Colour Composition: Using Subtle Colour

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A photo with subtle colour

In my last article I wrote about using colour boldly. Today I’m going to look at ways you can use colour in a much subtler, gentler fashion.

Bold colours are most often found in man-made objects. If someone paints a wall bright red, for example, and you take a photo of it against a deep blue sky, then you are using colours that are just about as strong and deep as it is possible to get.

In nature though, colours are often much more subtle. And there are ways that you can use the subtlety of colour found in nature to create photos that capture the mood of the scene.

Let’s look at some examples to explain what I mean:

A photo with subtle colour

For this portrait I photographed my model against a cliff and use the cloudy white balance setting to warm it up. The background and the model’s skin and hair are all shades of brown. Apart from white, I don’t think there’s another colour in the image.

A photo with subtle colour

Here’s another portrait taken the same afternoon. The background in this photo is the sea, although it’s difficult to recognise as it’s out of focus. It was overcast, so the sea has come out grey rather than blue. But it suits the image. Just like the previous portrait, the colour palette is limited.

A photo with subtle colour

I created this photo by focusing on the grass in the foreground and using a wide aperture to defocus the setting the sun. I applied a low colour temperature in post-processing to give the scene a cool feel. Even though it is sunset, the colours are subtle.

A photo with subtle colour

Here is a close-up photo I took in a local museum. The colour palette is very subtle. The box is cream, and the background is green. There is some nice tonal contrast going on in this image.

So far, the examples I’ve given have all used soft or pastel colours. But you can still use bright colours such as red in a subtle way. Here’s an example:

A photo with subtle colour

My model was wearing a bright red jumper and headband, so I positioned her against a white coloured building to provide a neutral background. The neutrality of the background colours emphasise the strength of the red.

I hope the photos in this article and the last have given you some ideas about using colour in your photos. It’s a little more difficult to use colour with subtlety that it is to fill the frame with bright colours. But it does give you an extra tool for expressing yourself with. And don’t forget, you don’t have to settle for the colour palette that nature provides. Feel free to make the colours in your images more subtle by desaturating them in post-processing.

Mastering Photography

A photo with subtle colour

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital camera. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take creative photos like the ones in this article.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Enroll in his new Lightroom course for free, or download his free Creative Fade Presets for Lightroom.

  • Now these are good tips because a lot of time we do get subtle colors to work with and not the vivid ones we may like.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Quite agree. Really valuable advice, thank you!

  • Anand Pethia

    Nicely written and thanks for the tips. Am defineitely going to experiment with settings and get good snaps.

  • Albin

    Great still life images. The discussion is about color but I’m most impressed with the interaction of color and focus. Maybe another topic.

  • Usually, I am a big fan of bold colours and in my pet photography I’ve often used richly coloured backgrounds (especially blue) to set off the grey, cream and taupe colours of my Tonkinese cats.

    But this recent photo of one of my cats against an off-white background is one of my favourites:

    http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/29448232_mfKCCq#!i=2620001292&k=bHsscMv

    And I think this photo of a snow monkey against a wall that is similar in colour draws the eye toward textures (of the rock and its fur) as well as to its face and eyes.

    http://frogoutofwater.smugmug.com/Animals/Critters/29452801_3nX9sX#!i=2618863732&k=t3ZsdqD

  • Interesting article!
    I agree with Albin, your color, focus and depth of field give your shots life.
    I would like to know more about how you use them in your photos.

  • Tina

    I am most interested in knowing the details about how each image was created….lens, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. These details will help me learn how to create them myself.

  • great article! i like a lot of neutral colors in my images & this just makes me love a subtle style even more 🙂

Some Older Comments

  • marie July 23, 2013 11:55 am

    great article! i like a lot of neutral colors in my images & this just makes me love a subtle style even more :)

  • Tina July 18, 2013 11:44 pm

    I am most interested in knowing the details about how each image was created....lens, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, etc. These details will help me learn how to create them myself.

  • Jeffrey July 12, 2013 11:39 pm

    Interesting article!
    I agree with Albin, your color, focus and depth of field give your shots life.
    I would like to know more about how you use them in your photos.

  • Frogoutofwater July 12, 2013 09:11 am

    Usually, I am a big fan of bold colours and in my pet photography I've often used richly coloured backgrounds (especially blue) to set off the grey, cream and taupe colours of my Tonkinese cats.

    But this recent photo of one of my cats against an off-white background is one of my favourites:

    http://www.smugmug.com/gallery/29448232_mfKCCq#!i=2620001292&k=bHsscMv

    And I think this photo of a snow monkey against a wall that is similar in colour draws the eye toward textures (of the rock and its fur) as well as to its face and eyes.

    http://frogoutofwater.smugmug.com/Animals/Critters/29452801_3nX9sX#!i=2618863732&k=t3ZsdqD

  • Albin July 12, 2013 04:38 am

    Great still life images. The discussion is about color but I'm most impressed with the interaction of color and focus. Maybe another topic.

  • Anand Pethia July 12, 2013 02:12 am

    Nicely written and thanks for the tips. Am defineitely going to experiment with settings and get good snaps.

  • Guigphotography July 12, 2013 02:00 am

    Quite agree. Really valuable advice, thank you!

  • Mridula July 12, 2013 01:37 am

    Now these are good tips because a lot of time we do get subtle colors to work with and not the vivid ones we may like.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

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