We see the world in colour, and it’s often colour which attracts us as photographers. An understanding of colours —which colours contrast with each other, and which work in harmony — can help you produce better photographs. Its always been important to develop an eye for colour, and for subtle shifts in the lighting at different times of day, and getting accurate colour is particularly important if you want to reproduce the subject exactly as you saw it. Digital photography adds an extra dimension, of course. It’s now possible to alter colours after you’ve taken the photograph, and with far more subtlety, speed and control than in the past.

Warm vs cold

 

Photographers often speak of ‘warm’ versus ‘cold’ colours. This describes the intrinsic colour of light and how it changes according to the time of day and the light sources being used. Almost all light consists of a spectrum of colours mixed together. Early or late in the day, this spectrum contains a greater quantity of yellow and red, to give a characteristic warm-toned look. During the middle of the day, the colour balance is more neutral. Flash tends to give neutral-toned colours too, though can sometimes introduce a slightly blue ‘cold’ look. Shots taken in shade can look cool-toned too, especially if they’re lit by a blue sky (but not direct sun). Both ‘cool’ shots and ‘warm’ shots can look good, depending on the circumstances and what you’re trying to achieve. Portraits and landscapes can often benefit from a slightly ‘warm’ effect, often achieved in the past using special ‘warm-up’ filters.

 

The colour of natural light

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The auto white balance control on a digital camera is designed to adjust automatically to different light colours, or temperatures, to produce a result as near-neutral as possible. This isn’t always what you want. Landscape photographers, for example, will be more interested in preserving the natural colour of the light precisely, since it’s often this which gives a landscape shot its character. At dawn, or during twilight after the sun has gone down, the light is characteristically ‘cold’ and blue, which can produce wonderfully atmospheric low-light shots. In early morning or late afternoon, the low sun produces a warm glow that’s both attractive and evocative. If you want to preserve the colour of natural light, it’s important that your digital camera doesn’t attempt to ‘correct’ it. Most landscape shots are best taken using the Daylight setting, since this forces the camera to use a fixed, standardised colour balance.

What are colour spaces?

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Any discussion of colour and digital imaging will soon bring with it some technicalities unfamiliar to film photographers. One of these is the idea of ‘colour spaces’, which define the colours a camera (or a scanner, printer or computer monitor) can produce. Makers attempt to standardise these colour spaces so that the different digital Imaging devices you use can produce consistent colour. Most digital cameras and desktop printers use what’s called the ‘sRGB’ colour space. This reproduces a wide enough range of colours for most purposes, and has the advantage of being standard across a wide range of peripherals. Individual cameras, printers and scanners may also have ‘colour profiles’ which define how that particular device handles colour. You only need to know about colour profiles if you intend using your software’s colour management system.

What’s gamut?

 

A device’s ‘gamut’ describes the complete range of colours it can produce or record, and this is related to the colour space. Although the sRGB colour space is the most common in digital photography, there’s a ‘wider’ colour space called Adobe RGB. This is useful where images are destined for printing in magazines and books, where the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) printing inks produce a different and, in some areas of the spectrum, a wider set of colours. The expanded gamut of Adobe RGB can Increase the range of printable colours in these circumstances. More sophisticated digital cameras, mostly digital SIRs, can record images using the Adobe RGB mode. However, this isn’t recommended for most photographers since the results can look rather flat and lifeless with ordinary monitors and printers.

And bit depth?

Bit depth refers to the number of bits of data used to record each pixel in the image. The greater the bit-depth, the greater the range of tones and colours recorded, and the smoother the tonal transitions in your image. Most images are 8-bit, or may be referred to as 24-bit. (There are three colour channels in each image — red, green and blue — each containing 8-bit data, hence ’24-bit’). Normally, this is plenty, and images don’t show any obvious steps in tone or colour. However, after heavy manipulation, blotchiness, banding or posterisation effects can occur. It is possible to save images in 16-bit mode, which produces far smoother tones, but for this you need a camera which can shoot RAW images (most digital SLRs) and a program that can edit them (like Photoshop).

