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Photo by Michaela Strivens

Colour in photography

While I'm a big lover of Black and white photography, when I think of summer, I think 'in colour'. For me, the  vibrancy of summer can best be expressed with a liberal use of colour. 

But how do we work with colour so that it makes your images stronger? Your message clearer? Or your images simply more visually pleasing? 

We all know kids come into our lives with a cacophony of britly coloured crap erm, accessories. But we also know that fitting it all into our frame is unlikely to make for a good photo.

So how do you make colour work for you?

This week in our Summer project we'll be exploring colour in many guises, used for different purposes and we'll be spotting colour everywhere we are. 

But let's start with a little ( colour) relationship advice

The Colour Theory

Colour theory describes principles around understanding and working with colour. It also helps us understand the relationships between those colours and how they can be used in any visual arts. There is a reason why we find some colour combinations appealing and others jarring and it relates to everything - from what we wear, what we like to eat and what we like to look at. 

But let's talk basics. 

Central to the Colour Theory is the Colour Wheel. It is based on what we know as primary colours ( red, yellow and blue) and then colours created when those adjacent primary colours are mixed ( secondary colours) and then when those colours mingle with their neighbours some more ( tertary colours) 

Where the colours are positioned on the wheel in relation to one another decides how they work with one another and whether they will create a pleasing outcome. 

Colour for impact

One of the strategies for using colour in visual design - and that includes photography, is to pair the colours which are on the opposing sides of the wheel ( and thus warm with cold) for maximum contrast and impact ( more on that on the next page) 

What's worth knowing is that warm colours, occurring at a higher frequency , are registered by our brain as dominant colours - they pull the eye in, they are the driving force in the image, they imply higher energy and higher value. Cooler colours are what we call 'receding' - they are the supporting players, there to make your subject stand out as much as possible. 

So a juicy red raspberry ste against green leaves will be visyally more impactful than a green apple on a red plate. With the raspberry our eyes go directly there and settle on it, the green apple draws the eye a bit, but the visual pull of the red is very very strong. 


That's why if you dress one of your children in red and the other one in a more neutral colour, our eyes will find the kid in red in the photo first. It doesn't have to be just red either. In general, the more dominant, warmer colours, the bolder the better, will attract our attention more. 

That's also why if you set your neutrally coloured subject agains a bright red wall, chances are, the wall may be more impactfull in that image than the child. It's not always a bad thing - sometimes the story of the image is the juxtaposition and relationship between one and the other. Sometimes we want the entire frame to have a strong colour because we want the energy that it conveys. So it's all good, but just worth knowing. 

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Photo by Rebecca Walls

Photo by Rebecca Walls


Colour Harmony

But not all relationships are contrary. Some colours like like to play nice with one another, support each other and cuddle up. 

Picking and using colours that are adjacent to one another on the colour wheel or different hues of the same colour, you are introducing the idea of harmony, peace and balance. If no one colour dominates, all are equally visually strong and all build on one another to deliver a great, harmonious outcome. 

Photos by Paula Barker and Amanda Vickers

A Riot of Colour

I know what you're thinking. First of all, to capture kids in a minimalistic, two tone environment is a feat that can rarely be achieved in real life. And that's OK to. While working with a couple of straight colours is the easiest to explain, often it's more about the groups of colours. The image below, though seemingly full of colour, relies on 2 main colour groups, with little accents here and there and that's what makes it work. 



Meaning of colours

But of course colours are not just purely and subjectively attractive light frequencies. Colours always carry a meaning, sometimes subte, sometimes loud. 

As much as I love gender neutral clothes for kids, it's really hard getting away from pink when you have girls. And while we're at it, although it's pretty much considered normal for a girl to wear 'boy' colours like navy or grey, we see much much fewer parents willing to put a pink Tshirt on a boy. 

But interestingly, some historians claim that prior to the beginning of the 20th century, it used to be the reverse! Red, being a dominant colour used to be reserved for men ( and pink for boys) while the cooler, more neutral, more 'Virgin Mary' blue used to be considered as a colour suitable for girls. 

But beyond gender divides, colours communicate so much more.

Specific colour combinations will indicate a time of the year ( yellows and oranges being associated with autumn, blues and whites and greys with winter, green and fresh yellow and pink hues with spring and saturated, bold, primary colours with summer) 

Colour communicate emotions and energy

There isn;t enough time or space here to go into the whole psychology and language of colour as well as cultural perceptions of colour. It's a fascinating subject and I highly recommend further reading - HERE is an interesting article on psychology of colour and HERE  you'll find interesting facts of what different colours communicate. 

For our needs, let's stock to the basics: 

- More visually impactful colours often communicate dominance, but also powerful emotions sych as joy, love but also anger or frustrations. 

- White and light pastels are often used to depict innocence and gentleness

- Green is the colour of freshness and all things natural, it suggests being at one with nature 

- Cool blues are used to create calm and peace. They're also being seen as trust inducing so you'll find them in logoes of many financial instotutions. Where the reds and the purples communicate energy and going forward, blues are receding colours, better at communicating stillness and timelessness. 

Colour for stronger composition

Beyond the meaning of colours, they can be simply used to strengthen a composition. If you think about some of the compositional elements we already mentioned in this project - using lines to lead to your subject, using elements in the environment to frame the subject, making a subject stand out against a background - all of these can be made even stronger with the use of colour. 

Consider this composition - in photo 1 the lines leading to the subject are a neutral hue of yellow, in the second - a warm, bright yellow- the dynamic yelow directs the eye much more. 


Bit it can go agains you too - if the brighly coloured elements in your frame are somehow disconnected or just separate from your subject, they can have the opposite effect on your composition - our eye can be directed to the bold colour element instead of the one you actually meant as your subject. 


Colour of light

We tend to consider colour as something relatively stable, but it's actually anything but. Is a red rose in a dark room still red? 

Our perception of colour changes ALL the time dependent on light, it's just that our brain chooses to ignore it, instead equalising what we see with what's in our brain. But of course  colours change enormously depending on light. 

Photo by MOrgan Wallace

Photo by Morgan Wallace

We know the girl in the photo is not blue. Our brain never once wonders if she it, we simply know that it's a colour cast due to the light colour. 

But even when we consider natural light only, the colour of it changes higely depending on the time of the day because the colour of light changes depending on the angle it hits the earth. The longer a journey it needs to make through the earth atmosphere, the warmer its light will be. So light ( and with it our colour perception of the things it illuminates) is the coolest at around midday when the light is ( almost) directly hitting the eart at a right angle. But in the morning or afternoon, when the angle of the sun means it has to travel through a lot of the atmosphere, the colour tends to be much warmer and with it our erception of colour. 

It's something worth observing as you go through the day.