5 Key Components of Color in Photography
- Color in Photography - Color Theory
- Color in Photography - Contrasting and Complementary
- Color in Photography - Composition
- Color in Photography - Editing Tools
- Color in Photography - Physical Prints
- Recommended Photography Gear
- Try These Unique Options for a Custom Metal Print
- What Are the Benefits of a Metal Art Print for Your Photos?
- What Is a Chromaluxe Metal Print?
Photo by agustavop via iStock
Using color in photography can be a confusing subject, but it doesn’t need to be. Controlling color in photography is surprisingly easy once you separate the thoughts into key components.
In a traditional classroom-style discussion of color in photography, we would separate color into additive vs subtractive color and discuss hue, value, and saturation. This is all good information to have.
What I like to do is look at how those ideas and theories affect us in real-life photo creation. In color theory, we’ll touch on the bases of additive, subtractive, hue, value, and saturation. Then we’ll get into our real-life situations of using color in photography, such as contrasting and complementary colors, composing with color in mind, our powerful editing tools in-camera and post-processing, and making high-quality physical prints.
Table of Contents:
Color in Photography - Color Theory
Photo by ChamilleWhite via iStock
Color in photography can be described and given values in several different ways. To start with, color is a property of light that is affected by matter in one way or another. Absolute Black is discerned visually when an object absorbs all light, and Absolute White is seen by objects reflecting all light.
Photographically, you’ll never see 100% Black or 100% White. These are just values based on the science of the electromagnetic spectrum. What we do see are colors. What we see as color in photography or in our own vision is based on reflectance and absorption of variations of the wavelengths of light.
Additive color in photography is mixing Red, Green, and Blue. That’s the RGB you see in many camera specs and photography articles. Subtractive color is based on attenuating or subtracting Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. Add the value K for Black (or density), and this is the CMYK you see in desktop publishing, post-processing programs, and other camera controls.
We also can discern differences in RGB and CMYK based on three properties of color, Hue, Value, and Saturation. Hue describes the color, its label more or less, such as Red, Yellow, Purple, Orange, or Green. Value is how bright or dark a color appears to be. Saturation refers to the purity or intensity of a color.
Here is a wonderful video from Konica-Minolta describing color in photography that is a fun introduction to the topic:
(I still love using my classic Minolta Color Meter IIIf for determining color values of different light sources and varied subject matter.)
You might also enjoy reading deeper information about the theories covering color in photography at ScienceDirect.
While it is important to understand the science behind color in photography, it’s not like we have to carry around a tricorder and report back to Science Officer Spock what our readings are—just knowing what and a little bit of why goes a long way in the creative art of photography.
Color in Photography - Contrasting and Complementary
Quick! On a color wheel, what’s the difference between a contrasting and a complementary color? Trick question, they are the same thing. For understanding color in photography, using a color wheel is a great reminder that contrasting colors, colors on opposite sides of the color wheel, complement each other or look good together.
Interestingly, when you look at the colors on a color wheel, they don’t exactly correspond like we might expect them to based on additive or subtractive color in photography. That’s okay. While one describes the colors and how they’re made with light, the other shows how they all work together.
Using color in photography, we can use colors that contrast, we can use colors that are analogous or in the same family, or we can use a monochromatic (single color) palette. Speaking of monochromatic, we can use color theory and controls for Black and White (B&W) photography. We’ll cover some of that in Editing Tools.
Color in Photography - Composition
Photo by JacobH via iStock
Since complementary colors contrast, we can use them as composition tools. The border between two colors can become a line of demarcation, usable for separating into Rule of Thirds, using as Leading Lines, or as part of a Golden Spiral.
That color wheel comes in handy for compilation as well. Analogous or similar colors can balance each out or become areas and points of harmony or convergence. Contrasting colors can sit one inside of the other to draw attention to a picture element. Negative space can be a color analogous to the main subject matter or any contrast level.
Color in photography can also add impact by how they’re arranged in the composition. Conversely, colors can soften certain transitions or create a mood or theme for an image. It all depends on what you’re trying to make happen photographically.
Color in Photography - Editing Tools
Photo by Stephen Harker via iStock
Editing tools are how we adjust our use of color in photography. I’m painting with a very broad brush here, but we can edit before, during, and after capturing an image.
Before the shutter is tripped, we can adjust or edit our light source. An LED light designed for photography or video will often have a control for changing how bright the light is and other controls for adjusting the color temperature of the light.
We haven’t discussed color temperature yet, but that’s the measurement of the light source that tells us what color the light itself is. Color temps can be cool, leaning towards a bluish-white light, or warm, leaning towards a redder or yellower white.
A subject lit by Golden Hour Sunlight is warmer, and a subject illuminated by the sky, not by direct Sunlight, will be cooler. A subject lit by regular incandescent house lights will be substantially warmer than if we use a flash gun or a color-correct photo flood.
That’s all before the exposures. During the exposure, we can also edit or adjust colors. The exposure itself can strengthen or lessen the color intensity. We can opt for low-key or high-key photography, both of which will impact how the colors appear in the captured image.
We can also look at the white balance settings of our camera. There are many different presets in most digital cameras, or we could assign one ourselves by specifying a specific color temperature. We can also capture our images in a RAW file and assign color corrections later.
Photo by AndreyPopov via iStock
After the exposure, there is a ton of editing we can do. If we capture our image files in RAW, we can assign a color profile or a white balance based on the actual lighting conditions or what we want the final image to look like.
With most of the more sophisticated post-processing programs, we can make a wholesale change from one color to another. Want a purple poodle? Do it in post! Would a green sky turn your landscape into an alien planet? Do it in post!
Usually, though, we’re not trying to edit colors so drastically. A photograph that needs a lot of changing might not be the best photo to show. Sometimes, a barely there tweak of a color setting is necessary to transform a good pic into an outstanding piece of art.
Photo by Stephen Harker via iStock
Black and White photography also depends on color. With digital photography, we can turn a color image into B&W with a basic mode available in many post-processing programs. Just as was done in B&W film photography with color filters creating different relationships of the actual colors of the subject, we can do that with our programs.
Adjusting an image's Red, Green, and Blue channels can make your B&W images become exactly what you want them to be. You could take that image at the start of this subheading, edited to clean up colors, and turn it into a B&W image that mimics an infrared view, with the bright blue sky becoming so dark it almost looks black and green foliage becoming white.
Really, we’re not limited by anything at all when it comes to editing color in photography. We can be subtle, perfecting an image with small adjustments, or we can get wild and make it obvious to people that this is a specialized work of creativity. Perhaps somewhere in between those extremes is what will set off that one particular image. As the photographer, the control is yours.
Color in Photography - Physical Prints
You'll want to print and display your image once you’ve captured and edited that file into a fantastic work of art. Metal prints make your images stand out.
With a metal print, your image is displayed independently, not needing a frame. The image’s blacks are so deep, the colors so vibrant, that the subject matter seems to leap off the wall. Metal prints just have that something extra that makes your control of color in photography take center stage.
Shiny Prints is a premium printer specializing in dye sublimation metal prints. They use the best materials and equipment and have highly trained technicians who are artisans in their own right, transferring your image files into superbly crafted wall art.
They make metal prints in regular sizes up to 48” x 96” and can custom print sizes and shapes based on your specifications. There are a variety of wall mounting methods available as well. Everything I’ve ordered from Shiny Prints has been amazing.
Those are five key components of mastering color in photography. Understanding color theory, working with complementary colors, using color as a composition tool, editing before, during, and after the exposure, and finally, using a premium printing service to make eye-catching metal prints.