Colour temperature

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Colour temperature can be quantified scientifically using a temperature scale marked in degrees Kelvin. Lighting can vary in ‘colour temperature’ between 2000 degrees Kelvin (warrn) and 9500 degrees Kelvin (cold). This derives from the fact that the light emitted by heated objects produces a spectrum which changes as the temperature increases. Low-temperature lighting is progressively warmer (more red/yellow), while high-temperature lighting grows progressively colder (more blue). This is what the white balance control on a digital camera is designed to compensate for. You can either leave it set to ‘automatic’ and hope for the best, or choose a manual preset to match the conditions. Some high-end digital cameras quote white balance values in degrees Kelvin, but most use named presets corresponding to specific conditions, like Daylight, Tungsten and Shade. Our chart illustrates the variations in colour temperature you might encounter with a range of subjects and shooting situations.

White Balance

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Film users had no control over white balance. You bought a film balanced for typical daylight and the only other option was to switch to a special ‘tungsten-balanced’ film for shooting under studio tungsten lighting. Digital cameras, though, can compensate for different-coloured lighting by altering the ratios of red, green and blue as the image is processed and saved. Alternatively, if you have a camera that can save RAW files, you can choose the white balance setting when processing the image on your computer. By default, digital cameras adjust the white balance automatically. There will be situations, though, where you might want to override this automatic setting and choose the white balance manually in order to preserve the colours of the scene, or make sure the colour compensation is correct.

Quality issues

Although you can change the white balance of your images later in your image-editor it’s not necessarily the best time to do it. If you save your images as WEG files when you shoot, the camera processes the sensor information before saving the file, and this processing includes white balance adjustment — the camera applies whatever white balance value is currently set. If you then go on to alter the colour balance on your computer, you are in effect processing the image a second time, which introduces a degree of quality loss. It’s best to do one of two things: either (a) choose the correct white balance setting at the time of shooting or (b) shoot RAW (unprocessed) files and process them on your computer, choosing the white balance setting at that point.

Auto vs Preset

You shouldn’t leave your camera set to auto white balance permanently because it won’t always get it right. The camera will attempt to analyse the colours in the scene and ‘normalise’ them, but it can often fail to differentiate between the colour of the light and the intrinsk colours in the subject itself. In addition to this, it may attempt to compensate for atmospheric lighting conditions early or late in the day that are actually part of what you’re trying to record. Finally, where you do want to ‘normalise’ the colours, you’ll find that auto white balance systems usually fall to compensate for extremes of lighting, like the excessive warmth of domestic tungsten lighting or the pronounced ‘coldness’ of the light in deep shade. Indeed, you may find it better to choose your white balance settings manually to suit the conditions, because at least then you’ll know how the camera is going to respond.

Warming things up

Most people prefer shots to be ‘warmer rather than ‘colder. Indeed. landscapes and portraits often benefit from a little extra warmth rather than being rendered with technically ‘correct’ coloss. There are a number of ways of achieving this. One is to deliberately choose a mis-matched white balance setting designed for cooler•toned lighting. For example, to warm up a sunset. try setting the white balance to ‘Cloudy’ ix ‘Shade’. This fools the camera into warming up the colour balance. You could also use a warm-up filter attached to the lens, but make sure you choose a manual white balance setting — if you leave it set to auto, the camera may simply attempt to compensate for the filter, leaving you back where you started. You can also warm up images once they’re on your computer. The easiest way to do this is by adjusting the colour balance. In Photoshop, for example, try adding red and reducing blue in roughly equal quantities.

