The Importance of Color in Photography: An Interview with Mitchell Kanashkevich - Digital Photography School

The Importance of Color in Photography: An Interview with Mitchell Kanashkevich

Since launching our Captivating Color eBook last week I’ve had a few questions from readers on the topic of color, its importance and why we created a whole eBook on a topic like this. I thought there was no better person to ask than the eBook’s author – Mitchell Kanashkevich.

image 01.jpg

Mitchell, why did you decide to write a whole eBook to color?

The main reason is that there’s a real lack of understanding when it comes to color. Generally people just don’t realize how important it is. I find this to be the case with even with some of the more experienced photographers. If they have a great grasp of everything, except for color, their images ultimately still fall apart, they don’t quite have the intended impact or the maximum impact. It can be extremely frustrating when you feel you did everything right, but the image still doesn’t grab you, doesn’t captivate or engage you emotionally.

I wrote the eBook in large part to help those who already understand some of the photography basics to get to the next level, but also to make those who are just starting out aware, right from the beginning of how important color is.

So why exactly is color important?

There are two main reasons. Color can help tell us stories (visually) and it can be used to communicate on an emotional level. The emotion part is what I find really, really important. I would go so far as to say that color is the primary factor responsible for making a photo feel exciting, lively, mysterious or perhaps melancholic or a little sombre. Looking at the image at the top of the page, you can see that something as simple as clothes on a line against a wall can look dramatic and feel exciting, just because of color.

It’s true, emotions can be a vital part of photography, please expand a little on this topic.

Emotions are vital. Most people would agree that when looking at photographs they’re not particularly concerned if a photo has been composed in a clever way, but everyone responds when the image makes them feel something.

That color plays part in evoking emotions is not a new idea, if you look into other fields – interior decorators for example put great emphasis on color, if you watch most high production movies carefully, you’ll notice that a lot of them have stylized scenes, the color in those scenes is of a certain tint that’s very evocative of emotions and moods. If you search the internet, people are even talking about healing with color. So it is ultimately very significant, but as I say, a lot of folks do not understand it and are not aware of it.

image 02.jpg

Could it be because we don’t think that we can control color in any way? For example, we can’t change the colors in a landscape when we are making the shot; can we?

We can actually do a number of things to control color. With the landscape example you mention we can control color indirectly, if we understand how it works. You see, the colors in that landscape won’t stay the same, they will change depending on time of day, on the lighting conditions. Light is one factor that changes color tremendously, if we understand how it does that, we essentially gain some control over how the color in our landscape photo will look. Obviously it’s not the same amount of control as we’d have if we were to paint that landscape, but it can still have a huge impact. The strong presence of golden yellow in the image above for example, is only there because I shot this scene at a particular time of day, during the magic/golden hour, when light tends to give colors this magical, golden tint. You could say that I indirectly controlled color by deciding when to shoot, under what light.

You mention that there are a number of things we can do to control color. What are some of the others?

Composition – we can obviously frame certain colors in and others out, we can find angles from where colors look like patterns. If we have any control over the shoot, we can have models/subjects change costumes or we can re-arrange still life objects. Then of course there’s the post processing stage, where we can really do a lot of color manipulation, down to the most minute detail, depending on what we are trying to achieve.

image 03.jpg

Ok, we can control color, but other than the emotional side of things; why would we want to control it?

Well, as I mentioned, emotions do play a huge part in determining whether an image is basically good or not, but it’s also about using color to tell stories.

Visual story-telling (which is what we do with photography) is all about drawing attention to what’s important to the story and keeping our gaze there, color helps with that a lot. As you can see in the image above, the bright colored part of the frame is where our gaze goes immediately, it’s like I’m saying “Look, the lamp and the man are where the story is!” The rest of the colors in the image are fairly subdued and much darker, so we don’t really notice those until later and that’s fine, because the main part of the story is not there. On the other hand, if there was a bright color which didn’t have purpose within the story, it would confuse the viewer. There are ultimately quite a few things to keep in mind about color and visual story-telling, there’s a lot that we can do to make our stories more powerful and clear and that’s what I discuss at length in the eBook.

What would you say is the number one mistake that people make, when it comes to color?

Thinking that more is better or not realizing that too many colors, especially colors that don’t follow any order (e.g. not in a pattern) make for pretty disengaging, confusing, even visually unpleasant imagery.

When we see something in real life, we are able to process, subtract and to filter out everything outside of what we are focusing on, including color, this way we can make sense of the world around us. With an image, the photographer is essentially the “filter” that gets rid of everything that isn’t important to the story or the emotions that the photo aims to convey. If that “filter” isn’t working effectively, if there’s a whole bunch of colors in the image, which don’t play a specific role, we end up with chaos and whatever message the photographer intended to convey is lost.

