Color in Photography: What Happened to Oz?

Color in Photography: What Happened to Oz?

Lately, I have been filtering my way through many photo sites looking at all the amazing and different work that is out there in the photographic ether. There are so many wonderfully, creative photographers out there that it is a privilege to catch a glimpse of their work and be able to experience the moment they captured as they see it. What a fantastic impact the digital revolution has had on photography and its exposure.

Now, all this perusing through these numerous and vast websites of photographic wonderment always make me evaluate my own work and consider current trends in photography. I highly suggest you get out there and take a peek every once in a while to experience this for yourself, as it is likely to give you some inspiration for pushing the boundaries of your own work. Recently, I found that after this particular exercise, I was left with an interesting question which unfortunately is antithetic to my own personal photographic style. Then I thought this would be an interesting discussion to pose to other photographers, artists and creatives to see what sort of discussion was stimulated.

What I noticed, was that there seems over recent years to be quite a trend of desaturated, washed out or toned down images in portraits as well as landscapes. Muted skin tones, bleary backgrounds, and moody, melodramatic musings seem to be predominant and I found myself wondering what this exactly means. Especially since my own personal style is to embrace colors and the power and meaning they portray and how they can change the entire feel or emotion of an image.

My first thought was that maybe current worldwide economic complications and overall pessimistic outlooks have caused this overwhelming trend. Then I also considered the possibly that mainstream entertainment trends of zombies, vampires and gothic imagery could also be somewhat responsible. Whatever it is, I found myself concerned that my style is diametrically opposite to this trend. I was the metaphorical Bizarro Superman in Regular Superman’s world. This led me to consider re-evaluating my photography a bit and created a definite schism within the internal workings of my right brain.

First, why would one want to forego the magical nuances and emotive power of colors? Color is everywhere. It is all around us at all times. Color makes a bowl of fresh strawberries look enticing. It makes sunsets and sunrises spectacular and breathtaking. If you were waiting for the Wizard of Oz analogy that was foreshadowed in the title, here it comes, so brace yourself. In Kansas, at least we have the dramatic impact, mood and contrast of black and white imagery. Oz provides spectacular colors and vibrance in an emotive explosion. But what is in between? Are we currently in some sort of photographic purgatory that is lost between Kansas and Oz?

The following is a list of colors and what they can portray in an image:

1) Red – fire, blood, energy, war, strength, power, determination, passion

2) Pink – romance, love, friendship, feminine, passivity

3) Orange – joy, sunshine, enthusiasm, fascination, happiness, warmth, attraction, success

4) Yellow – joy, happiness, intellect, energy, cheerful, warmth

5) Green – nature, growth, harmony, freshness, fertility, safety

6) Blue – depth, stability, serenity, trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth

7) Purple – royalty, power, nobility, luxury, ambition

Pretty fascinating to see meaning through color. I would encourage you to try and use color in this manner to give your photos specific visual impact. We all stop at red lights in traffic and go when the light is green. That is an immediate ingrained response to color. How many other colors that we see every day invoke specific emotional responses? The use of color in photography is a worthy area of study for anyone from the weekend amateur to the serious professional. Every photographer should invest some time and thought into this captivating clockwork of colors.

Now, I did not mean to imply that any of the current photographic trends are right, wrong, or somewhere in between. The reality is all imagery has its place and we as photographers need to find the style that suits our photographic philosophy. I love looking at all sorts of photographic styles and find that there is something to be learned from each and every creative mind. Where do you stand on this black and white, muted tones, vibrant color issues? I think it is obvious where I stand, but what is your style and why? Do you feel pressure to stay within the constraints of current photo trends or do you pioneer your own style? Color me crazy, but I think these are important questions to help all of us reflect upon and evaluate our own work.

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Alex Smith is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at

Some Older Comments

  • Trevor December 23, 2012 03:38 am

    The article does make me think about my preferences. I have a slight aversion to "Technicolor", partly maybe a reaction to HDR excesses - but is probably more to do with using mono laser printers and economical inkjets from the early days. A mono shot is, of course, simplified, and simple can be clarifying. But I do love hi-color for fruit, tropical fish, rainbows, cosmic nebulae and any other naturally colorful thing. Portraits I probably prefer in muted tones. Part of that is because colours, printed and mounted, fade more obviously when exposed over time to sunlight - that's just the technology.
    Influences like Ansel Adams and H C Bresson have had their part to play and I enjoy film noire and books of old prints too, retro LIFE magazines photo offerings online excite me and I visit online galleries in monochrome. They have an emotional atmosphere I enjoy. So I guess experience and, at 61, age-related factors as well as mere arbitrary taste may be involved. You know, I'm just so thankful to have excellent eyesight so I can appreciate all the options!

  • Meri F Clason December 23, 2012 03:02 am

    This may be a dinosaur viewpoint, because i am one--but this world is full of colors, and to me one of the joys of photography is to catch just how beautiful it is. Generally, I don't think it needs to look hyper-saturated like a mescaline trip, as has been awfully popular the last few years, but unless you're specifically trying for the "found in grannie's trunk" look or the entirely different art of black & white, let the color shine!

  • Frumfoto December 23, 2012 03:00 am

    I see what you mean...
    Honeslty, I once also used to love colored, punchy portraits. But now I don't like them anymore. I'm a professional studio photographer and I'm a lot into hi-key, very pale portraits.
    Landscape, I like it punchy (not as contrasted as when I was younger, yet still well colored). But I have to say now I rarely shoot landscape anymore...

