THE COLOURS OF GREAT PHOTOGRAPHY:

PART I

What makes a great photograph?

Sure, there’s composition and lighting, but colours play an immensely important role too, so much so that they can make or break a photograph that’s perfectly composed and well lit.

We see in colour, it’s all around us and to quote Leslie Harrington, “it is the silent, emotional language that we all intuitively know how to speak”.

So why does it get so little attention when dealing with photography?

Perhaps it’s because we take it for granted.

In this article, I’m going explain the different ways in which you can use colour in photography to make your images great.

THE BASICS:

First things first. To dominate colour, it’s important to know your colour theory. I’m sure most of you know that there are primary, secondary and tertiary colours, but let’s go over them quickly:

  • Primary colours: “pure” colours that exist without being mixed with other colours: RED, BLUE & YELLOW
  • Secondary colours: these are colours that are created with 50% – 50% mix of two primary colours
  • Tertiary colours: Colours created with 25% – 75% or 75% – 25% mix between a primary and secondary colour.

These colours are split into two categories: Warm colours and cool colours.

Why is this important you ask?

Well, because as I mentioned earlier, colour is a language that, culture and individual experiences aside, is universal. We naturally associate warm colours with, well, warmth, energy, fire, the sun…whereas cold colours evoke coolness, calm, the sea, foliage… and therefore, it is something that needs to be considered when shooting.

colour wheel
Are the colours in your frame appropriate with regards to the story you are trying to tell?

© Jorge Delgado-Ureña

35mm focal

Yellow stimulates, it’s optimistic and energetic, whereas blue is synonymous of tranquillity and a state of sedation. The yellow gloves on the man that looks like he has triumphed and the blue shorts on the defeated man are what make this photograph work. Had the colours been reversed, this photograph would just not have worked as well.

Colours are further broken down into their properties: ”Hue”, “Saturation” and “value” or “Luminosity”

HUE

colour hue

SATURATION

VALUE

colour value
  • Hue and colour are synonymous and it’s the colour in its purest form. All colours in the colour wheel are hues.
  • Saturation or chroma refers to the intensity of a colour. Basically, it’s how much gray a colour contains.
  • Value or luminosity is how light or dark a colour is. The lightened values are called tints and the darkened values are called shades.

With the basics out of our way, now we can get into the good stuff!

COLOUR HARMONY

Colour harmony is the theory of combining colours in a way that is harmonious to the eye and it’s used in fashion, website design, interior design… and of course, in photography. Those instants when you see an image and think to yourself, “what a great photograph”, that’s likely to be colour harmony in action.

Monochromatic colour harmony:

Probably the easiest one: It’s when the hue/colour stays the same and only the saturation and luminosity change.  Although we see in colour, our eyes are lazy and tend to prefer monochromatic images because they are easier to process. It’s also why we are drawn to black and white photography.

© David Alan Harvey

David Alan Harvey Monochromatic colour harmony

© Jorge Delgado-Ureña

You can use it to establish an overall mood and yellow is once again used to evoke vitality and energy in the first example of the foam party by David Alan Harvey.

The primary colour can also be integrated with neutral colours such as black, white, or grey which can be useful to highlight a certain element of the photo. Such is the case in the above picture by Jorge Delgado-Ureña, in which the white, along with the composition and use of “a frame within a frame”, helps us focus on the man walking by.

Complimentary colour harmony

The complementary colour harmony is about using two colours that are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel. It is relatively easy to find in nature, blue/orange skies, red flowers and their green stems etc. but it can be harder to achieve when doing street and travel photography, which is why in these cases it’s recommendable to be a little bit flexible.

© Alex Webb

Complimentary colour harmony

© Jorge Delgado-Ureña

complimentary colour haromny

A good way to use complimentary colour harmony is to choose a dominant colour (you can include different luminosity and saturation levels) and use its complementary colour for accents, this will give you colour dominance combined with sharp colour contrast. Light green is dominant in both pictures by Alex Webb and Jorge Delgado-Ureña respectively, and the red-violets act as contrast and accents for the overall images.

Analogous colour harmony

Analogous colours are colours that are in close proximity to each other on the colour wheel that share similar hue and saturation. Analogous colours are most often used to achieve proper colour harmony and a create rich, monochromatic look (not to be confused with monochromatic harmony though, which is the use of one hue or colour). It is best used with either warm or cool colours.

© Steve McCurry

Analogous colour harmony

© Jorge Delgado-Ureña

Analogous colour harmony, nepal photo tour

Now compare the images above. Two very different scenes but more importantly, the moods are also completely different due to the colours that are being used, in both cases adding to the story that is being told.

One last tip, and this has nothing to do with colour harmonies, is the use of the king of all colours: Red. Although it is not technically the most visible colour, it has the property of appearing closer and therefore it grabs our attention first. It is the colour that brings up our heart rate, that stimulates us, that warns us of danger. It’s powerful and when used in photography as a strategically placed accent in an othwerwise monochromatic or analogous image can work wonders to draw the viewers eye to what you, the photographer behind the camera, want them to see.

© David Alan Harvey

Red colour

© Saul Leiter

red colour

There are more colour harmonies and ways in which to use colour to make your photographs great, but we’ll talk about those in part 2. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, try doing the following exercise: go to the Sony World Photography Awards or Lensculture Awards pages and study the colours and colour harmonies used by the winning photographs. It’s quite revealing and something to think about if you’re planning on entering photography competitions.

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1 reply
  1. Christelle Enquist
    Christelle Enquist says:

    Hi Cristian, that’s a great question and something most people wouldn’t know how to answer without having the same condition 🙂 Jorge, who is the co-founder of Raw Photo tours and the resident mentor on our tours is also colour blind and though it is a struggle as you say, he tends to stick to shooting colour combinations that are simple and that he can identify easily so that the post-processing becomes less of an issue. It’s also good to memorise certain elements, for example, in Morocco the berber people often wear blue and though he does not see it, he has memorised it and combined with the orange sand dunes he can create a complimentary colour harmony. Does that make sense?

    Reply

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