Color is an often overlooked element of photography, yet it can make a huge difference to your images. With careful use of color, you can attract plenty of attention, and you can add intensity and impact to your compositions.
But figuring out how to use color in your photos can be tricky. Not only do you have to find the right subjects, but you also need to ensure the colors blend well together and work with the overall mood of the piece. That’s where this article comes in. Below, I share five tips to improve your use of color in photography, whether you’re a beginner or an experienced shooter!
Let’s dive right in.
1. Find a colorful scene
If you’re looking to create photos that feature beautiful colors, you’ll need to start by seeking out vibrant scenes. While you can always work with more subtle subjects, the more color you can find in the field, the more eye-catching the result and the easier it’ll be to use the hues effectively.
So keep an eye out for lots of intense colors. The way the countryside unfolds in the summer, for example, can be a wonderful way to showcase color in a landscape. You’ll often be able to capture purple hues of lavender and/or golden wheat fields, both of which can look amazing.
You might focus on one dominant color in a scene, such as green. Alternatively, you can seek out a variety of tones, like a cool blue sky mixed with a red field; this can add some complexity to your shots and evoke different emotions. Blue often provides feelings of cold, whereas red can add warmth, energy, and excitement.
As you become better at finding colorful scenes, I’d encourage you to think of the different hues in terms of the color wheel. Colors that sit opposite one another on the color wheel – red and green, for example – are known as complementary colors, and they can create a sense of depth and visual tension when combined in a single photo.
You can also use analogous colors, which are colors that sit next to one another on the wheel, such as red and orange or purple and blue. Analogous colors tend to create a more harmonious, low-key result.
Bottom line: For the best results, make sure you find vibrant scenes, then spend some time thinking carefully about the dominant colors and how you can combine them.
2. Look for details with color
It’s easy to spend time thinking about the obvious colors present in the wider environment – but if you want a more unique composition, consider focusing on details with color. Even if the overall scene is a little drab, there may be colorful details that are just waiting to be captured!
For instance, if you’re photographing in a city, you can find colorful details in storefronts and signs. And if you’re photographing a landscape, you can zoom in on flowers in bloom.
Think about the different colors and details you might photograph, and experiment with a variety of color palettes to see what works well. (Remember to use that color wheel!) Try and find details to photograph that feature single colors, then work with combinations of colors and see which you prefer.
A dedicated macro lens can be useful here, especially if you want to really hone in on those details, but it’s certainly not a requirement. And if you like the idea of magnifying your subject, try testing out each of your lenses to see just how close they can go (you might be surprised by what you find out!).
3. Change your white balance setting
Did you know that your camera can alter the color of your images? You simply need to change the white balance from a cool setting to a warm setting (or vice versa).
Note that your camera should offer a handful of white balance presets, which are designed to quickly set the WB in the field. These correspond to specific lighting scenarios, such as shade, clouds, tungsten lighting, and fluorescent lighting, and they’re generally used to neutralize color casts – for instance, the Shade preset is designed to counteract the bluer light present in shady areas – but you can use them creatively to achieve different looks in your shots.
For instance, you can select the Shade, Cloudy, and Daylight presets to get warmer and brighter colors in your images, or you can use the Incandescent and Fluorescent presets to cool things down.
And if you require a subtler touch, note that there’s also an option to manually adjust the color temperature, which can be a nice way to achieve precise results.
4. Use a polarizer to boost color and contrast
One of the greatest accessories you can have in your photography kit – especially if you’re serious about really bringing out the colors in your photography – is a polarizing filter. A polarizer is usually placed on the front of your camera lens, and it’s a versatile piece of equipment that can minimize reflections, darken skies, and manage glare from water sources such as lakes or the sea.
So what does this have to do with color? As it turns out, dealing with reflections in water, skies, and foliage helps show off the true colors underneath. That’s why landscape photographers love working with polarizers, especially when dealing with leaves in the fall as well as any subjects containing water. Even if the unpolarized scene looks pretty colorful, pop on that polarizer, and – bam! – the color and contrast will be enhanced.
Do note, however, that your results will vary depending on the quality of your polarizer as well as the angle of the lens relative to the sun. I’d recommend reading up on polarization best practices, though if you’re more of a hands-on learner, why not grab a good polarizer and spend some time experimenting?
At the end of the day, polarizers won’t take up much space in your bag, but they’re a great way to bring out colors and are plenty useful for making your images more distinct!
5. Boost colors in post-production
In general, if you want lots of color in your images, it’s best to photograph vibrant scenes – but if you’re struggling to achieve the look you’re after, you can also use post-processing techniques to boost the intensity of any existing hues.
The simplest way to do this is by increasing the saturation, which is an option offered by pretty much every editing program on the planet. You might also try boosting the vibrance, which is like saturation but targets cooler colors when enhancing the scene.
But if you’d like to customize the effect, you can always use HSL sliders to increase the saturation of individual colors while leaving other colors alone (or even desaturating them). This isn’t an option you’ll find in basic editing programs, but Photoshop and Lightroom both offer it.
A word of advice: While it can be nice to increase colors in your photos, make sure you don’t go overboard. If you saturate the colors too much, your image may start to look rather garish. Always check the before and after views to ensure you haven’t taken the color saturation too far. It can also help to spend some time away from the computer; then, when you come back, you can evaluate the colors more objectively.
Color in photography: final words
Working with color can be a great way to enhance your images. You just have to know how to effectively incorporate colors into your images – and how you can boost color intensity without taking the effect too far.
So spend some time seeking out those colorful scenes and vibrant details. Experiment with white balance adjustments and other post-processing effects that can tweak or enhance colors, and if you want to give your scenes a boost, consider using a polarizer.
Now over to you:
Do you have any additional tips for working with color in photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!