Through the Gadling Lens: colour!

I mentioned before that when I was a new photographer, a photographer friend made me shoot only in black and white for my first few rolls of film. His reasoning, rightly or wrongly, was that “colour film hides a multitude of sins,” and only by shooting in black and white would I learn the important lessons of contrast and texture. And I couldn’t help but believe part of his motivation was his belief that black-and-white photographer was just cooler. You know, Ansel Adams-like. More … pure.

Fifteen years later, and I’m now bold enough to confess: I like colour.

I can’t help it — there’s just something about a beautifully saturated, richly-coloured image that excites me. Of course, like most photographers, I can appreciate a really good black and white image, but given the choice, I’ll shoot in colour every time. And like with most aspects of photography, there are certain tricks to composing a great colour shot — so this week, we’ll do a little colour theory and explain our colour composure works.
1. Monochromatic colour

One of the easiest ways, of course, to take an impactful colour photograph is to simply saturate the frame with one specific colour — either fill the frame of your viewfinder with your subject so that its colour dominates the frame, or “layer” the same colour: make sure that several subjects in your shot are the same colour, so that the effect is, again, a full frame with one colour. Here are some great examples:

In the above shot shared by il lele and taken in Japan, the red of this “tunnel” is the predominant colour — and so il lele ensured that the frame was filled by the strong hue. The result is an incredibly striking shot.

Similarly, in this beautiful image shared by crafterm, the strong colour green of these leaves in Australia were layered, so that green of the leaves in the foreground are layered against the green of the foliage behind. The result, even though the image is not panoramic, leaves you with a strong impression of the verdant scenery around the photographer.

When I shot the image of the London Eye in November of last year, above, the sky was blue with dusk, it was raining, and the blue Christmas lights in the barren trees were reflecting on the blue pavement, below. I therefore set my shutter speed and aperture to ensure that I capture the entire blue scene without the distortion of a flash, resulting in blue-saturated and moody image, above.

Finally, just to make the point that these types of shots can be captured even with human subjects, take a look at the image of my friend, Josh, above. Josh was walking through a shopping center on the island of Grenada, when he noticed that his shirt was the identical colour of an adjacent wall. He handed his camera over to his wife, and affected the pose above — resulting in a really funny shot; however, because of the striking colour, it’s an intriguing image as well.

The Colour Wheel

For photographs which feature more than one colour, a great way to ensure that your images communicate the emotion behind the image is frame the shot with the colour wheel (shown at left) at the back of your mind. A great summary of the basics of colour theory can be found at this site. Put simply, the colour wheel is basically the entire colour spectrum in circular form. Colours which are next to each other (like red and orange, say, or blue and green) are called “analogous colours” — they’re generally similar and harmonious. Colours which are directly opposite each other, like orange and blue, or purple and yellow, are called “complementary colours.”

Let’s take a look at some examples at how using analogous colours and complementary colours can affect the mood of a photograph.

1. Analogous Colours.

As I mentioned above, analogous colours are colours that are found adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. Because the colours are so close in colour range to each other, they tend to evoke a feeling of harmony, and any related emotions that might come to mind: like peace, or tranquility, or balance. What’s interesting is that these communicated feelings tend to occur no matter which colours along the wheel make up the majority of the photograph, they just have to be colours adjacent to each other.

Here are some great examples:

The image above, shared by ohad*, is particularly pleasing and soothing because the predominant colours in the image are blue and green, which are adjacent to each other on the colour wheel. These harmonious colours (together with the softly undulating horizontal lines in the photo) tend to exude a feeling of peace and tranquility — which is perfectly congruous with what ohad* named the image himself: “Magical Mystery Doors.” It’s a beautiful shot which conveys the idea of calm because it focuses on the actual colours of the image — not just the building or the doors. Beautifully shot.

I love this image shared by Willy Volk, primarily because it makes the point of analogous colours by featuring three adjacent colours on the colour wheel: green, blue and purple. This image, captured in Colorado, definitely conveys a calming, restful mood. Really well done.

And finally, just to show that these emotions can be conveyed by analogous colours, even if they’re not the stereotypical “peaceful” colours of blue and green, take a look at the following, shared by fiznatty:

Even though this photograph features the generally exciting colours of red and orange, because they fall next to each other on the colour wheel, the image also evokes a feeling of harmony — the colours don’t clash, they work together. If this image had been shot so that the harmonious colours didn’t fill the frame, the emotion and feelings conveyed by the shot would likely be totally different.

3. Complementary colours

Despite how it sounds, complementary co
lours don’t really “complement” each other. Since they fall on opposite sides of the colour wheel, they actual create stark contrasts to each other — and therefore, they tend to create an aura of excitement, or related emotions: celebration, for example, or exuberance.

Here are a few examples:

This great shot shared by thnkfast is a beautiful example about how using complementary colours — in this case, the vibrant red of the fruit against the green background — helps convey a mood of exuberance with this shot, captured in the Vancouver Aquarium. This isn’t an image that calms you. This is one that makes you happy: excited about catching this moment in nature, perhaps even excited for the butterfly in finding the nectar.

And finally, I love this shot shared by nabil.s of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. While the nabil.s says that he capture this image at 6 p.m. one evening, the shot hardly conveys a feeling of peace now that the day is ending. Rather, the startling complementary colours of orange and blue (opposites on the colour wheel) communicate that the night is just beginning — exciting things are about to start happening. A beautiful image.

Now, as always, the tips I’ve shared in this post are merely guidelines — there’s nothing that says that all of your shots must contain only analogous colours, or complementary colours … or, for that matter, any colour … they’re just thoughts to keep in the back of your mind and as part of your arsenal when composing your next great travel shots. As always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them below, or send me an email directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom — I’ll be happy to address them in upcoming posts of Through the Gadling Lens.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.