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4.2 Color Theory in Photography

Photography doesn’t enjoy the same control over color that design does, but color theory is still a very important part of picture-making. In this lesson we take a look at some particularly inspiring ways that photography can make good use of color.

4.2 Color Theory in Photography

Hello everybody and welcome back to Basic Design Concepts for Photographers. This is lesson 4.2 where we take a look at working with color and color theory in photography. Photographers generally don't have quite the same control over color the illustrators and graphics artists enjoy. Typically, photographers are limited to the range of colors that they can find, or colors that they can create in a post process. But that doesn't mean the same concepts don't still apply, particularly regarding the warm and cool color palates. For example, let's take this image here. Now this is a remarkable image that's set in a very cool color tones. Even though there's a lot of warm light being cast on the buildings, the general image has a lot of very cool, bluish tones to it. That does seem to create a sense of detachment or cool unapproachableness. Whereas this image of the very same landmark, but accentuating the very warm tones of orange and yellow, has a completely different feel to it. Although the subject matter is the same, and the style of photography is very similar, this feels much more approachable, and more enticing and exciting even. Whereas, the blue toned image tends to draw away from us and almost feel even kind of hostile. The warm tones are noticeably more inviting. And just like its counterpart in design, colors not only carry with them certain moods and emotions, but working complimentary pairs of colors can be extremely powerful. Especially, if you can work them together logically within the same image. So aside from catching the light at just the right moment, or using particular color gels on the lens, what are some of the things a photographer can do to manipulate color within their compositions? Sometimes it's, quite simply, as easy as putting a model in a bright red dress in front of a cool-colored background. And while this does seem somewhat cliche it is very effective. And if you start here at least with form in a scene, using warm tones to bring something forward and cool tones to recede objects away form you. You start developing a sense of manipulating color within your scene to work for you instead of against you. And it forces you to start thinking about what tones you are using where, especially when you have full control over a scene. One of the photographers I feel does an exemplary job of working with color is Cade Martin. And if you look at his site you can see a very high level of mastery of colored tones, both the cool and warm palettes and how he makes them work together. I would encourage anybody to take a close look at the way he uses color in his photographs and learn from the way that he purposefully manipulates color in his scenes. The use of cool tones and warm backgrounds is nothing short of inspired. With all the discussion about color and how they work together, I'd be remiss to not discuss the actual lack of color and how using no color at all can sometimes be just as powerful. Now refer to that concept as contrast, which does fall into very much the same category as using color. If you imagine black and white being opposite ends of their own color wheel, they can be complimentary colors in the same sense that oranges and blues are. Let's take a look at an example, where I feel the use of color is actually a detriment to the overall image. In this shot here clearly the subject is intended to be this athlete but these bright red bars and the very warm tones of the sun shining through the trees behind him tend to pull focus. These colors demand the attention that's being drawn away from the subject. It doesn't help that he's wearing cool colored trunks and this whole side of the image is generally cooler in tone. So for an image like this, it actually benefits it to actually remove the color. I feel this is stronger, more powerful image in black and white, because we lose those distractions of those warmer color tones that tend to pull our eyes. In my opinion, this makes it even stronger If we have just a hint of that color coming in, this way these muted tones still reveal the coloring behind the photograph, but they're not quite bright enough to pull the focus. Now that we've taken a look at how these color theory ideas can apply to photography, next lesson, lesson 4.3, we get our photo assignment for using color.

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