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Learning to See, Part V

The colour of the object illuminated partakes of the colour of that which illuminates it. – Leonardo da Vinci

In our past columns (see links below) we have discussed such topics as how one colour can complement or distract from a bordering colour. We have also learned that to truly see colour one has to understand how shades of grey are comprised of mere percentages of black ranging from pure white to pure black. A primary objective coming from these discussions should be an understanding of how contrast plays a primary role and is an integral component of the final image.

Let’s look a little deeper into this concept and how we might apply this knowledge in our own picture making.

For the nature photographer there are essentially two core subject matters upon which we will concentrate our efforts, those being critters and where critters live. How each is approached and photographed will depend on a litany of variables, but essentially the one constant is that we will have little control over the lighting. The quality of that light, however, will often decide how we have to approach the image and what type of photograph to make.

Generally speaking, where I live on the Tropic of Cancer, the light will be best up to about two hours after sunrise, and from two hours before sunset. It can also be safely assumed the closer you get to the equator, the more quickly the light will become harsh with contrast and hard edges shadows after sunrise. Conversely, the closer you are to the poles the longer the “golden hours” of nice warm coloured light.  When the sun is high in the sky at noon it is often too harsh and creates far too much contrast to provide good photo opportunities, unless we adjust our approach.


Photo 1

 It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  This old gobbler, in photo 1, was having a difficult time locating a mate — evidently it wasn’t just me who thought he was butt ugly. His temperament wasn’t stellar either as I recall, let’s just say this was the last image of the sequence. With that having been said, the photograph was made around high noon and in lighting conditions that had far too much contrast for a pleasing image. By selecting a tight composition to take advantage of the contrasting colour it becomes possible to shoot throughout the entire day. Should this composition not be so tight, the image would have been far less effective. Identify the complementary colours in the scene and allow those to be the focal point while being somewhat oblivious to the subject.  In this case the red is the focal point and is accentuated by the blacks.

Photo-2Photo 2

 If one is driving down a country road around lunch time, some great tunes rockin’ on the radio, a cloudless blue sky overhead, the arm thrust out the window ala truck driver style … well, what could be better?  Why a field full of beautiful sunflowers appearing over the next hill of course.

Should one compare the golden colour of the sunflower to the deep blue sky in image 2, you would soon realize that gold and blue are opposite on the colour wheel. As a consequence of being complementary colours (or very close to) they will immediately create a colour contrast that will work even when the light is harsh. All that remains is to get permission from the farmer to enter his field and compose the image so there are no competing colours in the viewfinder. Voila, you now have a successful photo taken at a time of day when most photographers are having a noonday nap.

If you think of the colour wheel and how colours complement each other you will soon intuitively be making photographs without even thinking of colour theory. When the scene looks good in the viewfinder it usually is, capture the image and analyse it at home.

And remember, 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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