Studying and understanding color helps us become better photographers. In the process, we may discover that some things we believe are true may not be.
The same subject under different color lighting can result in very different pictures. But there is a lot more to color than the particular wavelengths of photons hitting our camera's sensor.
Photographers often use colors to represent beliefs or feelings. However, any color can mean different things at different times and to different cultures.
White is typically considered the color of purity. Most believe this is why it is used by brides in contemporary western cultures. However, it was Queen Victoria who started that tradition of white wedding dresses because she wanted to support the Honiton, the lace-making industry in the village of Beer in Devon, which was in financial trouble. Wearing a white dress was not a symbol of purity, but of wealth and extravagance; lace was a luxury item.
Victoria and Albert's was the first royal wedding to be photographed and the photographs were widely distributed and so white weddings caught on. Although not shared to the same extent as they are today, those photos, nevertheless, had a cultural impact. Theirs was probably the first celebrity wedding and the Queen became the first influencer.
Prior to that, wedding dresses were any color and most often black. Moreover, it was usually just the bride's “Sunday best” dress, and not one created solely for the wedding. That would have been considered a waste of materials, a belief that is returning as we become more aware of the limited resources of our planet.
Head to China and there you will find a very different relationship with white. You may well see a funeral with the mourners in white clothing. Wedding dresses are red and gold.
Similar disparities in the symbolism of other colors happen across different cultures. In the American flag, red means hardiness and valor, while in the Kenyan flag red is for the bloodshed during their fight for independence. However, the in the flag of the Aboriginal people of Australia it represents the earth.
Even between America and the UK, otherwise similar in so many cultural respects, red and blue signify the opposite political beliefs in each country. Blue is the color of Conservatives in the UK whose political beliefs are more closely aligned with the American Republicans, whose color is red. Red in the UK is the color of the left-leaning Labour Party. Furthermore, red is also associated with communism in Russia and China, socialism in Europe, and many far-right flags are predominantly red too.
Colors can have conflicting meanings in single societies too. For instance, in western cultures, red often represents both love and war.
Why Your Photography Judge May Be Getting It Wrong
There are some born with the ability to see colors most of us cannot. A condition called aphakia allows people to see into the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. In fact, many people who have had cataracts removed from their eyes can see UV too. Consequently, they see more vivid colors than most of us. After his cataract operation, Claud Monet said he could see colors that he could never see before. This can be a reason why some photographers use saturation adjustments much more heavily than others.
So, if you are a photography club judge, before condemning someone for their heavy use of the saturation slider, consider that what they are producing is possibly a more accurate representation of how they see the world than your interpretation. Their eyes’ version of RGB has a wider gamut than yours, and consequently, their photos are processed to have stronger colors than your more muted images. In fact, as they are seeing more color than you, it could be argued that their images are more accurate than yours (or mine).
The shift away from seeing into the ultraviolet came with our evolution from dichromatic (two-color) to trichromatic (three-color) vision. Amongst mammals, this change only happened in primates. Subsequently, they could spot fruit amongst the green leaves at a greater distance, as well as the orange pelt of tigers hiding in the grass; it was an evolutionary advantage.
This evolution happened as our ancestors shifted from being nocturnal to crepuscular, and then to the diurnal mammals we are today. Head out at night and you cannot see color, so there was no evolutionary need for our very distant nocturnal ancestors to be able to do so. People with color blindness may well have the gene that our dichromatic ancestors had.
Your More Recent History
Do you recall mixing paints in art lessons at school? Although not strictly accurate, the model we learned is still a good place to start when thinking about how we use color effectively in photography.
Red, blue, and yellow, we were taught, were the primary colors. The result of mixing any two primaries is a secondary color. Blend red and blue results in purple, blue and yellow together make green, and combining yellow and red gives us orange. Adding white or black made the colors brighter or darker. Mixing three primaries we get the tertiary color, brown.
Actually, it’s a lot more complex than that. There are no pure primary color pigments. If there were, when mixing two primaries they would just cancel each other out. All we would see reflected from the paint would be gray. Both red and blue both contain some purple, and it is that purple that is reflected when we stir them together. Likewise, both yellow and red pigments contain an element of orange, and yellow and blue pigments contain some green. As the primary colors cancel each other, it’s those remaining qualities that we see.
It’s for this reason that artists’ paint manufacturers make available a wide range of similar colors that we would not otherwise be able to achieve, for example, Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ocher, Hansa Yellow, and so on.
If you have an inkjet printer, you will know that it doesn’t contain blue, yellow, and red ink but (most commonly) cyan (C), yellow (Y), and magenta (M), along with one or more blacks (K). These "primaries" are much better at reproducing a wide range, or gamut, of colors than blue, red, and yellow. Yet they still have their limitations; there are colors in nature that cannot be reproduced by the CMYK inks, and printers can also produce fewer colors than sRGB used by most monitors and digital cameras.
Taking things back to the simplest primary-school level, each secondary color has a complementary primary color. That is the primary color not included in its composition.
- Purple comprises red and blue, so yellow is its complementary color.
- Green comprises blue and yellow, so red is the complementary color.
- Orange comprises red and yellow, so blue is its complementary color.
Complementary colors stand out against each other. For example, orange lifeboats are glaringly obvious against a blue sea. As photographers, we are often pleased to see someone wearing a red coat in the green countryside because they are conspicuous. Then, the yellow anther and stamen in the center of aster flowers (Aster amellus) really pop against the purple petals.
Of course, that's just a rough guide and it’s not quite as straightforward as that. A truer representation of complementary colors is found by installing a color wheel app on your phone; there are plenty of free ones to choose from. There you find complementary colors sitting on opposite sides of the wheel. While complementary colors add tension to the image, those that sit side-by-side are called contiguous colors and are more calming.
The following images of the same subject have a very different feel to each other because of the different color palette.
Putting It in Proportion
Apart from using complementary hues, there is another aspect of colors working together in a picture. It is something as photographers we can learn from classic color theory and that is the proportions of each color in the image.
The polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) pointed out that some colors are brighter than others: violet is dark, yellow is bright. Sitting between them, green and red both have equal inherent brightness. He suggested that in a picture the amount of each color should be inversely proportional to its brightness; the brighter the color, the less there should be. He applied numerical values to the colors’ brightness to quantify this. (He would have made things simpler if he had given the darker colors higher numbers!)
So, if you create a picture that is orange and blue, then the proportion most pleasing to the eye would be the opposite of their value, i.e. eight parts blue, 4 parts orange. Red and green have equal values so should appear in equal proportions.
But, sadly, in many types of photography, we don’t always have control over how much of each color appears in a shot, but it can be a consideration when composing and deciding whether to get closer or stand further back.
Scratching the Surface
Even a basic understanding of color can help us use it to its best effect and, in doing so, improve our photography. I can only just touch the surface here of what there is to say about color. There is plenty more about the topic here at Fstoppers, so please do search the archives to discover more. Also, I would be really interested in hearing what you have to say about the subject in the comments.