Learning to See, Part III

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.

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.

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.


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 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.'

Some Older Comments

  • Dale Wilson January 30, 2013 12:21 am

    Cassie - I had no idea this series would be so popular for beginning photographers. Consequently when I wrote the first entry, there was no consideration given to advancing the theme. Readers such as yourself have suggested otherwise; thank you all for your responses.

    You can find the opening entry here: https://digital-photography-school.com/for-beginners-learning-to-see

  • Cassie January 29, 2013 05:36 pm

    Where can I find "Learning to See, Part I"



  • Elaine January 29, 2013 04:02 am

    I am really enjoying these articles! So glad I found this site!

  • John Godfrey January 26, 2013 04:22 pm

    Thank you also Dale. The reference to Pete Turner was great - his style resonates with me. Cheers, John

  • Dale Wilson January 23, 2013 11:41 am

    Edit: Last sentence should read: "...it does matter."

  • Dale Wilson January 23, 2013 11:13 am

    Thank you all for the kind comments - muchos appreciatos.

    David, you raise a great point. I had an editor once explain to me that I should write in either the masculine (he, his, him, etc) or feminine (her, she, etc) but not to intermix both in either the same sentence or, indeed, article as it makes it too confusing to read. However, you are absolutely correct by suggesting I should have identified several of the many fabulous female photographers as well. Hint – I will be making amends in a future entry.

    Scott - It's in the queue.

    Ann - Just as photographers should not rely on “Program” so too should we not rely on auto spell. You are correct, it does make matter.

  • David Hardt January 23, 2013 05:01 am

    First, I am very much impressed with the writing in your "seeing" series. You have a very clear and succinct style of conveying your main concept for the reader. Writers could learn as much from your articles as photographers!

    For this article: I had been looking for a list of photographers to begin studying the elements of great photography. Thanks!

    Not meaning to raise a sexist point, but I am always interested in the "other person's way of seeing." Would you please recommend a female master or two to add to your all-male suggestion lists (for black and white, and for color)? You could add that unobtrusively to a future article, if you liked. Again, thanks so much for your insight.

  • Ann January 22, 2013 11:04 pm

    I wish you'd decide whether you're actually talking about complimentary or complementary colors.
    "...yellow is a complimentary colour to blue." I hope blue knows how to accept a compliment. It matters!

  • Tom Niemerow January 22, 2013 12:46 pm

    Love this series. But....what does assimilated color mean.

  • Joseph January 22, 2013 11:38 am

    I love this article. I've mentioned this before but I started out of high school in beauty school and I worked with hair and makeup for about ten years and the education I received on the color wheel and structure of the human face has helped me in photography probably more than any other education I have received. Very, very valuable stuff that will apply to every photo you make.

  • Jay January 22, 2013 05:23 am

    Thank you! Eagerly waiting for next installment and color wheel discussion.

  • Scottc January 20, 2013 12:10 pm

    This has been a cool series (will there be a part IV?) on color, tones, etc. At the very least a great refresher about paying attention to what our eyes are telling us. Thanks!