Elements of a Photograph: Color

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There are seven basic elements of photographic art: line, shape, form, texture, color, size, and depth. As a photographic artist, your knowledge and awareness of these different elements can be vital to the success of your composition and help convey the meaning of your photograph.

We will be adding a splash of color in this part of our Elements of a Photograph series.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

Yellow…with a bit of blue sky.
Yellow… with a bit of blue sky

Definition:

The Merriam-Webster definition of “color” that we, as photographic artists, are concerned with is:

1 a : a phenomenon of light (such as red, brown, pink, or gray) or visual perception that enables one to differentiate otherwise identical objects

b (1) : the aspect of the appearance of objects and light sources that may be described in terms of hue, lightness, and saturation for objects and hue, brightness, and saturation for light.

also : a specific combination of hue, saturation, and lightness or brightness

(2) : a color other than and as contrasted with black, white, or gray

Stripes of color.
Stripes of color

Characteristics of Color

Light itself has no perceived color. But, send light through a prism or a drop of water and we can see that it is comprised of a literal rainbow of colors.

Color has three properties: hue, value, and saturation.

Neon color.
Neon color

Hue is simply the description of the color (e.g., blue, red, yellow, etc.).

Value is the relative brightness or darkness of a color.

Saturation is the intensity or purity of a color. The purest color is a hue with no white, black, or gray added to it.

Blue lighting.
Blue lighting

Types of Color

Separate the different colors of the rainbow and we can see these varied colors elicit different emotional responses—some based on genetic response, others based on cultural programming. Red can mean danger, blue symbolizes calm, yellow is happy, black is mournful, white is innocent, and purple can symbolize wealth.

Here, we will briefly discuss types of color in photographs. If you want to dive deeper into color theory, please enjoy Cory Rice’s fantastic article here.

Sunlight is made up of a literal rainbow of colors.
Sunlight is made up of a literal rainbow of colors.

If we simplify the colors around us, we see bold and bright colors, muted tones, and harmonic color.

Bold and bright colors are known for grabbing our eye. Think of commercial products and the cars on the road that grab your attention. A bold and bright-colored subject in a photo can be a good thing, but what if your subject is not bold and bright, while other things in the frame are? Those bold and bright colors can detract from your subject. One solution when confronted with such bold and bright detractors? Photograph in (or convert to) black-and-white.

Yellow tulips.
Yellow tulips

At first glance, a photograph with muted colors might elicit indifference or even melancholic feelings. Would you be excited about candy covered in a drab wrapper? But, step back and think of scenes like a beautiful day of soft falling snow, or fog rolling in over a shoreline—certainly muted tones abound in such moments, and these scenes often make for powerful photographs.

Harmonic colors—colors that complement each other—serve to create distinct feelings in photographs. Objects in a frame can suddenly be associated, related, and visually connected through their colors. Harmonic colors, like muted colors, can create a contemplative mood in your image—sometimes a very good thing.

Green.
Green

Where Is Color in Photographs?

We live in a world of color. The light from the sun, and from artificial sources, is absorbed and reflected by different objects, and it is this reflected light that we see as color.

We are so accustomed to color photography that it is strange to think of a time when it did not exist. Mainstream color film was not available until the 1930s—around 100 years after photography was invented. (If you want to see the world without color, you can set your digital mirrorless camera to capture black-and-white and look at the digital viewfinder.)

The colors of a city at night.
The colors of a city at night

A key to approaching color in photography is to recognize the colors in a scene, and evaluate your composition based on including or excluding the range of colors in your field of view. Frame your image to highlight the colors you think will enhance your subject and best convey the mood of your image.

The next element of photographic art we will discuss is size.

Red.
Red.

Your thoughts on this article are welcome in the Comments section, below!

About the Elements of a Photograph Series

There are seven basic elements to photographic art:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Size
  7. Depth

It’s worth noting that many articles and websites covering this subject list the basic elements of art as: line, shape, form, texture, color, space, and value. My list of seven includes size and depth in place of space and value. I base my list not just on graduate studies of photography and years of creating images, but on the names of basic elements featured in the personally influential Kodak book, The Art of Seeing.

With paintings and drawings, these elements are added to the blank canvas. In photography, they are presented to us in the world before our lens. Regardless of the elements of art that you learn, as I said above, it is your knowledge and awareness of these elements that can become a valuable tool in your compositional tool kit as well as help you deliver a clear meaning to your work. This awareness will generally be subconscious, but, at times, when making a photograph, these elements might come to the forefront of your artistic eye. In such moments, you can create your composition with these factors in mind.

2 Comments

These are very good articles, Todd.  Thanks for sharing. 

Wouldn't it be better to refer to B&W as "monochrome", since it's simply the addition of some strength of black to a constant colored background?

Hi Henry,

Thanks for the kind words! I very much appreciate it!

Hmmmm. I am tempted to agree with you here, but I think, at least in the photography world, that B&W is the more common term. If we were in a drawing or painting class, "monochrome" would probably be used.

I will ask some of my art friends for their $0.02 and let you know if I should switch it up!

Thank you for reading Explora!

Best,

Todd

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