How to Use Selective Color for More Dynamic Images

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Semi black and white or selective color photos are quite effective. It’s an old trick by some photographers considered a cheap trick, nevertheless, it is a quite effective one. And just because it’s an old idea it should not hold you back from experimenting with it.

Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color - old ship in Denmark

A selective color photograph of the Viking ship “The Sea Stallion” in Roskilde, Denmark.

In this article, you will learn a couple of different ways to make selective color photos and you how to spot or photograph the candidates. It’s not a technique that is applicable to all photographs, but for some, it can make a big difference.

You most likely already know some famous selective color photos. A classic image is of a 7-year old boy kissing a 7-year old girl while holding a red rose, where the flower is the only thing in color. Or a photo of a red bicycle, and everything else but the bicycle is black and white.

These examples are probably part of the reason the technique is considered a cheap trick.

street in europe at night with orange lights - Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color

Background information

Before diving into the technique, you might want to know the theory. The pioneer landscape photographer Ansel Adams used a technique in his darkroom to change the exposure locally on various parts of a photo. This way he could make some areas brighter and others darker.

The human eye naturally seeks the brighter parts of a photo and by using this knowledge, Ansel Adams could emphasize what he wanted and guide the viewer around in his photos. This technique is called dodging and burning.

selective color landscape scene - Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color

You can use a similar technique with colors. Just as the human eye is attracted to bright areas in an image, it is also attracted to more saturated areas. In this way, it is very similar to dodging and burning. You can use this as a tool to guide the viewer’s eye around a photo.

Just to be clear: It is the difference in saturation that the eye can spot not just high saturation. If you have even saturation all over your photo, you can’t control the eye through color. Increasing or decreasing the overall saturation will not change that situation and if everything gets too saturated it often becomes painful to look at.

If you only turn up the saturation on certain objects of interest in your photo, the eye will seek those out. This way you will be able to guide the viewer to the important objects in your photo.

Chicago the Bean - Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color

You can achieve the same effect by decreasing the saturation from everything else but the subject. If you go to the extreme end and completely remove all color, except a few elements, you will have a semi-black and white or selective color photo.

By using this technique you will create stronger photos.

The classic technique to create selective color photos

You can create the classic “boy kisses girl” or “red bike” photographs, but you can also go searching for something else. This example is from the famous Nyhavn in Copenhagen. These old houses are very colorful, which can look great, but also can be quite an eyeful of colors.

row of houses in Copenhagen - Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color

By removing colors from all houses except the two yellow ones, the attention is strong on those two houses. Any house or two houses picked to be saturated, would attract attention, but the two picked are good candidates, because:

  1. They are both the same color, which creates balance.
  2. They are approximately the same size, which also adds to creating balance.
  3. Most importantly, they have symmetrical placement in the photo.

Composition

Notice that the houses are placed the same distance from the edge of the frame. That emphasizes the composition and makes it a stronger photo than most other available choices.

Notice also that the windows between the two yellow houses have some color. That is a spice that allows the viewer to discover more subtle details, making the image more interesting to look at.

Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color

You can use the selective color approach to create a different kind of composition within your photo. You can plan this when you are photographing. Or, as I did in this case, you can discover it when you post-process the photos. It is the final result that counts, not the path you chose to get there.

The next photo is a similar example from a metro station. Again you can see the clearly separated colored stairs. Just like before, you can also find a little spice in the blue color added to the stairs. You can do that kind of trick to make the image more intriguing.

red and blue stairs - Learn How to Use the Strength of Selective Color

If you want to create photographs like these, search for something that you can make stand out. Then frame it, like it was more or less the only object within the frame. You have to think of it as a very simple composition, even if it is a busy scene.

When you desaturate the rest of the image, the balance will change. The colored elements will be the primary focus points, regardless of everything else in the photo.

How to make a classic selective color photo

There are several ways to do this, in this example, you will learn an easy-to-learn approach in Adobe Lightroom. First, you have to find the photo that you want to work on and then follow these steps.

