Color is one of the primary compositional tools. The appropriate use of color can transform the look, feel, and mood of an image. Color can grab the attention of viewers, direct their eye to a specific point in the image, and help set the stage for how people engage with your photos.
With that in mind, let’s explore two primary uses for color when it comes to composition, and have a look at the impact that certain colors can have on your photography.
Getting People’s Attention
Color is a great way to grab people’s attention and induce them to look at your images. Using a highly saturated color is an excellent strategy for bringing the viewer’s eye to a specific point in the frame. Bright, vibrant colors will hold the viewer’s attention as well, and for longer periods of time. Even as their eyes begin to wander around the image, intense colors will bring their attention back, as the red sails do in the image above.
There are two basic ways to use color to grab people’s attention. First, you can use a single, bold color to maximize the impact of an area in the image. Second, you can use multiple, contrasting colors to create a lot of visual interest, such as the use of various shades of cool colors or warm colors, to create an interesting, wide-ranging color palette. In the image above, the variety of warm tones in the changing leaves makes for a highly dynamic scene, especially when contrasted with the blue tones in the fog, the green grass, and the white buildings in the village.
It’s not by chance that exciting photos have bright, vibrant colors, and subdued photos have darker or cooler colors. Although establishing the mood of your image by using color is a more subtle application of color theory than using color to grab attention, it is nonetheless an important aspect of color for all photographers to learn and understand. Consider how a few colors from the color wheel impact an image:
Because green is so often associated with plant life, springtime, and growth, when it appears in photographs, viewers can’t help but feel the vibrancy that green communicates. A landscape image that includes a lush, green valley can evoke a mood of renewal, rebirth, or new beginnings. Green is an interesting combination of the attributes of blue and yellow as well - it has the calming nature of blue, but a bit of the energy that yellow provides. As a result, using green can give your photos a sense of harmony and balance between serenity and excitement.
Blue tones tend to have a calming effect on viewers. Why? Think about where blue is found in nature - a cloudless sky, a calm lake, the waters of the ocean. All these environmental factors have peaceful, serene aspects to them, so using blue in your images can evoke that same sort of mood.
Blue tones are also associated with cold. Create a photo of an iceberg-filled fjord, and the blues in the image will evoke a feeling of wintertime chill. Again, in this context, blue has a calming effect and will help viewers connect with the serenity of a cool, wintery scene.
Yellow is often associated with warmth and happiness. If you want to create an image that evokes a cheerful or hopeful mood, utilize yellow. But, yellow should be used sparingly, lest you overwhelm your viewers with a very bright, intense color. Its use is better suited for drawing attention to a certain area of the photograph, such as the canola fields in the image above.
Orange, like yellow, is very vibrant and energetic, and is used by photographers to create an image with a very lively mood. Like yellow, orange can be used as a means to grab viewers’ attention, but without being as overwhelming or alarming as a large swath of yellow or red in the photograph. In nature, orange is often associated with the changing colors of leaves in the fall, so its use in photos can also help viewers to understand a theme of change in a more salient manner. Deep oranges can also be used to give an image some impact, but without being overwhelming, as was done in the image above.
Red is one of those colors that has many different meanings that can greatly impact your images. On the one hand, it’s associated with warmth and romance that can fill the viewer’s heart with passion. On the other hand, red is often associated with danger, and as a result, it grabs the attention of viewers perhaps more so than any other color.
As a result, the use of red in your images should be used with caution. Very bright reds, in particular, can quickly overwhelm the image and distract viewers from the main subject. At the same time, muted reds, like those often found in sunsets, can be quite pleasing, especially when paired with other muted warm tones in the orange and yellow range. Darker shades of red can add sophistication and elegance to your image as well.
Color theory isn’t rocket science, but it can nonetheless have an incredible impact on how your images are viewed and received. Thoughtful inclusion of color can dramatically impact the mood that your image conveys and can take a so-so photo to being a spectacular photo as well.
In the same vein, the misuse of color can destroy a photograph. Using too many colors or colors that are overly saturated can be a turnoff to many viewers, so getting some practice with the appropriate use of color is essential to your success. Give warm tones like reds, yellows, and oranges a try, then see what you can do with cool colors like blue and green in your images. You might just find that color becomes your go-to compositional tool for creating visual moods in your photos.