Do you have anything else to say about the eBook? Who is it for? What is its ultimate aim?

This eBook is a down to earth, practical, understandable look at color, without confusing technical jargon or excessive philosophy, it’s easily accessible. It covers the essentials, from the time of the shoot to adjusting color in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. There are exercises that encourage you to learn and see results by doing and there are resources to explore the topic in more depth.

The eBook is for absolutely anyone and everyone who shoots color photographs and the ultimate aim of it is to help people understand why color is important and how they can use it to better convey the stories they want to tell and the feelings they had at the time of taking the photo to those who view the image. After all, isn’t that the purpose of almost any photograph, to share a story, a moment and to tell others how exciting, interesting or magical something was?

See more of Mitchell’s work on his website and facebook page.

Do you have your copy of Captivating Color yet?

Grab your copy today here.

Download it Now - Color_bonus.jpg

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://kirantarun.com/lens Kiran @ KiranTarun.com

    Great interview and perspective on the importance of colors.

  • ScottC

    Agree with everything said here, but I also believe a lack of color, not intentional but the lack of color in a scene, can also be quite emotional.

    Such as with this prison.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5555720063/

  • http://dommephoto.wordpress.com/ Dan

    So much for all my black and white photography, then… :-(

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik

    Hi

    I really liked this follow on from the original post – I will consider to purchase the E-Book just to dig some more into the details! During a recent trip to NYC, I tried to apply these Visual Story Telling principles in this shot from Time’s Square. I tried to capture the bright lights of the Big Apple and the rush of the ubiquitous Yellow Cabs…

    Hey, Yo! TAXI!: http://t.co/eMSOAaI

    Regards, Erik

  • http://backinscotland.blogspot.com Iain

    In the example of the prison, you are still taking colour into consideration, you are considering that the lack of it makes the scene strong, this I think is directly in line with what the article is talking about.

    I often convert things to B&W because I don’t like the fact that the colours take away from the details, but if you can get the colours right, they play a great supporting role!

  • Helen Smith

    Is this available to buy other than thru an ebook?

  • http://malte-schmidt.de/foto/ Malte

    I just learned how important color is. This photo from saturday made me proud as my first explored photo on flickr. Without color it would be nothing http://flic.kr/p/9tvgPk .

  • http://www.lawsonphoto.us Jared Lawson

    Excellent thoughts on color, I would love a survey on how many photographers don’t realize the color available to them, without a flash or any lighting equipment even, in essence they are wasting the resources of natural light available.

  • http://www.bdmatboard.com/ Matboard

    I agree! Colors on the image conveys emotions and it’s one way to communicate to your targeted customers. Also, a way of expression of the photographer or artist may it be expression of feelings or creativity.

  • http://www.kerstenbeck.com Erik Kerstenbeck

    Hi

    Here the color idea was to highlight the statue and stained glass windows while keeping the rest of the vaulted cielings cold and cool – like a Bat Cave!

    Original Batman: http://t.co/OOa7C1P

    regards, Erik

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazydude arun

    Well, so much for all the B&W photography I guess… I’m not sure I’d completely agree with this – Color’s important, but there’s just a whole lot of things that matter.. and just to add, devoid of color can still evoke emotional response, since a monochrome still has gradients from light to dark! It’s basically contrast, be it color or monochrome!!!

  • http://mitchellkphotos.com/ Mitchell Kanashkevich

    @Arun: No one is saying that B&W is “bad” or anything like that. I’m just saying that color or perhaps more correctly, smart use of color can do certain things more emphatically and effectively than gradients of grey.

    Neither BW nor color is better as a medium, they’re different and each has their own advantages.

  • Mark

    @arun – I generally take every photo in color, but I use the basic RAW file as a starting point. I will open this in GIMP and try three possible translations to B&W to find out the best conversion with good contrast. If it is a strong image in B&W, it will most likely be a strong image in color. So now I go back to the RAW file and start working on the color version- informed by what I learned with the B&W version. The important point here is that to make a strong color image, you need to know how and what to adjust in post production. Even further, knowing your color wheel of primaries and secondaries really helps in the original composition. Do the colors next to each other clash or compliment? Do the colors present add to the mood I wish to present? And so on. None of this takes away from the segment of photography that is devoted to B&W or monochrome photos. Just two different genres. Mark.

  • david

    the latest buzz phrase in color is HDR. i’ve heard it said by a flickr hdr “expert” that “this is how my brain sees.” (paraphrased) i think you can train your brain to visualize scenes in this way on your way to capture them with a dslr, but i do not believe most of us actually see color like this on a day to day basis. i have to admit, it is very appealing to the eye, and this can evoke emotions as you indicated. but real? and the corollary question, is “real” color necessary in photography? your opinion, please. thanks.

