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Using an Anchor Colour to Make your Images Come To Life

A Guest Post by Shariq Siddiqui

Do you identify and use a certain colour as an anchor colour in your photographs? Here’s how you could use this simple concept to add extra appeal to your images.
 
Do you often find some images grab your attention more than others without your being able to pinpoint why? There are various things that contribute to the appeal of a photograph to its viewers, but today I’d like to draw your attention just to the concept of anchor colour.

First things first, what is an anchor colour? An anchor colour is simply the one that contributes the most to make an image more interesting.

Is the anchor colour the dominant colour in an image? Not necessarily, although it quite often might be. It is rather the dominant colour of one or more elements in a picture that helps to emphasise the subject, add depth, minimise distractions, or promote colour harmony or contrast.

This isn’t really a technical term that photographers obsess about. In fact, most good photographers who enjoy shooting in colour probably don’t even think of this despite using it all the time. It’s simply a concept that I find useful when capturing and processing pictures to make sure they are ‘keepers’.

What’s the point of determining the anchor colour of an image? Let’s look at a few examples and explore some ways in which you could use it to make your images stand out:
 

1) Emphasise the subject:

In most cases, the anchor colour will feature prominently in your subject itself. A carefully framed shot in which the viewer is left in no doubt about which colour is the anchor can really make the subject stand out.

For example, in the following picture our anchor colour is red. The colour red has a clear association with Tiananmen Square, the nerve centre of the Chinese government. Not allowing other colours to be as dominant in this picture serves to strengthen this association in the viewer’s mind.
 
tiananmen-square-beijing-red.jpg
 

2) Add complexity while minimising distractions:  

Being conscious of the anchor colour can also help to add complexity to an image – by including other elements in the image that share the anchor colour with the subject. This helps to establish a link between the subject and its environment. At the same time, the viewer’s attention isn’t distracted by other elements. This can come in handy for maintaining cohesion in pictures with a deep depth of field.
 
paris-metro-platform-patience-orange.jpg

 
The picture above is titled ‘Patience’. The subject here is the man in the orange shirt, but the rest of the picture is also relevant to the mood I’m trying to convey. The orange seats and platform edge lead our eyes from our subject towards the vacant tunnel. This reinforces the notion of ‘Patience’. Can you spot other elements in this image that also share the anchor colour?
 

3) Maximise the impact of other colours:

Some colours simply work together better than others, even though at first glance they might appear to have nothing in common. It pays to experiment with different colour combinations to see which colours best support each other in enhancing colour harmony and contrast.

For example, I find that magenta complements green very well. Magenta flowers stand out against foliage – providing a nice contrast while still working well with the green background – and so I quite enjoy photographing them.

bee-flowers-magenta.jpg

Having an anchor colour in mind can be pretty helpful while photographing nature or the outdoors (or even your back garden), for avoiding being overwhelmed by all that green. A simple portrait shot in a leafy park can come alive if the subject is wearing a magenta scarf or tie while posing near magenta flowers.

Here’s a related example. I never said it always has to be strictly magenta!
 
girl-flowers-magenta.jpg

Nature provides some of the best examples of colour harmony, even if the combinations don’t always follow the principles of colour theory. Nature also doesn’t mind you shamelessly copying them.
 

4) Get the colour right:

 

I know, this sounds like a bit of a circular argument, but stay with me. Being conscious of the anchor colour can help to get the colours and white balance of your entire image right, whether in the camera while shooting or during post-processing. Your anchor colour is the most influential in your picture. If it looks right, the rest will usually fall into place.

Let’s take a look at ‘Patience’ again. I made sure the shade of orange looked right and in line with my vision of this image. Then I just did a quick double-check to make sure the whites and greys were still pure, and that none of the other colours looked obviously out of whack.
 

paris-metro-platform-patience-orange.jpg

 
Of course, I’m referring to pictures that only require minor white balance corrections. This concept can’t help to recover a badly exposed picture!
 

Why just one anchor?

Can an image have more than one anchor colour? Maybe. Try it out and see if it works for you. I believe in minimising distractions and leaving no doubts about the subject of a photograph. Therefore I like to think of a supporting cast of colours, rather than additional anchor colours. But let’s not wander into a discussion about the metaphysics of it all. Do what feels and looks right to you.
 

