A painter only needs to look at their palette before applying color to the canvas. Photographers have a different challenge, as they must locate their tones by studying a scene. Of course, this can be easy to bypass when you’re thinking about shadow, highlight, depth of field, shutter speed, and all of the other technical details that go into a photo. Still, as the great painter Kandinsky said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” To use it in your compositions can infuse your work with a new level of sophistication.
1) Background Separation
To maximize the effect of bold colors, you’ll want to start by looking for dark, muted backgrounds. This type of stark contrast will deemphasize the surrounding areas, bringing the viewer’s attention directly to the subject. Of course, mixed lighting can trick even the most sophisticated metering systems. For the most accurate exposure, use the camera’s internal spot meter to take a reading of the brighter part of the scene. By purposely underexposing by approximately half a stop, vibrant colors will take on a deep, rich tonality.
2) Just a Dab of Color
If you want to draw people into your photograph, try including just a small amount of color. This subtle method gives your subject importance by allowing it to stand out from the rest of the frame. These thoughtful compositions are aided by a different approach to photography. Instead of working to add more visual interest, you want to eliminate any competing colors, and simplify the frame. While looking through the viewfinder, check all four corners carefully for distracting elements.
3) Cut the Glare
Each autumn, brilliant displays of fall foliage attract scores of photographers looking for that classic outdoor landscape. Yet, in many of these scenes, the glare of wet shiny leaves will actually detract from the desired color. An inexpensive solution is to add a circular polarizer to your kit. As you rotate the front element of the filter, you’ll actually see the surface reflection disappear to reveal only color. For added warmth you can even adjust the white balance using the cloudy or shade preset.
4) Make it Glow with Backlighting
Of all the directions light can come from, perhaps there’s no finer option than shooting directly into the sun. This is particularly true when working to emphasize color. When lit from behind, your subject will appear to glow. If the contrast is too great, eliminate the sun from the frame. This will make for a more even exposure, while still providing the dramatic benefit of backlighting. If you’re not comfortable with metering manually, take several shots using exposure compensation. Bracketing this way is a quick way to handle an otherwise tricky scenario.
5) Set the Mood
For added impact in your outdoor photography, consider using complementary colors. Although blue and yellow reside on opposite sides of the color wheel, they can be used together with outstanding results. On one side of the spectrum, blue is ideal for creating a quiet introspective mood. Warmer tones however, will infuse your subject with a dynamic energy. Each are effective on their own, but when used simultaneously, the contrast will bring attention to your main subject.
6) Use the Silhouette
During the magic hours around sunrise and sunset, you’ll enjoy a splendid display of color in the sky. Meanwhile, your subject will likely be in heavy shadow. If you properly exposed the subject, the sky would become pale, or even washed out. One simple option to retain the vibrant color is to create a silhouette. This is especially useful with moving subjects when HDR is less than ideal. To do this, simply expose for the sky, and let the subject’s tonality fall to black.
To fine tune your vision, give yourself an assignment where capturing a specific color is the only goal. For example, head out for a photo walk with no specific objective besides seeing and shooting – red. Rather than looking at subjects literally, you will be thinking in color. By studying the world around you with this in mind, you may be surprised at just how many opportunities reveal themselves. With practice, you’ll soon recognize color as an essential element of composition.