Colour Terminology: A quick and easy way to increase your understanding of colour is to increase your vocabulary a bit. There are some common terms below used to describe the characteristics of colour with regard to photography:
- Hue: A colour has three defining characteristics: its hue, value and intensity. The hue of a colour is determined by the dominant light wavelengths that are reflected or emitted from an object. Our eyes and brains interpret these light waves as colour and we call these colours hues. The word hue is often used interchangeably with “colour”.
- Value: The value of a colour is gauged by its lightness or darkness. Just think of a value scale as a vertical gradation from black on the bottom to white on the top. Yellow’s equivalent value of grey would be high on this scale because yellow is a light colour. Indigo blue would be very low on the scale because it is so dark.
- Intensity: the words intensity and saturation are used interchangeably and refer to the purity or strength of a colour.
- Tones, Tints and Shades: These are all variations of a hue. Tints are created by adding white, shades are created by adding black and a tone is created by adding a middle-tone grey to a colour.
- Gradations: Colour gradations are colours that appear to change from one to another with smooth, seamless transitions. An excellent example of a colour gradation is a sunset with colours that range from red at the horizon to dark blue directly overhead.
- Analogous Hues: Analogous colours are similar, but separate, distinguishable colours. For example a meadow scene in spring that has many different kinds of trees and grasses will have many analogous hues of green.
- Monochromatic Hues: Monochromatic photographs are comprised of various tones, values and intensities of one colour or group of closely related colours.
- Colour Harmony: Colour harmony is achieved when the colours in a photograph appear visually pleasing together. The best way to learn about colour harmony is visually. Art stores carry books that have colour charts and wheels, value scales and other aids that are helpful in understanding colour and its properties.
- Complimentary Colours: On a standard colour wheel, complimentary colours are opposite one another. For example the complimentary colour to orange is blue, for green it’s red, and for yellow, it is violet.
- Neutral Colours: Neutral colours are hues lacking bold colour pigment. Flesh tones, greys, black and white are all considered neutrals.
- Contrasting Colours: Colours in a scene will often affect one another, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively. Often complimentary colours, such as blue and orange, will compete for attention if placed next to one another. Study a few photographs that have a lot of colour in them. Try to see which colours look good together, which ones clash and which ones compete for your attention.
- Colour Continuity: Colour continuity is achieved when a dominant colour in your scene is distributed throughout the frame, tying it all together. For example, in a mountain lake landscape you may have blue wildflowers in the foreground. Perhaps the blue sky reflected off the lake in the middle ground is the same colour as the flowers, which is also the same colour of the sky itself at the top of the photo. This would be considered an image with good colour continuity.
Perception of Warm and Cool Colours
Understanding how viewers might react to the colours in your photograph can help you choose the right colours for the job. In a simplified example, pretend you are on assignment to photograph the fun and festivities at a local beach in summer. If the day turns out to be cloudy, your image will lack warm hues, giving your photographs an overall cool temperature. You may capture all the right shots, but the light in your image will be telling a different story.
If your capture has blue and violet hues, it will give the image a very cool feeling. And if you capture the image that is glowing with rich reds and oranges, the warmth of the colours might affect a viewer by bringing to memory a time when they felt warm, or any number of other emotional responses.