Getting creative

You can add more extreme colour shifts in Photoshop to great creative effect. For example, to simulate moonlight, first darken the image to give a night-time effect, then shift the colour balance drastic* towards blue. (Incidentally, moonlight isn’t actually blue. It’s as blue as daylight, but the artificial effect we apply here creates the impression of moonight we’ve all absorbed from countless Hollywood films.) Sunsets can often prove disappointing, largely due to the camera’s attempts to neutralise the colours. One way of restoring a sunset effect is to apply a coloured gradient to your image. You can do this on another layer, using Multiply mode or Colour mode so that the gradient overlays the image below rather than covering it up. Why not experiment at the time of shooting, by choosing white balance settings which are completely ‘wrong’ for the conditions? We’ve mentioned the idea of shooting sunsets with the ‘Cloudy/Shade’ setting, but try shooting daylight portraits with your camera’s ‘Tungsten setting for an eerie, cold blue tone.

Master of colour

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Frans Lanting

Probably the most well known of all nature photographers currently documenting our planet. Dutch-born tenting moved to the United States In 1978 to start a postgraduate program in environmental planning at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Two years later he left the course in order to pursue a full-time photographic career. His work has appeared in publications all over the globe, he’s a Contributing Photographer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Society, he’s received numerous awards (including the Netherlands’ highest honour for conservation – Knight in the Royal Order of the Golden Ark) and has produced a stunning collection of books. See Jungles (2000), Eye to Eye (1997) and Okavango: Africa’s Last Eden (1993) for some of his best work.

Complementary Colors

Getting colours to work together to produce a striking or harmonious image can be helped by an understanding of the ‘colour wheel’ and the concepts of harmonious and complementary colours. Harmonious colours lie close to each other on the colour wheel, and used together in a photograph they can produce very peaceful, beautiful images. Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. They can clash in a very ugly fashion, but they can also produce striking contrasts and vivid, vibrant images. Once you start looking for harmonious and complementary colours. You’ll see many more ways of shooting familar subjects and enhancing their properties.

Opposites attract

You’ll see from the illustration of a colour wheel that blue and orange are opposites and they do indeed produce a strong contrast in a photograph. They don’t often appear in combination in nature, though, but blue and yellow are almost opposites and you’ll get a striking contrast if you photograph a field of yellow oilseed rape blooms against a blue sky, as you probably know. Not all contrasts work so well, though. Red and green are opposites on the colour wheel, but used together they can dash and create a discordant visual combination – maybe like us you’ve seen ads where red type on a green background for vice versa) seems to ‘jiggle’? There’s actually another factor in this theory of opposites which can play a part. Effective contrast comes not just from contrasting colours but contrasting brightness too. This is why the blue/yellow combination is so striking – the blue and the yellow are very different in brightness. not just colour.

Size isn’t important

Earlier we mentioned that colour contrasts aren’t the only way to add Impact, and that tonal contrasts can strengthen the effect. There’s a third way to add contrast, and that’s using relative size. Two complementary colours taking up an equal amount of the frame can simply ‘fight’ with each other and produce an unsatisfactory image. But if one colour is dominant and the other occupies only a small part of the frame, you are –

paradoxically – making the colour contrast stronger. not weaker. The two colours don’t have to be equal in prominence. Indeed, a small subject can actually gain prominence because it’s so smal. Remember. then. that
contrasting colours don‘t necessariy have to be identical in brightness orthe relative size of the area they take up. and that colour contrast can be made stronger still by brightness and size variations.

Composing boldly

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Try deliberately finding and isolating subjects with opposite colours. setting them up artificially if no ready-made subjects present themselves. The blueyellow combination works well for reasons we’ve already explained, but try combining red and green, despite what we’ve said about dasl’ning colours. You can do this, for example, with
many bedning plant varieties. Nasturtiums and geraniums have particularly vibrant red/orange tones and contrasting green foliage to go with them. Try taking portraits of subjects wearing clothes that either contrast
or harmonise with the background. Now’s a great time to experiment with still ife set-ups. where you have precise control over both the colours and the anangemernts of the objects Within the frame. To create a nostalgic, antique look, for example. choose hannonising colours consisting of largely brown tones. say. With only a few extra
colours that are nearby on the colour wheel.

