The wrong elements of color can disrupt the harmony of photographs and distract the viewer from the story you’re trying to tell. When we’re deliberate though, we can use color theory while planning the components of our photos and use color grading to allow us to create compelling images that add emotion to help us create a story. Dynamic images are created through complementary colors that develop harmony in wardrobe and location, lighting, and mood. Fortunately, there are numerous resources to understanding and implementing color.
Color harmonies are color combinations the human eye finds appealing. Several color harmonies can be followed to help understand color theory:
Apps such as Pantone Studio and Adobe Color CC, which Los Angeles-based Photographer Zach Sutton introduced me to, utilize color theory to enable us to plan and create visually-pleasing color palettes for photoshoots. For example, they can help you discover dominant colors in the environment when scouting for locations, which can help you plan a complementary wardrobe. Or, if you have a wardrobe already planned, they’ll help you find a complementary location.
Let’s talk about what color actually is. The fundamentals of color are made up of three elements:
Value (light versus dark)
Saturation (the amount of gray in a color)
Hue (the actual color)
Understanding the fundamentals of color enables us to better understand how to complement and manipulate color when color grading during post-processing. Portland-based Photographer Kate Woodman has made a name for herself as a master of color. “As human beings, our brain is designed to seek out natural patterns and a sense of order,” said Woodman. “Color harmony is the visual manifestation of this. When we see color in harmony our brain reaches a kind of contented equilibrium.”
Color doesn't only connect us to the natural world, but to our common histories and experiences as well. Woodman continues: "There is a profound psychological element to color, founded on past experiences — both individually and as a collective. The same color can bridge people from worlds apart, or it can divide those in the same room."
We can use color to control mood and to shape the viewers' emotions. Patti Bellantoni's book, “If It's Purple, Someone's Gonna Die,” describes the relationship between color and emotions. The book is divided into six sections that describe different connotations attached to each color as well as how they’re used in films to evoke emotion. We can learn so much just from the chapter titles in the book:
- Chapter 1: Powerful, Lusty, and Defiant Reds
- Chapter 2: Anxious, Angry, and Romantic Reds
- Chapter 3: Exuberant, Obsessive, and Daring Yellows
- Chapter 4: Innocent, Cautionary, and Idyllic Yellows
- Chapter 5: Powerless, Cerebral, and Warm Blues
- Chapter 6: Melancholy, Cold, and Passive Blues
- Chapter 7: Warm, Naïve, and Romantic Oranges
- Chapter 8: Exotic, Toxic, and Natural Earth Oranges
- Chapter 9: Healthy, Ambivalent, and Vital Greens
- Chapter 10: Poisonous, Ominous, and Corrupt Greens
- Chapter 11: Asexual, Illusory, and Fantastic Purples
- Chapter 12: Mystical, Ominous, and Ethereal Purples
Before photographers, painters utilized color. As students of painting, we can benefit from their knowledge of color. Before beginning her photography career, Fine Art Photographer Bella Kotak studied painting. Insights she gained as a student of painting continue to inform her photography and retouching work, and form a foundation of the color grading work for her Fine Art Actions.
“When it comes to studying paintings in museums, I find myself wondering what kind of story is the artist trying to share," Kotak said, "The artist has been very deliberate in their choice of subject, color, and composition. I believe color plays an important role in the art of storytelling. And so, when it comes to my work I ask myself: what kind of story do I want the color to tell? How does it influence the mood or composition? What does it tell you about what is going on in the scene? It's these questions that help fine-tune an image and make it a little more crafted and impactful.”
Each of us are drawn to different color palettes that represent our personal taste and artistic expression. The palettes we navigate to can show a bit of ourselves in our work. I would love to hear how color theory has influenced your work and what kinds of palettes attract your eye. Leave a comment below to let us know.
Images used with permission of Kate Woodman and Bella Kotak.