Step 1 – Go to the Development Module

Lightroom Develop - How to Use Selective Color for More Dynamic Images

Step 2 – Pick the Adjustment Brush tool

Step 3 – Set brush settings

At first, make sure you have edge detection (Auto Mask) disabled and the brush is at 100% flow and 100% density. Then reset all settings (double-click on the word Effect) except Saturation, which you will then set to -100.

Step 4 – Paint everything black and white

How to Use Selective Color for More Dynamic Images

Step 5 – Switch to the Erase brush

Step 6 – Paint in the objects you want to have color

Set the size of the brush to something that is fitting for your subject and paint roughly over it. The Erase Brush will remove the black and white, and you will get a colored object.

Step 7 – Zoom in and make sure you have the edges right

Next Zoom in (press Z) and switch between the Brush and the Erase Brush to make a perfect edge.

Depending on your photo, you may have to use either Feather at 0 or you may be able to use Auto Mask, which is the automatic edge detection. In this case, the Auto Mask cannot figure out the edge and I had to use a brush at 0 Feather (hard edge brush).

How to Use Selective Color for More Dynamic Images

Remove some colors

You can also use a different approach. Instead of limiting the colors to a specific object, you can remove certain colors. This approach works well on photos that have unwanted colors or a color cast.

In the example below of the Vikingship, the photograph was shot during the blue hour. Because the blue light reflects in the snow it becomes too much and it is not flattering. By removing the Blues and the Cyan/Aquas the photo changes and becomes a piece of fine art. Use the HSL panel to do this.

How to Use Selective Color for More Dynamic Images - before and after images

Just by removing blue and cyan/aqua a photo can become a piece of fine art.

This technique gives photos that have a much more complex separation between the black and white and the colored elements and the viewer can go searching for details. In the photo above, you can find a second Viking ship with Christmas lights on in the background.

Here’s another example from The Scoop in London. There was a light drizzle, which was enough for the blue light to shine and appear to glow into the air. By removing all other colors than blue and purple the photo is changed dramatically.

This third photograph below is from a train station in Geneva.

If you study the photos you can see the colored selections are much more complex and not something you can do by hand.

The photograph from London is about the shape of The Scoop. The original photograph had an orange sky, which did not work well with the blue light of The Scoop. By using the selective color black and white technique, the focus is on The Scoop.

How to remove individual colors

You can very easily remove specific colors in Adobe Lightroom. Find the photo you want to work with.

Step 1 – Go to the Develop Module

How to Use Selective Color for More Dynamic Images

Step 2 – Go to the HSL module

HSL panel
Play with pulling some of the sliders to zero and leaving some at 100. You may have to dial several of the sliders to zero to achieve the desired effect.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jacob Surland is a fine art photographer based in Roskilde, Denmark, who travels around the world. Jacob specializes in dramatic cityscape and landscape photos and he has a strong focus on image editing. He is a bit unusual as a photographer because it is the post-processing part that is his true passion. Recently he won a prize at the Florence Biennale 2017 based on two of his photos. See more of his work and follow him on his blog.

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  • Great pointers. Photography is something I’m getting better at other time. But when it comes to editing it feels a bit overwhelming sometimes. Atowle|https://formationvacations.com/

  • Robert James

    There is little I feel strongly about. Never, ever, using selective color is one of them! Cheers! (Nice shots though.)

  • Jacob Surland

    Hehe Robert – I guess you belong to the mentioned group “some photographers considers a cheap trick” 🙂 I fully respect that. Thanks and have a great day. –Jacob

  • Jacob Surland

    Hi Atowie, not everybody likes to edit photos. Personally I love it, but that is a personal taste. If it seems a big world, start out small. Find a couple of tricks and get used to those. Then add another couple of tricks. –Jacob

  • Jim Pool

    Wonderful article. Thank you .

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