There are so many different ‘rules’ of design that it’s easy to become discouaged and to think rt’s all much more trouble than it‘s worth. But here’s a very simple one that can make a difference to everything from photography to
magazine layouts. If things are meant to be different, make them very different If they’re meant to be the same. make them the same. The confusion occurs when things are lost half way. This applies very specifically to colour. Contrasting colours which are opposite (or near enough) on the colour wheel work well together. producing strong visual contrasts. Harmonious oolours. which are next to each other on the colour wheel producing pleasing, restful images. The problems start when you continue colours which are neither similar nor opposite.

When they work…

There is a bit of a paradox here quite often you’ll find that colours that don’t combine too well on a printed page can work very well in nature. Take our example of a bright red/orange nasturtrum bloom against a dark green
background. It works very nicely. producing a strong color: contrast and a vibrant image. Below that is a title bar in green with red lettering- Ouch! That doesn’t work at all- as mentioned before, red letters seem to ‘jiggle’ against this kind of background, and despite the colour contrast. they’re still not that easy to pick out. Hence the need. sometimes. to look for other ways to emphasise colour contrasts to make them work – and not to treat colour theory as a set of rules you have to follow slavishly, but simply as an aid to understanding why some images work and
others don’t

…and when they don’t

Here’s an example of colours that definitely don’t work- The pinks and purples that make up the bulk of this image aren’t adjacent on the colour wheel, and they aren’t opposites either. They have similar brightness and they take up a similar proportion of the frame. You’ve got two colours of simiar prominence and strength both fighting
for attention and not working at all well together. It’s often only when you see photographs on- screen or in a print that you reafise that the colours don’t work – when it’s too late to go back and do anything about it. One solution is to ‘cheat’ in your image-editor by subtly adjusting one of the colours so that it harmonises with the other or provides a direct contrast. You can do this in Photoshop or Elements by tweaking colours selectively in the Hue/ Saturation dialog. or you could try the Replace Colour dialog in Photoshop.

Muted colours

Your shots don’t have to be packed with all the colours of the rainbow in order to succeed. Muted images consisting of harmonious colours can be just as attractive more so. even – as images with vivid colour contrasts. Some very successful shots are almost monochromatic. By that we don’t mean black and white. but consisting almost entirely
of a single colour or hue- Misty early morning shots are one example, vivid sunsets another. Muted., harmonious colours are often the best way to produce an evocative atmosphere. whether you’re shooting a portrait. landscape
or still-life- Bear this in mind when framing shots or choosing props

Scenes that work best

Romantic portraits rely on subtlety and atmosphere rather than wild contrasts. The most effective examples either use a very restricted palette of harmonious colours or next to no colour at all. If you want an image to be restful or gentle, don’t stir things up with contrasting colours. Many still life shots succeed because they have a restricted range of colours- Try choosing backgrounds, subjects and props which harmonise rather than contrast with each
other. Images of a single colour can be just as stnlring as those with strong contrasts. You can get the contrast that most photos need in order to work from tonal rather than colour variations. And if you can’t find a background
to match the colour of your subject, try a plain white or black. Colour versus no-colour is yet another kind of contrast!

Change your camera settings

We’ve already looked at how changing your camera’s whlte balance settlng wlll change the way it records colours. but there are other ways of modifying its response- Almost all cameras offer manual control over colour saturatlon and
contrast. and to a degree these are linked Increasing contrast also tends to increase saturation. and vlce versa. If you want images with more saturation and ‘punch’, increase the camera’s saturation setting- It’s better to do it in the camera rather than later in your image editor for reasons we explain in the next section. Many cameras offer a slightly different approach. with optional ‘Vivid’. or ‘Chrome’ modes- The names change depending on the brand of camera, but the principle is the same – you can switch to colour modes with stronger or subtler colours.
depending on the subject you’re shooting and the style you want to shoot it in.

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