I have always been a bit obsessed with color.
I love the surge of energy I get when I have a bright red pedicure, the calmness I feel when I’m surrounded by the deep blue water of the Pacific Northwest, or how my favorite yellow sweater brings a little cheerfulness to an otherwise gloomy day. My love of color spills into my photography as well.
While I can definitely appreciate a good dramatic black and white image, I usually feel something is missing in my work if I’m not using color in some way to help tell my story. Here are some of the techniques I use to create memorable images using color.
1. Emphasize your emotion or mood
Color is amazing. It can make us feel happy, sad, energized, calm, cheerful, serious, playful, or any range of emotions in between. And the best thing? Once you understand the emotional value of color, you can use this knowledge in a meaningful way to help you tell your story. While the meaning behind certain colors is somewhat subjective and varies from culture to culture, there are some that are more universal in meaning. In general, colors on the warm side of the spectrum evoke feelings of energy and warmth to feelings of love, danger, or even anger. Colors on the cool side of the spectrum can be calm and serene, or can lean towards sadness or aloofness.
The warm, golden tones of the evening sun provide an atmosphere of warmth, energy, fun, and a sense of adventure for what may be waiting at the top of the trail.
Purple is often considered a spiritual color, and here the soft, muted lavender tones provide the perfect atmosphere for a moment of contemplation and introspection at the lake.
Red is a powerful color. Here, the deep red lipstick hints at romance, excitement, or perhaps a little bit of danger.
2. Use a splash of color to grab attention
Using a bold pop of color against a neutral background is another great way to grab your viewer’s attention. With this technique, the eye is drawn to the bright splash of color in the image very quickly. Because the color will be such a dominant focal point, remember to consider if it conveys the right emotion or mood for your image, otherwise it could detract from your overall artistic vision.
These yellow Adirondack chairs provide a pop of cheerful energy against the dismal gray water and sky.
The red in this image emphasizes a sense of mystery, adventure, or even points at something dangerous waiting on the other side of the street.
3. Seek out complimentary colors
Using colors together, particularly contrasting or complementary colors, will allow you to create an image that is even more dynamic. These complementary colors – red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple are found on opposite ends of the color wheel, and when placed next to one another, increase the total color contrast in the image. Picture an orange school bus against a blue sky or a red flower in a green field.
The blue light of the early evening contrasts nicely with the yellow-orange lights from the ferry. I moved the hue slider to from yellow to orange in Lightroom to emphasize this contrast even further.
The red raft really pops against the cool green water in this image of my daughter floating on the lake.
4. Use color temperature to your advantage
Light has color. The setting sun casts a golden, warm glow right before sunset. Or cool moonlight can be reflected shimmering on a mountain lake. You can set your white balance settings to match the source that’s lighting your subject, or you can play with this in post-production for artistic effect. I’d recommend shooting in RAW to maintain the most flexibility in your images for post-processing.
Here I deliberately shifted my white balance to be more cool than normal, as I wanted to emphasize a sense of loneliness for my daughter’s favorite lovey on laundry day. The cool blue is balanced by the warmth of the light inside the dryer, and the pink lovey waiting safely inside hints at the youthfulness and femininity of its owner.
5. Know when not to use color
I generally see the world in color, and my images reflect that. Color makes my heart sing. But I recognize that certain scenarios just call for black and white. Sometimes brightly colored clothing or surroundings can confuse the eye. Or you may want to limit the color of your background and other surroundings to keep the focus on your subject.
Converting this image to black and white kept the focus of this image on the activity that was happening inside – my husband reading a bedtime story to my daughter and a friend.
This image had a good range of shadows and highlights, and I felt that converting the image to black and white helped to keep the emphasis on my daughter’s crazy bedhead. The color distracted the eye and didn’t make the image stronger in any way.
Just like shape, form, texture, line, or light, color is an important element to consider when thinking about your overall photograph. Learning to use color effectively, whether to emphasize mood, emotion, or to draw a viewer’s attention to a specific part of your story, can only make your images stronger.