Color: A Powerful Creative Ally or an Afterthought?

Color: A Powerful Creative Ally or an Afterthought?

A Guest post by Mitchell Kanashkevich who is the author behind dPS eBook – Captivating Color.

Color is one facet of photography which we often tend to overlook and take for granted. It is frequently only considered after the photograph has already been taken.

Approaching color this way however is a big mistake and a lot of us make this mistake because we simply don’t know why color is important, we don’t understand what role it can play in our photography.

The fact is, color is as much a part of visual communication as composition and light. If you are not fully aware of this fact while framing/composing color images and later when post processing them, you’re quite simply not in full control of what your photographs communicate. A knowledgeable, intentional approach however, turns color into a powerful ally that helps us convey stories, emotions, sensations and moods from within the photographic frame.

In this post I have included some of my photographs along with brief explanations of just what role color plays in every one of them. The aim here is to raise awareness of color’s potential power, particularly among those of you for whom it (color) has been more of an afterthought than a creative ally.


The above photograph is in large part about that attention-grabbing red. It helps me to immediately bring attention to what I considered to be the most important element to the story in this image, the turban. This turban is representative of the cultural background of the shepherd, it says that he is a man of tradition and this is something that I wanted to really highlight.

The red also leads the way in communicating how this scene felt while I was shooting it -dynamic, exciting. This is also in large part due to the overall palette, which in addition to the red is made up of other bright, vivid colors that are usually considered dynamic, lively, exciting.

The dominant color palette in this image is fairly subdued and neutral. The mood that it creates leans towards being melancholic, but the rather subtle “splashes” of brighter colors inject a little life and excitement into the scene (without completely shifting the feel of it). I think that this is fitting, as the mood in that room was a little melancholic and somewhat lively at once.

Against the mostly subdued, neutral palette that dominates the frame those “splashes” of color inevitably demand our attention. It is as if the photograph is saying quietly, but clearly “Look here and now look there, these details are also important to the story”. Color (along with composition) helps our eye progress from the brightest, most vivid element, the central character – the woman, to all the other, less noticeable elements that add a certain level depth to the story.


Here we’ve got bright, fairly vivid colors. Again there’s a sense of excitement, energy, perhaps an association with happy times, due to the blue sky and the brightness of everything, especially when you connect the color to the subject matter – parent and child.

The dark flesh tones really stand out against that bright blue sky, hence the presence of the father and the son is strongly felt. It’s clear that they are the central characters of the story. At the same time, the surroundings, which are also important components of the story are not completely overshadowed either, because they are so bright and vivid, their presence is strongly felt too.


Here the colors are equally important to the mood and to the story. The subdued, earthy palette dominated by shades of grey creates a mood which is fairly sombre and that’s exactly how the scene felt. The palette is also reflective of this man’s story, his tough job of ploughing the land during a grey, foggy autumn (fall) day.

It should be noted that the absence of certain colors can be just as important to creating a mood and telling a story as their presence, and here, the absence of bright, vivid colors ensures that the somberness is communicated strongly and that the story of hard-living is clear as can be.


This image is essentially duo-tone. The simple minimal palette allowed me to emphasize the “gestures”, which are where the story is, the hand with the spear-gun pointing towards the palm leaves underwater (that’s what those things are), the legs in swimming motion. Less colors has equalled in no distractions from what’s important.

One could argue that this image would work just as well in black and white, but I feel that the blue of the water plays a strong role in speaking to the senses, it helps communicate what it’s like to be in the sea, the coolness, the powerful presence of it. Towards the bottom part of the frame, as the water becomes dark blue, things get a little mysterious, darkness (dark colors) is often associated with the unknown. This sense of mystery is what you feel in the deeper part of the sea and it’s something that I really wanted to convey through the photograph too.


Vibrant shades of green and the warm, yellow-orange tinge created by the morning sun dominate this image. This palette is inevitably evocative of vitality and generally positive emotions.

The story in this photograph is quite simple, it’s about the beauty of the landscape, the energy and excitement of the morning and it is only through the palette dominated by those vibrant, warm colors that it can be communicated effectively.


