About Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas is a professional fine art photographer and writer specialising in photography related instructional books as well as travel writing and street photography. 

Colour in Composition

Colour in Composition

I recently read a post on a popular photography blog talking about how you should learn to ignore colour to be a better photographer. They weren’t talking about just black and white images either, they were talking about all photography. The idea that was put forward (and it’s not a new one) is that photography is primarily about light and shade and that colour is just a distraction. It was even suggested that if your camera has an EVF you switch to shooting in black and white so you can see through the EVF in monochrome, further enhancing your ability to ignore colour.

While there are some merits to this approach, ignoring colour, in my opinion is not a good thing to do. While I’ve nothing against black and white photography and love shooting in black and white this isn’t about black and white. Learning to see light and shade is invaluable, but it’s important to realise that colour is as vital a component to photographic composition for colour photography as is light and shade. I know that sounds obvious, but there are some schools of thought that don’t see it that way. Colour is an important part of composition and ignoring it does not do justice to the medium. Rather than ignore colour learn to understand how it affects an image, and learn to see colour as an important part of the process.

A Brief overview of colour theory.

I’m not going to give a full lesson on colour theory because there are plenty of places where you can see that online, but here’s a brief overview. Also, despite my background in design, colour theory was never my strong point, so I may have some technical details or names wrong, but the principles are right. There are two main ways to use colour in a composition for effect. Complimentary colours, and Harmonious (analogous) Colours.

Complimentary colours are colours that go well together. There’s actually a scientific reason for this. When complimentary colours are combined in the right proportions they produce white or black. This depends on the colour model, so for example it will be different when using paints or pigments which use a subtractive colour model where as light uses an additive model (more on that in a sec). As we’re dealing with light in photography, lets just focus on that. You’re probably all familiar with the term RGB. If you don’t know, it stands for Red, Green and Blue and these are the primary colours of Light. You can combine these colours to make any other colour using the additive colour model (i.e. Light) .

If you’re wondering what the differences between the additive and subtractive colour model are, it’s fairly simple to understand. Basically (in non technical terms), in the additive model, you combine colours to create white, where as in the subtractive model you subtract them. Traditional paint would be a subtractive model. You may remember when painting as kids (unless you do still paint, in which case you know all about colour theory so why are you reading this?) when you mixed lots of colours it would eventually go muddy brown or black. When dealing with light when you add individual colours together you eventually get to white.

Ok, getting back to complimentary colours. So you’ve probably seen a colour wheel at one time or another. On a colour wheel, complimentary colours are directly opposite each other. Typical combinations that you often see are red and green, yellow and blue, green and red. Despite the term “ ”complimentary", complimentary colours are often used to create contrast, but somehow your brain knows that they work together.

The second approach to combining colours is “Colour Harmony” or “Analogous Colours”. These colours occupy the same space on the colour wheel, and can be shades of the same colour, or combinations like yellow and green, or reds and oranges, or yellows and oranges. You will often see harmonious colours in nature, such as the oranges, yellows and reds of a sunset.

Ok, so that’s the theory out of the way, how does that apply your photography? There are too main ways in which Colour can influence a photograph: Colour can help define a subject. It can also help set the mood of an image.

Using Colour to define the subject

Colour can be used to define a subject in an image. In fact colour can and should be an important part of the composition, as important as light and shadow. We see the world in colour and our eyes use colour information for subject recognition so it can be important for defining shapes.

Colour Contrast

The use of complimentary colours can create a strong visual cue that creates form with just the colour. Here are some examples of complimentary colours used to create contrast. If this image was not in colour, the effect would be quite different.

In reality, you don’t need to be super strict when composing with complimentary colours. Your brain will tell you whether on not something works. For example, yellow and blue works quite well, even though they’re not exactly opposite each other.

A strong single colour on a muted background

Another compositional tool is to use a strong colour against a muted background. Again, this is using colour as the primary tool in the image to help define the subject.

Creating Mood with Colours

Harmonious Colours

Harmonious colours often work less to define strong stand out shapes, but more to define the mood or tone of an image. When people think of tone, they often thing of warm or cool, and that is part of it (more on that in a second) but there’s more too it than that. For example, yellows and greens can create a fresh, relaxing mood. This is because they are often colours associated with nature and our brain relates the two.

Strong reds, yellows and oranges can convey a sense of warmth and also excitement and comfort.

Blues can convey a sense of coolness and also calm. The association with the sea and also with cold works in our brains to link this colour with those situations.

Colour Temperature, the Colour of Light, and Tone

The colour of the light can have a big impact on the mood of an image too. Even in images with cooler subjects, a warm light can change the overall tone of the image. We primarily see the colour of light on white areas, and it can also be affected by the camera’s white balance. Warm light is generally yellower and cool light is, unsurprisingly bluer!

Here’s an example of a snowy scene. Note how the cool light makes the image feel even colder.

Here’s another scene from the same day. Now the sun has come out and notice how the warm light on the image changes the tone and makes it feel warmer.

Changing the colour temperature can often have a big impact on mood too. Here’s the same shot with the colour temperature changed afterwards.

Shooting at certain times of day can make a big difference too. Sunset and sunrise both produce warm light, whereas mid day produces cool light. Where you are in the world, the time of year and the time of day can all affect the colour of light too.

Sunset at the Eifel Tower
Cool Norwegian Light
Warm Autumn Light

Learning to See Colour

I’ve given you a lot of information to take in, but the most important thing is to learn to see colour, which brings me back to the point of the post in the first place. This may sound like an obvious thing as we naturally see in colour, but we tend to zone it out. What I’m talking about isn;t about walking around with a colour wheel or trying to memorise all the combinations of complimentary colours. No, it’s much simpler than that. Just be aware of colour when you’re looking through you’re camera’s viewfinder. Look for strong colours and areas of rich colour. Look for bold colours against muted backgrounds. The rest will come naturally with time.

Further Reading

For more examples of Colour in photography, check out the companion post over on my Pure Photography blog

For more on colour theory wikipedia has an extensive if somewhat boring page on the subject.

Eric Kim has a good post on his blog about Colour theory and Composition in Street Photography.

Yellow

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