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Learning to See, Part III

Read earlier posts in this series at “Learning to See – For Beginners” and “Learning to See Part 2“.

The Hues and Use of Colour, Part II

Colour is a means of expressing light. – Henri Matisse

In the first installment of the “Hues and Use of Colour” we introduced a discussion on colour, albeit the two colours of black and white. By further exploring the work of Ansel Adams we discovered that black and white is not, well, just black and white, but varying shades of greys between the two extremes.

I also hope your research led you to discover other great masters of the black and white print: Robert Maplethorpe, John Sexton and Edward Weston to name but a few. In your study you should have also witnessed how these world-class photographers were masters in the darkroom. Advanced photographers intimately understand that by controlling one shade of grey they are also effectively complementing the neighbouring tone.

Visual perception of colour may not necessarily be truthful. This is amplified in illustration number one. As you look at the illustration do not over analyse, but ask yourself which circle is actually the whitest? Of course you are going to study the illustration and come to the conclusion that they are all of the same tone, even though the illusion is that the extreme right circle is brightest.

Learning to See, Part III

Illustration 1


Now look at illustration number two. Again, which is the brightest circle? I think you would agree the right-hand circle is the brighter.

Image: Illustration 2

Illustration 2


In illustration one, all of the circles are 100% white and the background is shades of grey ranging from 25% black on the extreme left square, through 50% black, 75% black and finally 100% black on the extreme right. With just two basic colours, and varying shades thereof, it is quite easy to see the simultaneous contrast. In illustration two the background square is either 100% white or 100% black, and the circle is 18% grey (+/- 3% to provide for the pattern detail). Simply by adding the pattern to the circle, and dramatically increasing the adjoining background variance in tone we can create an illusion of assimilated contrast. The two circles in illustration two are identical in all aspects.

We can take this exact same theory and apply it to colour photography. Many photographers will use post-production software, such as Photoshop, and saturate a selected colour to increase the “punch” in the image. Based on illustration two principles could we not increase the tonal range of the supporting, or complementary colour to achieve the same result?

But what are complementary colours?

Before we get into a large debate and ongoing dialogue I want you to try a small experiment. The materials are quite simple: Print a full sheet of 8.5 x 11-inch paper as a solid bright royal blue. Have a second sheet of equal sized clear bright white paper at hand. Now, stare at the blue paper for a minute or so and then quickly move your eyes to the white paper. That white paper should show a yellow afterimage. That is because yellow is a complimentary colour to blue. Other complimentary colours are Green and Magenta, and, Red and Cyan.


Image: An isolated detail of a shoreline cliff allows the reds to enhance the greens, or vice versa...

An isolated detail of a shoreline cliff allows the reds to enhance the greens, or vice versa ... depending on how you look at it. Location: Five Islands Provincial Park, Nova Scotia, Canada


Now that we have started to think colour and how one colour can complement another, I want you to do a web search looking for some great colour imagery. Look at photographer websites, and their portfolios; a great start would be the work of Pete Turner, a true master of colour.  A couple of other “purveyors of colour” worth more than a cursory glance would be Jay Maisel and Eric Meola.

I raise these great photographers works as I want the novice photographer to get ready for an introduction to the colour wheel in the next installment of “Hues and Use of Colour.” To truly be aware how one colour can affect its neighbour we have to understand the colour wheel and its theories, but not too much as we don’t want to take the fun out of making pictures.

After all, if you are having fun you are doing it right!

See the Full Learning to See Series

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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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