Sometimes the color of a particular scene we see captures our imagination, gets us excited and compels us to make the photograph. Even if we aren’t aware of it, it speaks to our senses. The above image is one such example. Color lends it a somewhat surreal and mystical quality, it creates a very distinct feel. In such photographs, color and the sensory response it evokes are so important that any kind of story can in a sense become secondary. Color is what makes (or breaks) these kinds of images and without it they (the images) simply do not work.

Well, that’s all for this post. I hope that by taking a closer look at these examples of what role color can play in photography you are now a little more aware of its importance and potential. I urge those of you who make color photographs to begin taking advantage of color during your next shoot. Start thinking how you can use color to tell your own stories and to communicate the emotions, sensations or moods that you want the viewers of your photographs to feel.

About the Author: Mitchell Kanashkevich is a travel/documentary photographer who’s passionate about color. His photographs have appeared on TV, billboards, on book covers, travel and inflight publications as well as in most of the world’s top photography magazines. Prints of his work hang in private photo collections around the world.

Mitchell is also the author of DPS’s “Transcending Travel: A guide to captivating travel photography” and is the author of a brand new dPS eBook Captivating Color – a Guide to Dramatic Color Photography. Follow Mitchell on Facebook.

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Some Older Comments

  • Warren Chau March 22, 2013 05:16 am

    Great article and a reminder of the role colour plays in each picture

  • Arturomar March 31, 2011 05:57 am

    While the pictures do serve as intended by the author I'm noticing that it wasn't only me who feel like there was too much left without explanation.

  • dok March 29, 2011 07:27 am

    @Mitchell Kanashkevich : of course I've already seen such colors. But... hard to explain, it's just like my mind tells me, for some of these pictures, "too much edited". But as someone pointed out, it's not photo-journalism, so the photographer can do whatever he wants with the photo, true.

    I don't know... it's just me maybe, but I am very often disturbed on flickr with some "high saturation" photos. On the other hand, Maricel's photo, in this thread is really beautiful to me, natural.

    BTW, I share your opinion on the fact that sometimes, the camera cannot capture correctly some real awesome colors!.

  • Corrina March 29, 2011 01:41 am

    @ jim: No, I haven't studied any "works of art".... I was referring to my OWN photographs and how I like to shoot. I am just a newbie who knows nothing about anything except what I like to see and yes indeed, a raw image can be the starting point, if thats the medium the artist has chosen. As I said above, in my opinion, if I, personally, have to edit a photo 50% or more, then in my opinion, I, personally, did not get the shot. As i mentioned originally, in my opinion again, post production has its place and yes, I use it too.

    @fiona: Agreed, not all editing is about "fixing".

    @Mitchell: the photo's included in this article are incredible! Wonderful captures!

  • Paul March 26, 2011 09:18 pm

    Very interesting and thought provoking article; accompanied by some stunning images. Well done!

  • Jean-Pierre March 26, 2011 08:09 pm

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich March 26, 2011 07:20 pm

    Amen Jim :) Agreed!

    "Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” - Ansel Adams

  • Jim March 26, 2011 11:21 am

    I have to comment on the people who feel that if you use post processing to help convey what you the photographer/artist saw, you some how have missed the mark. Clearly you have not studied the work of the greats like Ansel Adams. Do you really think that "Moonrise over Hernandez" looked like it does in prints today right out of the camera? Adams spent months in the darkroom tweaking the washed out sky and faded buildings in the original shot. What he produced in the print is what he "saw" (visualized) and felt; what he wanted the viewer to see and feel. According to his son, Adams continued to change the Moonrise prints over time, so in fact the earliest prints he made are slightly lighter and less contrasty than the later prints he made. How many of us have revisited older prints with new thinking and new technology to make them even closer to how we want them to look?

    Fine art raw images, unlike news documentary photos, are like an artist's sketch for a painter or a clay model for a sculptor, just a starting point.

  • Fiona Forshaw March 26, 2011 08:08 am

    I think your article had a lot of information (even tips) on how to get a great photo. The article does not need to be a stop by step guide to how to make a blue sky bluer - we should all know how to do that already. The tips in this article are geared towards what you should consider while you are taking the photo. What to look for...what to leave out...and how to create the photo you want others to see.