  • http://www.tomaszworek.com/ Tomasz Worek
  • http://www.whitepetal.co.uk Paul

    Very interesting, an area we often tend to overlook? Too much time spent on composition and lighting!

  • http://mitchellkphotos.com/ Mitchell Kanashkevich

    @mark – you said “If it is a strong image in B&W, it will most likely be a strong image in color.” I am sorry, but this is absolutely not true. As I mentioned in the previous comment, color is a whole different element that we have to worry about.

    You could have am image that works in B&W, but falls apart in color because there might be a color that distracts from what you are trying to say. One example of this might be a bright red object within the frame (where all other colors are more subdued and dark) that doesn’t have any real purpose, as far as the story goes. Yet that color is still going to attract the viewer’s attention because it is bright and red and the rest of the colors are subdued and dark. This in turn can create confusion as to just what the image is about. In a B&W image, this isn’t as much of an issue, because that same object is not red, it’s a shade of grey, it doesn’t jump out as much. Hence a photo might work in B&W, but not in color.

    Also, knowing the color wheel primaries and secondaries is really not that important. You don’t need all that stuff to recognise a color that clashes or stands out from everything else within the frame, it’s obvious, if it’s not, it means it doesn’t clash. Color wheels are great to mix paints and for interior decorators, but not anywhere near as important in photography, at least not as far as the final outcome is concerned.

    @David HDR has nothing to do with understanding color as such. It’s more about tonal range. Is it the way our eyes see? I think absolutely not. Is it good or bad? I would argue that it is not as appealing to the eye as you say, but that’s just my opinion and it’s a whole different topic altogether.

  • http://www.flickr.com/crazydude Arun

    @ MItchell – Glad to hear from you.

    Well, I know you didn’t intend anything like it at all.. It’s just that your reply to ‘Why exactly is Color so important’ as emotional stimulation didn’t do justice!!!
    Infact, to the question why is it so important, what you said isn’t unique to color, it’s equally true to B&W – for instance, if someone were to ask me why B&W is so important, and I said the exact same thing, it would be quite true… which means, you’ll probably need to answer that question again – ‘Why is Color exactly so important’. Although, I think as photographers, we all know the importance of color!!! It’s just that there’s no best way to answer that question…

    Btw, I’ve actually been to your website much before, when I was looking at different Photography websites around the world to build my own – and I think I’ll say it – you’ve got some amazing photos and a great site~!

    Cheers ~
    Arun

  • aurel

    Mitchell,

    How can I buy you book using card?No PayPal in my country :(

Some older comments

  • aurel

    April 9, 2011 03:41 pm

    Mitchell,

    How can I buy you book using card?No PayPal in my country :(

  • Arun

    April 3, 2011 05:24 am

    @ MItchell - Glad to hear from you.

    Well, I know you didn't intend anything like it at all.. It's just that your reply to 'Why exactly is Color so important' as emotional stimulation didn't do justice!!!
    Infact, to the question why is it so important, what you said isn't unique to color, it's equally true to B&W - for instance, if someone were to ask me why B&W is so important, and I said the exact same thing, it would be quite true... which means, you'll probably need to answer that question again - 'Why is Color exactly so important'. Although, I think as photographers, we all know the importance of color!!! It's just that there's no best way to answer that question...

    Btw, I've actually been to your website much before, when I was looking at different Photography websites around the world to build my own - and I think I'll say it - you've got some amazing photos and a great site~!

    Cheers ~
    Arun

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich

    April 2, 2011 10:15 pm

    @mark - you said "If it is a strong image in B&W, it will most likely be a strong image in color." I am sorry, but this is absolutely not true. As I mentioned in the previous comment, color is a whole different element that we have to worry about.

    You could have am image that works in B&W, but falls apart in color because there might be a color that distracts from what you are trying to say. One example of this might be a bright red object within the frame (where all other colors are more subdued and dark) that doesn't have any real purpose, as far as the story goes. Yet that color is still going to attract the viewer's attention because it is bright and red and the rest of the colors are subdued and dark. This in turn can create confusion as to just what the image is about. In a B&W image, this isn't as much of an issue, because that same object is not red, it's a shade of grey, it doesn't jump out as much. Hence a photo might work in B&W, but not in color.

    Also, knowing the color wheel primaries and secondaries is really not that important. You don't need all that stuff to recognise a color that clashes or stands out from everything else within the frame, it's obvious, if it's not, it means it doesn't clash. Color wheels are great to mix paints and for interior decorators, but not anywhere near as important in photography, at least not as far as the final outcome is concerned.

    @David HDR has nothing to do with understanding color as such. It's more about tonal range. Is it the way our eyes see? I think absolutely not. Is it good or bad? I would argue that it is not as appealing to the eye as you say, but that's just my opinion and it's a whole different topic altogether.

