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Learning to See, Part II

The Hues and Use of Colour 

Colour is to photography what verbs are to writing. –Daryl Benson

From the day we are born we start to see the world in colour. Just like taxes and death there is no avoiding it, or at least we should hope not.

What has developed over the years by academia is a litany of theorems best described by Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The number and variety of these theories demonstrates that no universally accepted rules apply; the perception of colour depends on individual experience.”

If a respected reference such as Britannica recognized that no universally accepted theory could be adopted, then how can a short blog entry possibly answer the question :What is Colour?” Obviously it can’t. The task, then, is to pique your interest, encourage you to explore other references, and employ photographic technique that has proven over time to work.

Before we delve into colour in a fast and furious way, let us step back and think of the great black and white imagery that captures our attention. By having a grasp of what truly makes a fine black and white print we can better understand what creates a lasting colour photograph.

Image: Once a decision has been made to photograph a scene, the beginning photographer would be well...

Once a decision has been made to photograph a scene, the beginning photographer would be well served by attempting to cut through the colour and get to the shades of grey between black and white. Then you can really start to see the image reveal itself and provide evidence of the highlights and shadows that will allow you to discern how to best establish a correct exposure for later manipulation in the digital darkroom.

For the landscape photographer, there is probably no better place to start than with the work of Ansel Adams. Any student of photography should be encouraged to study this incredible body of work available at bookstores, libraries or on the web.

As you review the collection, the tonal range of the prints will no doubt intrigue you. By creating a process which became universally known as “The Zone System” Adams was able to accurately pre-visualize how the final print should appear, and he exposed the negative to maximize the latitude of the medium; the blacks would be black without “blocking up” and the whites would be white without “blowing out.”

Books have been written on the zone system so, again, I would encourage a web search for greater clarification.

We can also use the zone system today with digital photography, and, indeed we should have a working knowledge of the topic. Fortunately for us the matrix metering systems in many cameras use algorithms in the same principal as that which allowed Adams to develop the Zone System, thus ensuring we automatically get a good exposure. Whereas Adams zone system generally worked with a tonal range measuring from zero to ten, the same white and black points in today’s digital photography measure from 0 to 255.

I would love to have the opportunity to view an original Adams negative. I suspect it would be very flat and boring, much like a perfectly exposed “middle zone” colour digital file. The answer behind a beautiful high-contrast black and white photograph, or a colour-dripping-off-the-paper giclee print does not completely lie with the exposure, but with the darkroom manipulation techniques after the capture that was employed to “pop” the contrast.

Image: By learning to see and understand the tonal range of the scene in black and white, the photog...

By learning to see and understand the tonal range of the scene in black and white, the photographer will be developing an intuitive process of pre-visualizing the final image in colour and by consequence decide whether graduated filters or multiple exposures should be made for later merging in editing software. With practise this will become an intuitive process.

As you start your creative vision process don’t let your eyes restrict you by what you see, but allow your mind to direct you by what you can create. Only then will you start to have vision true to yourself and begin developing a personal style.

In the next entry we will look at complimentary colours.

And remember, if you are having fun, you are doing it right!

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Dale Wilson
Dale Wilson

is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner
Garry Black.’

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