    AND not all editing is about FIXING a photo. Editing is just as much about the creative process as taking the photo was. I love taking photos...and I love editing them.

  • perishophoto March 26, 2011 04:38 am

    Thank you! Not sure what some people are complaining about - you've demonstrated how color (or lack of) can create atmosphere, energy, interest, and help to tell your story. Which is what you said you were going to do, so bravo!
    The man on his smoke break while ploughing the fields is STUNNING. I think it is easier to see how bright colors can add interest, but this photo shows how a somber palette can tell the story perfectly. Nice!

  • JJ Shaw March 25, 2011 09:02 pm

    That is all great, but you don't get as much choice over the colour content of most photos in the smae way that you get the choice about framing. I'm not sure what I can do differently to MAKE my photos have better use of colour.

  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell March 25, 2011 08:17 pm

    Greetings from China ... Great pics and inspiration - bought your last e-book & will now grab your latest.

    While I like photos that are natural I also love over-the-top post-processing color, depends on the need, and as an artist- not a commercial photographer - I get pretty full-on.

    Regards - MRP | the candy trail ... travel adventures - a nomad across the planet, since 1988

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich March 25, 2011 02:57 pm

    @nubia - well, it is full of tips to raise your awareness on color and that is really the first step to harnessing it and using it more effectively. Not everything in the section is both tips and tutorials. :) Thanks for reading.

  • Peter Le March 25, 2011 10:24 am

    It is a shame what @dok says about your colors. I get this all the time about the colors in my photos.....but they are real......I live on a island where the colors are unbeleivable....but they are I believe your colors are real also. I feel sorry for those who never see nor believe these colors could possibly exist as you portray them....

  • Nubia March 25, 2011 07:08 am

    It was posted under "Tips and Tutorials". Color Photography is just that, color. I did not mean to be controversial to your post, I just don't think it provides a learning tool or matter, I actually did not think about you plugging your ebook, now that you mention it.

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich March 25, 2011 06:43 am

    Thanks for all the comments folks!

    @dok, I am not sure I understand exactly what you mean. You mean to say you have never seen a perfect blue sky of a deep blue color? What colors do you not believe in the images here? The only problem with digital photography for me is that digital photos (especially RAW formmat) are sometimes not able to capture all the colors that I see in real life and that's why I need to go to post-procesing software like Lightroom and Photoshop, in a sense, to correct the camera's shortcomings. Sure I stylize color in the images a little occasionally, but that goes right with what I am eluding to in this post - you can achieve certain results by understanding color and in turn manipulating it how you want.

    @nubia Who said that this was a tutorial? I clearly said at the beginning of the post: "The aim here is to raise awareness of color’s potential power, particularly among those of you for whom it (color) has been more of an afterthought than a creative ally."

    A tutorial would have to be much more extensive than a guest blog post and I don't mean to sound like I am blatantly plugging the eBook, but that's basically what you'll find there - further explanation of how color "works" and the "how to?" part.

    Those who are just a little more advanced however, can surely get some ideas from this blog post, from the images and the explanations of how color plays part in telling stories and evoking emotions in all of them.

    @corrina I agree that if you depend heavily on editing, in most cases then you didn't capture the scene well enough, but then it's hard to put percentages on how much of a part editing plays in a successful photograph or what the limit is. Cameras have limitations. Capturing color, especially when you shoot in RAW format is one area where they can come up short. So given the choice; what do we do? Leave the photo as the camera sees it or "edit" it to make it closer to how you saw it? I'm for having as much control over all aspects of photography as possible, so I'll go with the second option. :)

  • Martin Soler HDR Photography March 25, 2011 05:51 am

    Wow fantastic images, hm changes some ideas on how to approach it. I tend to shoot to capture something i like but the color emotion is a great way to do that as well. Thanks for a great article.

  • aditigulati March 25, 2011 05:46 am


    i think this article is very apt in bringing out how important colours are to a photograph. but its also very important to realise and understand.. that.. while ur editing a picture.. which most pro photographers do.. editing upto such a large extent that any third person can realise its a fake scene out in the picture.. is wrong.. it might be aesthetic and look brilliant but sometimes its terribly putting off!

    none of the above images show any such kind of qualities.. and they are brilliant and perfect.. but sometimes.. editing images can go a little overboard!