But you can’t choose an anchor colour, can you?

While shooting we don’t always have the luxury of choosing all the colours in the frame. So how does one go about assigning an anchor colour to every picture?

Like with many other things in photography, I believe it’s worth aspiring to get things right in the camera to begin with. All it takes is to be conscious of the anchor colour while composing your shot. Just be aware of the colours of various elements in the frame and how they interact with each other. Pretty soon you won’t need to consciously think about this at all. You’re probably already good at it!

Not all pictures even have or require an anchor colour. Still, if a particular image catches your eye, chances are that an anchor colour contributed to this.

Hope you find this concept as useful as I do.
 
Shariq Siddiqui is a photographer based in London. Shariq is currently most interested in assignments worldwide for picture-led feature stories. Explore Shariq’s pictures on his website, and connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

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Some older comments

  • DyaDyo Sadim

    January 29, 2013 06:12 pm

    This article was very helpfull to me and i want to share this green anchor color of truck.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dyads_pix/8402933882/in/photostream/

  • Kishan

    April 13, 2012 01:42 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful article!! Its another arrow in the quiver for amateur like me :)

    I took this one a while ago and even though blue occupies most of the real estate in the photograph, black is the anchor color.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/76601665@N00/6810714513/in/photostream/lightbox/

  • Paul

    April 6, 2012 12:27 am

    Interesting idea, a bit like reinventing split toning?

  • Shariq Siddiqui

    March 28, 2012 07:10 am

    Thanks for the kind words, all. Pleased to see that you are finding this useful.

  • Anna Lear

    March 28, 2012 01:19 am

    Thanks for this article -- I've been needing something to help me push my photos to a new level! I will definitely have fun shooting with this principle in mind.

  • sam levy

    March 28, 2012 12:45 am

    Thanks Shariq, it's an interesting view of color that has not been discussed that often. Sometimes we do it without knowing but improving is about being aware of what works.

    Nice post!

  • Dan

    March 27, 2012 11:14 pm

    In a world where black and white is spammed so much, this article is a refreshing breath of air :)

  • Anotherphotographynoob

    March 27, 2012 07:44 am

    Always looking to improve my shots! Though this was a feature I may have implemented when shooting, now I'll definitely use it more consciously to get more shots like this:

    http://anotherphotographynoob.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/olafur/

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Brian Fuller

    March 27, 2012 01:27 am

    The movie Hugo does a tremendous job with having an anchor colour (blue).

    Flickr:

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Jeff E Jensen

    March 26, 2012 01:36 pm

    Hmm, this is an interesting article on a subject that I'm afraid I haven't put a lot of specific focus on. I'm going to have to put some thought inot this and see what I can come up with. In the mean time, I browsed through some of my past work and these images jumped out at me as having a strong anchor color:

    http://blog.jeffejensenphotography.com/2011/10/fall-colors.html

  • raghavendra

    March 26, 2012 01:43 am

    I have taken a picture of a flower,
    and the different shades of color

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2011/10/different-views-of-flower.html

  • Jessica Sweeney

    March 25, 2012 05:53 am

    http://quotidian-photography.blogspot.com/2012/01/january-self-portrait.html

    This is a self portrait, but the anchor color is obviously that light blue. I think the color harmony between my sweater and my eyes makes for a stronger image.

  • Scottc

    March 25, 2012 05:42 am

    Yep, an anchor color. Not always possible or necessary but it can make an otherwise not-so-interesting scene.

    Red: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5815139983/

    .

  • Alexx

    March 25, 2012 05:40 am

    I like to concentrate a lot on anchor colours.

    http://www.disney-photography-blog.blogspot.com/

  • Mridula

    March 25, 2012 02:38 am

    I like the first one of my shot because of the blue and green not crashing.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/03/beer-by-the-sea.html

  • steve slater

    March 25, 2012 01:44 am

    The anchor color here is clearly yellow. There were other yellows and colours that did not compliment the subject around so I moved in close to get nearly full frame so there were no distractions.

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-from-Almeria-Spain/G0000jFpMNMP99Fs/I0000mXBnpxgVVqw

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