Composition: A Look at Color
Of those things we can see, some actually radiate light like the sun or a light bulb, but most things only reflect it. When light strikes an object, some wavelengths are absorbed and others are reflected which determines an object's color. If something appears to be red, it reflects red light and absorbs other colors. If it's green, everything except green is absorbed and we see the reflected green wavelengths. Only black objects absorb all wavelengths, while objects that appear white reflect all colors evenly.
As photographers, an understanding of color is important as it can be one of the most powerful aspects of a good photograph.
One of the most accepted ways to describe color is in terms of its hue, saturation and lightness.
Hue is the most obvious quality of color and is the name we give the variations in how we see light based on its wavelength. We're all familiar with the colors of the spectrum from seeing a rainbow from red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These hues can be arranged in a circle to form what we commonly call the color wheel. While we frequently break hue down to just these categories, they actually form a continuous spectrum so the number of hues is actually infinite.
Saturation describes the amount of color present. A color with zero saturation is a shade of black, white or gray with no color whatsoever. A very saturated color is lacking in any impurity of black, white or gray. In between these two exists the range of "tints" or "tones" of a given color. For example, if white is added to pure red, it becomes pink, which is a tint of red. To vary saturation, one varies the amount of the color itself that is present, leaving the shade of gray constant.
Lightness defines where the tint or tone of a given color lies between the extremes of black and white. It therefore describes an object's ability to reflect more or less of the light falling upon it. Those shooting Black & White are thus quite familiar with lightness while they are less concerned with saturation. To vary lightness, the amount of the color itself is held constant while the shade of gray is varied from black to white.
Those who use Photoshop or other image editors have probably encountered the notion of other ways to describe the properties of color including RGB, CMYK, CIE Lab and a system similar to Hue, Saturation and Lightness (HSL) known as HSB. For our purposes though, we'll stick with hue, saturation and lightness.
Color is deeply rooted in or psyche and in the symbolism of our culture. It can elicit emotional responses from the viewer and thus adds meaning and visual impact to a photograph. By utilizing the expressiveness of color we can create better compositions that connect with the viewer at a very deep level.
Some photographs are more about color itself than about the objects that happen to be their subjects. A red-orange sunset, a forest of green leaves, or a field of flowers all the same color can be powerful images.
The three primary colors are red, yellow and blue.
Red — Visually, red is one of the most powerful colors. Even a small patch of red demands our attention. Red is vital and strong. It can connote passion and warmth, caution and bloodshed. An apple can be red. A stop sign is red, as is fire and blood. Red demands your attention.
Yellow — Yellow often appears brighter than other colors. Indeed, the only way to get truly dark yellow is to dilute it with black. Yellow is the color of the sun, metallic gold, and of many flowers. As with red, yellow is a warm color, but it is also a happy color. As with red, pure yellow can reach out and grab your attention.
Blue — Blue is a generally passive and cool color. The blue of open water and clear skies makes it one of the most common colors in nature. Ice often appears to have a bluish cast. While red and yellow seem to reach out towards the viewer, blue recedes visually. Blue tends to be darker than either red or yellow in its pure form.
The secondary colors of orange, green and violet are also worth taking a look at.
Orange — Orange is a mixture of red and yellow and shares some of the characteristics of both. Orange has associations with the setting sun, fire, and autumn harvest time. It is a very grounded, earthy color appearing in both desert sand and fall leaves.
Green — If you mix blue and yellow you get green, one of the most visible colors to human vision. Green is one of the most plentiful colors in nature and has associations with new growth, renewal, life, health and prosperity. Green is a very restful color.
Violet — By combining red and blue one gets violet. Violet can appear as the color of superstition and mystery. It can also show royalty, magic, religious piety or immensity and distance. Some flowers are violet as is the morning sky just before dawn.
Black and White — The neutral colors from black through gray to white also have associations that can be worth considering. Obviously darkness and light, but also bad and good can be shown as black and white. True gray is hard to find as gray is very sensitive to contamination from other colors.
A general understanding of hue, saturation, and lightness as well as some attention to the emotional associations to color can be powerful tools to aid in composition. We can use this added dimension to the subject of our images to give them that extra edge. Subjects can be made to extra impact or to make our viewers feel a certain way.
By making use of colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel it is possible to create very powerful images that grab the viewer's attention. Red/green and orange/blue contrasts are prevalent in nature.
Look for areas of color and combinations of colors when you are shooting. You'll start seeing things in a whole new way.
Next week: more in our continuing look at composition.