  • Nubia March 25, 2011 05:36 am

    I am with @Corrina. I do not understand the tutorial aspect of this segment. The author does not show or explain how he arrives at the final image, what program{s), filters, plugins he uses in his work. Some of his photos may be as they come out of the camera, but certainly not all of them. I would like to know, if he is willing to share. That would make it a real tutorial. We all know what we'd like to get on a photo.
    The images are excellent. Thank you very much

  • Coreen March 25, 2011 05:17 am

    I have to be honest about the first picture, I didn't pick up on the red turban, the blue sky is what kept my eye busy. I love the pictures, but didn't even see the red until I read what you wrote about. I guess I don't have a very good eye for color.

  • Fiona Forshaw March 25, 2011 05:06 am

    I loved the ebook. It has me looking at photos differently. Why they worked or didn't work is far more apparent to me.

    I believe that editing a photo gives you another chance to be creative. To show the photo the way you want it to be seen. It does not take away from your ability to take a photo.

  • Saud Tushar March 25, 2011 04:57 am

    What an amazing post ! Thanks a million for sharing.

  • Jean-Pierre March 25, 2011 04:44 am

    "Mon guide Natalie"
    Another illustration of use of colors.
    I took this picture last week in Moscow.

  • George E. Norkus March 25, 2011 04:14 am

    It's difficult to shoot good color photography. This is why everyone try true B&W and learn what color is really about.

    Great article!

  • Kristin Gallagher March 25, 2011 04:02 am

    I really felt driven by these photos! Thanks for sharing.

  • majid March 25, 2011 02:32 am

    these are very nice & good

  • Mike Bougie March 25, 2011 02:28 am

    Would be a great idea if photographer pointed out what equipment they're using. Especially for an article on great colors!!! Thanks

  • Ian Mylam March 25, 2011 01:53 am

    Great article, Mitchell, underpinned by excellent photography. Thank you.

  • Hgumula March 25, 2011 01:40 am

    I live for color , LOVE color! I often choose shooting locations based solely on bright vivid colors. I love the energy that it can bring to an image!

  • Lovelyn March 24, 2011 09:54 am

    Great article, but where is the second picture?

  • Mark March 24, 2011 05:44 am

    Color as inspiration. The sunlight though the window into my new fish bowl drove me to take a couple dozen or so pics to capture it's vibrant orange texture. Additional pics of the fish in my Flickr photostream.

  • Maricel March 24, 2011 03:44 am

    I agree that sometimes colors compel you to take the picture, recently I went to the beach and there was this tree that was cut and old the leaves were old and death but have this awesome orange color and I loved it, so I took several pictures of it, like this one:
    [eimg link='' title='Manuel Antonio - Leaves pattern' url='']

    It is simple but I really like it :-)

  • Leroy March 24, 2011 01:01 am

    What happened to the second image?

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer March 23, 2011 04:01 am

    @Diego -- One way is to of course make sure your back is to the sun for well lit foreground subjects and vivid blue skies, another way would be to yes, use a flash preferably off camera, or a reflector to light the subject. You can also dodge the subject in editing to increase brightness.

    @corrina -- I photograph mostly people outside on location. I also shoot in RAW. Therefore every photo is already edited greatly by Aperture 3 when it applies the profile for my camera to every shot. Every photograph I take is edited beyond that as well. Most photos are slightly cropped too. If there are any other pro photographers here who post only converted RAW photos online, or deliver only the basic RAW converted image to clients, please speak up and show examples. Every photographer I have personal contact with edits every photo they take. I always want to dispel the myth of "straight out of the camera."

    When I am out shooting I concentrate on getting the composition (save for cropping later) and focus exactly right, and the exposure as good as I can given light, time to make the shot, subject variability. In digital editing I know I will adjust the white balance (warmth/coldness) as need be (basically every shot needs some of this) and try and make the colors pop more, as well as use a tonal contrast filter to bring out rich details.

