Like everything in photography, shooting in color is a decision. That sounds weird, right? After all, the world is in Technicolor and we canâ€™t really turn all the color â€œoff.â€
Color has emotional content. We use it a lot in the ways we express our feelings. â€œRed as a beetâ€ for both embarrassment and anger. â€œBlueâ€ when weâ€™re sad. â€œGreen with envy.â€ Our perceptions of color reach far beyond just what color something is. We can add impact to a photo when we use color effectively.
Green is a soothing color.
Farmer and beautiful ricefield, Vietnam.
Some colors are coolâ€”the blue-green part of the color spectrum. These colors are usually soothing. Photos that are mostly blue or green, such as this photo of lush forest around a beach in Krabi, Thailand, exude a sense of calm. The second photo, of a farmer walking across a rice field in Vietnam, is mostly green, and the blue shirt of the farmer gives the color palette in the photo unity. The yellow, although it should intrude on the cool color palette, instead serves to punctuate the blue and green and it also helps give the photo a three dimensional feeling, acting as a gradient running from foreground to background.
A limited color palette can work well in a photo.
The other end of the spectrumâ€”the red-yellow part, are the warm colors. Reds, yellows, oranges are fiery, aggressive colors and we associate them with like feelings. This photo of a swami in Rajasthan, India, is full of red and yellow. The walls, the clothing of the swami, even the ground have reds in them. I think this image works because all the elements in it contain similar hues. This harmony then allows the content of the image to pop outâ€”the humor in the pose of the swami, and the self-deprecating smile on his face, playing with the photographer and the situation.
Morning light at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap.
A sense of harmony in this shot from Siem Reap comes from the narrow color palette. The browns and yellows give the photo unity, and since everything is golden from the early morning light, even the green leaves in the photo are tinged with yellow.
But we canâ€™t always photograph still objects, such as Angkor Wat and fallen leaves. A lot of travel photography is of people. One of the most used “tricks” of shooting travel portraits is to find a great background, wait until someone interesting walks past it, and shoot. Usually this strategy produces some gems. But after finding this wonderfully colorful wall in Saigon, Vietnam, I waited and sure enough, a girl in the traditional ao dai dress walks by. Click. Now I look at this photo and think, would it work better as a black and white photo? The clash between the purple tinge on the girlâ€™s dress and the red, yellow and green of the wall might be distracting and does not add to the photo.
Girl in traditional dress in Saigon, Vietnam.
Another photo I think might work better in black and white is this one of a boy surrounded by his family at a market in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and they are all wearing striped shirts. The stripes on their shirts frames him, and I originally shot this in color but again wonder if the color does not really add to the photo at all.
A photo that might work better in black and white.
Sometimes, when the most compelling elements in a photo are lines or shapes, it works better as a black and white image.
Making a color image is a matter of decisions the photographer makes. Since the goal of capturing an image is to create order out of chaos, to somehow arrange the elements of a scene into a harmonious design, we canâ€™t ignore the fact that there are ways to use color in achieving an image.
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