  • Ben Chapman December 22, 2012 07:48 pm

    Like others, I edit each picture in a different way.

    I've recently started to use B&W a lot more, created my first HDR image and shot a wedding; so have used various styles to achieve different seems people love B&W/sepia wedding pictures.

    As far as HDR goes I personally love the over saturation.

  • Ann December 22, 2012 04:45 pm

    I thought Kansas WAS purgatory! Sorry I couldn't resist! :-D

  • Michel December 22, 2012 06:50 am

    One of my prefered image is a picture of a snowy hill on a grey day. It's a color slide that look almost like a B&W image. the keyword is "almost" : it's grey, but with subtle nuances... Since it was slide, no desaturation there, just the truth of Kodachrome. On the other hand, another of my prefered photographies is a harbour at evening, with very saturated colors (underexpose was the trick) and a great contrast between a dark slate sky and a suny pile of sulfur.

    This is just two differents images, two different ambiance, thus two differents aspects : why doing everything the same ? The joy in photography is that you can do everything, and now with the magic of digital, there are a lot of new possibilities... beauty is not unique.

    (BTW, HDR is the best or the worst : it's very tricky to keep a natural lightning when the contrast of the subject is too high)

  • Jim Woolsey December 22, 2012 05:54 am

    I agree with Satesh. Instagram has introduced a new style of photography: Take the photo, edit it to make it look retro, and then share on facebook.

  • Bill Vriesema December 22, 2012 03:41 am

    I can appreciate both approaches to color. I tend to render my images as "punchy" color with bright mid tones and bright color. I wonder if the move to desaturated color for some is a response to the oversaturated look that HDR can yield. I could see how the desaturated look can create an emotion of "going back in time," similar to a dreamscape or flashback sequence. I see this effect used a lot these days with the more journalistic style of wedding and engagement photography--and I think it fits really nicely in that genre as a "timeless" look.

  • Michael C December 22, 2012 02:33 am

    I think at some points it may be a reaction to the ridiculous over saturation that can result from HDR software in the wrong hands. One comment I read here on DPS in an article asking interior architectural photogs whether they preferred to use flash or HDR recently called the misuse of it "a rainbow of Technicolor vomit" and I knew instantly the look the commenter was referring to.

  • Jacko December 22, 2012 02:11 am

    OZ got exposed as a fraud.

    That's how some of these over post processed images come off.

    It's like those action movies where the animation is obviously CGI it's just not impressive as a classic black and white photo.


  • Fonk December 21, 2012 11:26 pm

    Once in a while, I'll do the de-saturation thing, but I usually commit to full color or full-on black & white (or sepia). I know what you mean about the trend, though, particularly when it comes to portraits. I myself have never understood what's so desirable about washing out skin tones. Skin isn't a pure, soft white! It has color! Embrace it! But, to each his own; it's not my place to dictate anyone's style. Besides, if everyone else is doing it the other way, and I'm the lone wolf embracing true color (or true B&W, for that matter), then that just helps me stand out amongst the sheep.

  • Alan Granger December 21, 2012 11:19 pm

    I strive for Kodachrome.

  • Marc Laubscher December 21, 2012 08:36 pm

    I agree with Joseph, namely: "Each photograph I take kind of dictates what I do."

    I have taken a whole series of photos with the intent of publishing them in color and when I start processing them I find that people's faces, for instance, show more mood and intensity than I originally saw and I will end up processing them all as black and white!

    Make no mistake, I love color, but I like the intensity of black and white at the right time and in the right setting.

    However, as far as de-saturation goes I'm definitely not a zombie-grey, or vampire-white kind of person! :-)

    Satesh mentioned: "Don’t just desaturate and add a vignette just because we see it all the time on Facebook and instagram." Herein lies a LOT of people's problem in my opinion, of course...Following "popular" trends, rather than creating their own style!

    I try and learn from various styles and trends, but I also try and make sure that I create something that says: "Marc took this picture" to whoever knows me.

    If I wanted to give someone an Instagram picture I would have given them the web address and told them to help themselves!

  • Steve December 21, 2012 08:34 pm

    Although I am always experimenting I still prefer to capture with vibrant colours

  • Rakesh Varma December 21, 2012 06:02 pm

    Nice tips. Thanks.

  • Richard Taylor December 21, 2012 05:56 pm

    For myself it is just an artistic decision.

  • KJPino December 21, 2012 04:32 pm

    I LOVE COLOR! I can say I do like some of the muted colors in certain instances, but mostly for me COLOR, COLOR, COLOR! :)

  • Mridula December 21, 2012 03:23 pm

    Never followed trends not in fashion not in photography!

  • satesh r December 21, 2012 02:33 pm

    I think people are trying to mimic the now "instagram" or retro look. I see it all the time. It's not a bad look, but I think the processing we do to out photos should have meaning behind it. Don't just desaturate and add a vignette just because we see it all the time on Facebook and instagram. That's just my thought.

  • Joseph December 21, 2012 11:51 am

    Each photograph I take kind of dictates what I do. I will desaturate if it looks good. And I'll fire up the color if it looks good. And I'll work on color levels in black and white as well. I wouldn't put every photo I take in the same frame. I don't edit every photo I take the same way.

  • Barbara December 21, 2012 10:42 am

    Color is just as hard as black and white to execute well. I don't go for the trend of desaturation, though, by any means... just seems washed out to me. I enjoy an explosion (or many little explosions) of color in a good color photograph.