    Here is an example of what I mean:

  • Corrina March 23, 2011 12:45 am

    @jasoncollinphotography ; quote "Making richly colorful photographs is part capturing enough color in the field, part being able to bring out that color as much as possible in editing. Yes, that means I think editing is 50% (or more?) of producing a final shot".

    In my opinion, if I have to put 50% editing into the photo to make it what I want, then I didn't capture the shot to begin with. I'm not saying post production doesn't have its place, however, if every photo you take has to be edited, does that not reflect the ability of the photographer?

    @dok: I agree, yes to colors, when they feel/look real.

  • Michael March 23, 2011 12:13 am

    Actually I think the red turban is not just attention-grabbing: it has a structuring effect because of the color contrast and the position.

    If you look at a number of paintings by Corot, you'll notice that he uses this principle of one small colorful element almost jarring with the rest, with great results, especially with red or white hats. Here are a couple of examples (the ones I remember are from the Louvre and they would be better examples but I couldn't find them on the web):

  • Diego Cazares March 22, 2011 05:17 pm

    So how you do get such nice blue skies with and not have the object look too yo need a good flash for this?

  • GradyPhilpott March 22, 2011 04:07 pm

    These photographs certain illustrate your points very effectively.

    Great tips that remind us that color is not to be taken for granted, but to be exploited to send as stronger message.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck March 22, 2011 02:00 pm

    Sometimes you can find astounding color and textures in the most ordinary places - like this Macro HDR of a rusty tractor - out worldly!

    Rust Never Sleeps:

  • Ricardo March 22, 2011 01:25 pm

    @Dok if I we're you, I wouldn't forget the photos are not required to reflect perfectly the real world but they rather are the representation of what the photographer saw at a certain time and place.
    Luv the photos of the interesting article.

  • dok March 22, 2011 06:29 am

    I'm a bit disturbed with all these photographs. They stand first as real photographs (as opposed to advertising works with lots of photoshop, perfect blue skies et caetera), but here I (my mind I mean) just cannot "accept" these photos as real : these colors were not THERE in the first place!
    I feel like we're losing the "document" side of the photo. My brain just tells me "too much edited, this cannot exist". Well, at least for me, for my eyes. That may be the biggest problem I see in digital photography.

    Yes to colors ! But when they are/feel real!
    On the other hand, the comments are very interesting.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer March 22, 2011 05:24 am

    I would vote for color being a powerful ally. The more gimmicks put onto a photograph, the more that tells me that the original photograph lacked something, which often can be good color. I photograph a lot of beach weddings at sunset, which is a time of great color, for example:

    Making richly colorful photographs is part capturing enough color in the field, part being able to bring out that color as much as possible in editing. Yes, that means I think editing is 50% (or more?) of producing a final shot.

  • chew March 22, 2011 03:58 am

    Nice post. And I agree. For me, color is the visual perception of the human eye to light.. an integral property of light, how people see light. Thus, it's definitely part of the language of photography. It's really up to us to use it to our advantage or allow it to break our photos, no matter how perfectly composed.

    And love the photos. =)

  • ScottC March 22, 2011 03:04 am

    Interesting spin on color, and the accompanying photos are great.

    I liked this one for the "Red" headgear as well, though not specifically a cultural point the rest of the costume is part of a cultural event.

  • Vicki M. March 22, 2011 02:57 am

    Very good article on color, it seems that the description of the landscape is placed a little bit "off" from where it belongs, as if someone inserted the photo in the wrong spot. However, it was easy to figure out and the article had a lot of good information on color.

  • amit jung kc March 22, 2011 02:05 am

    Fantastic pics...and nice to know little more about colors !!!!
    Thank You :)

  • Nataliya March 22, 2011 01:54 am

    paragraphs should be swapped. "One could argue that ... " and "Vibrant shades of green and the warm..."

    Great article !

  • Erik Kerstenbeck March 22, 2011 01:48 am


    Great article - I especially like the quote that sometimes colour just compels us to take the shot! In this case it was a simple traffic signal in Rome during rush hour. Here we have brilliant red to draw us in and subtle Bokeh in the background to tell the story of a busy street scene.

    Stop and Go, Rome:

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art