COLORS in photography

COLORS in photography

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Shooting in color will always seems a very simple thing, especially so if you only know what digital photography. But colors in photography fulfill much more than the role of bringing things to life.  

Colors in a photo, or in video, can help you a lot on telling the story or when to set the mood for the scene. Colors are very useful tools in the life of any artist be it a photographer, painter, or designer.

And today we’re going to talk a little bit about colors in general, but mostly colors in photography. 

How to use colors in photography

Understanding how colors communicate and understanding what mood may be the result of a color are very special things. For some people, this type of synesthesia is essential to produce certain feelings.

Using my great love of music as an example it is very common for a certain song to sprout in a certain tone, and this usually represents the feeling that music passes me. 

And as if listening to a quieter song my mind filled with a bluish purple color, and this brings me a certain tranquility. Or when I hear a heavier sound, which is usually the preference here in the house, orange and red tones appear, which make me pay more attention to what is happening around me. 

Yes, I know this sounds like conversation from someone who just had a certain type of herb or mushrooms, but it’s not like that.

So when I think of colors in photography I try to put the same feeling I have with music in action.

To understand certain things we need the help of a simple color wheel where we have the primary colors of red, yellow and blue and their complementary colors. 

Understanding this color wheel is key to producing good color photographs.

For many photographers, this is an intuitive thing and they are able to feel the compatibility of colors. But it is also a skill that can be learned from practice.

How to make a good color combination ?

The combination of colors is something essential in a work that will be distributed in a colorful way. Not only photos, but also drawings, movies, paintings and so on. 

Concerning how colors communicate the feeling the artist wants to convey and also how colors speak to each other can be a lifelong study. It is the same thing as leaving art itself and going to branches such as psychology, for example.

Complementary colors 

The first combination of colors we see are the complementary colors. In the photo below we see that the teal/green color is complementary to the color orange/red. Soon we can use this relationship between these colors to create special features in our photos.

Color wheel with complementary colors - Colors in photography

As we can see in the photos above the peppers stand out much more because of the green background of the photo. And talking about colors in photography this is a good use of complementary colors.

Of course we can divide the color wheel into many more segments, and thus achieve a much wider range of shades. 

Using basically the same complementary color ratio we managed for example to get to the so famous Teal and Orange color scheme. Which is nothing more than a shade of green and a shade of orange working together, and most part of the movies after 2000’s use.

robert downey jr in Irom Man 2 - Example of complementary colors

This type of placement is very famous in the movies and TV series, where the shadow of the scene has this more greenish coloring, while the brighter parts of the photo hang towards something more reddish orange. 

You can not only manipulate the coloring of your photos in post production but can also do so while preparing the photo. Choose a background color that is the complementary color of the dominant color of your portrait and see how everything will collaborate to bring attention to the main object. The same goes for clothes that models will wear or for landscape photos, try planning the photo to incorporate complementary colors 

Other combinations

In addition to the complementary colors we still have other combinations that also have the same job, use the colors to communicate something.  These combinations are:

  • Analogous Colors
  • Triad
  • Monochrome 
  • Shadows 

Once we understand the relationship between colors it becomes much easier to think about how and why to combine them. The main combinations will basically cover everything you will do when working with colors in your life! 

Luminance, contrast, saturation, and hue

In addition to the colors relating to each other they also have a great relationship between itselves and how we perceive them. There are many people who can see differences between two shades of green. For other people these differences may be non-existent. 

One of the differences that can easily go unnoticed by people is the luminance of color. The luminance is nothing more than how bright os dark is the color.

Luminance of colors vs colors in photography

In addition to the luminance in the colors we also have two other pillars, saturation and hue. Saturation defines the intensity of the color. We know that the more intense the color, the more attention it will draw. But very saturated colors can be annoying and quickly tire the viewer’s eyes. 

Color Saturation values

Speaking of hue it is a way to distinguish one color from another based on the amount of red, green or blue present in the color. 

The hue can join with the luminance property of the color, so that we can define the transparency of the color. We can say that the hue is what gives the colors names.

Colors Hue Disc

The color contrast is the difference in luminance of two nearby colors that will at some point be superimposed. A simple example is a portrait of someone with black hair under a black background. The color contrast in this case will be very minimal, making it difficult to distinguish the background of the photo of the person’s hair.  On the other hand, same black hair over a white background will have a higher level of color contrast. 

A very cool site to see what is the level of color contrast is the Webaim.org where you can set the color of the background and foreground and get an idea of the amount of contrast. Null color contrast will have a 1:1 level while full color contrast will have a 21:1 level

But what colors work well together?

A simple way to start working with colors is to look for colors that belong to the same family (for example, shades of red and orange). These are known as analog color schemes. Often, you will find them occurring naturally in nature and they are harmonious and pleasing to the eye.

If you are shooting with similar colors, you need to make sure that there is enough contrast between the colors to create an interesting photo.

Once you master this, you can go on to work with complementary colors. These are opposite colors on the color wheel (for example, red and green). This can create a very vibrant scene, but it is inadvisable to use them in large doses.

A good way to use complementary colors would be to photograph a landscape with lots of green grass and trees, with some red details to create a high contrast look.

Fresh pepper - color contrast

A more complex way to work with colors is to examine the color schemes of the triad. Triads colors are those evenly spaced around the color wheel (for example, purple, orange, and green).

As complementary colors, a triadic color scheme can be very vibrant, so it is better to work with one dominant color and the other two used as support. In general, colors work well when you follow these rules because they provide a well-combined and attractive image. Of course there are exceptions to the rule.

But, like all rules, it’s best to learn how they work them break then

In summary, color photography can be much more complex than black and white work, as you should feel color compatibility. But it is a task that can be mastered by practice!

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