  • Paul

    April 2, 2011 07:41 pm

    Very interesting, an area we often tend to overlook? Too much time spent on composition and lighting!

  • Tomasz Worek

    April 1, 2011 08:00 pm

    Playing with colors is important to create nice mood on pictures:

    http://www.tomaszworek.com/gallery-spn-IMGP1521-en.html

    http://www.tomaszworek.com/gallery-spn-IMGP1805b-en.html

    http://www.tomaszworek.com/gallery-suwalszczyzna-IMGP3815-en.html

    http://www.tomaszworek.com/gallery-karkonosze-IMGP7526-en.html

  • david

    April 1, 2011 03:36 pm

    the latest buzz phrase in color is HDR. i've heard it said by a flickr hdr "expert" that "this is how my brain sees." (paraphrased) i think you can train your brain to visualize scenes in this way on your way to capture them with a dslr, but i do not believe most of us actually see color like this on a day to day basis. i have to admit, it is very appealing to the eye, and this can evoke emotions as you indicated. but real? and the corollary question, is "real" color necessary in photography? your opinion, please. thanks.

  • Mark

    April 1, 2011 08:12 am

    @arun - I generally take every photo in color, but I use the basic RAW file as a starting point. I will open this in GIMP and try three possible translations to B&W to find out the best conversion with good contrast. If it is a strong image in B&W, it will most likely be a strong image in color. So now I go back to the RAW file and start working on the color version- informed by what I learned with the B&W version. The important point here is that to make a strong color image, you need to know how and what to adjust in post production. Even further, knowing your color wheel of primaries and secondaries really helps in the original composition. Do the colors next to each other clash or compliment? Do the colors present add to the mood I wish to present? And so on. None of this takes away from the segment of photography that is devoted to B&W or monochrome photos. Just two different genres. Mark.

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich

    April 1, 2011 12:06 am

    @Arun: No one is saying that B&W is "bad" or anything like that. I'm just saying that color or perhaps more correctly, smart use of color can do certain things more emphatically and effectively than gradients of grey.

    Neither BW nor color is better as a medium, they're different and each has their own advantages.

  • arun

    March 31, 2011 07:51 pm

    Well, so much for all the B&W photography I guess... I'm not sure I'd completely agree with this - Color's important, but there's just a whole lot of things that matter.. and just to add, devoid of color can still evoke emotional response, since a monochrome still has gradients from light to dark! It's basically contrast, be it color or monochrome!!!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    March 31, 2011 01:56 am

    Hi

    Here the color idea was to highlight the statue and stained glass windows while keeping the rest of the vaulted cielings cold and cool - like a Bat Cave!

    Original Batman: http://t.co/OOa7C1P

    regards, Erik

  • Matboard

    March 30, 2011 02:45 pm

    I agree! Colors on the image conveys emotions and it's one way to communicate to your targeted customers. Also, a way of expression of the photographer or artist may it be expression of feelings or creativity.

  • Jared Lawson

    March 30, 2011 12:40 pm

    Excellent thoughts on color, I would love a survey on how many photographers don't realize the color available to them, without a flash or any lighting equipment even, in essence they are wasting the resources of natural light available.

  • Malte

    March 30, 2011 09:30 am

    I just learned how important color is. This photo from saturday made me proud as my first explored photo on flickr. Without color it would be nothing http://flic.kr/p/9tvgPk .

  • Helen Smith

    March 30, 2011 09:11 am

    Is this available to buy other than thru an ebook?

  • Iain

    March 30, 2011 05:40 am

    In the example of the prison, you are still taking colour into consideration, you are considering that the lack of it makes the scene strong, this I think is directly in line with what the article is talking about.

    I often convert things to B&W because I don't like the fact that the colours take away from the details, but if you can get the colours right, they play a great supporting role!

  • Erik

    March 30, 2011 05:04 am

    Hi

    I really liked this follow on from the original post - I will consider to purchase the E-Book just to dig some more into the details! During a recent trip to NYC, I tried to apply these Visual Story Telling principles in this shot from Time's Square. I tried to capture the bright lights of the Big Apple and the rush of the ubiquitous Yellow Cabs...

    Hey, Yo! TAXI!: http://t.co/eMSOAaI

    Regards, Erik

  • Dan

    March 30, 2011 04:44 am

    So much for all my black and white photography, then... :-(

  • ScottC

    March 30, 2011 04:38 am

    Agree with everything said here, but I also believe a lack of color, not intentional but the lack of color in a scene, can also be quite emotional.

    Such as with this prison.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5555720063/

  • Kiran @ KiranTarun.com

    March 30, 2011 04:34 am

    Great interview and perspective on the importance of colors.

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