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Understanding the Basics of Color

You will never realize your full potential as a photographer…until you understand the basic elements of color and luminosity (tonality). I know this sounds scary, a bit geeky and just plain over-the-top – but hear me out.

Image: Color photography is built on the structure of B/W photography.

Color photography is built on the structure of B/W photography.

How is it that some photographers seem to consistently produce great pictures?

Most likely because they understand how to control the primary element in photography – light! You can certainly take great pictures without knowing color theory, and you can get good results by learning to operate your camera, but if you wish to consistently produce powerful and visually-moving images, you’ll need to get a handle on the basic issues of color and light. Capturing light, like capturing anything else in the wild, requires an understanding of habits and behavior.

Pictures versus photographs

There is a difference between documenting an occurrence (shooting a picture) and capturing the emotion of a scene (taking a photograph). Shooting a picture requires little more than pushing a button on a camera, but taking a photograph involves a working knowledge of how light behaves and how illumination builds emotion.

Your camera doesn’t take pictures; it merely captures light. You, the photographer, take the pictures.

There are a variety of unique psychological emotions that can be triggered in the viewer’s mind by learning to master how to use light correctly. The issues of color, light intensity, angle of view, depth of field, internal contrast, highlight, shadow, and mid-tone placement all empower photographers to control emotions and portray stories with great impact. This is why one good picture can be more powerful than a thousand words.

Image: The contrasting colors of green and magenta are opposed on the color wheel, which is why this...

The contrasting colors of green and magenta are opposed on the color wheel, which is why this image delivers subliminal psychological impact.

The color wheel is the most elementary form of color science and demonstrates the basis for all color correction. When a photograph displays a color cast, that cast can be removed by adding an additional amount of the color located directly across the color wheel. The additive primary colors that our eyes and cameras see are all based on red, green, and blue (RGB) light. The three colors directly opposite these RGB colors on the wheel are called subtractive primaries and form the basis for all printed pictures. These colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY).

Understanding the Basics of Color

In today’s world, we are so immersed in saturated colors that we sometimes forget the important part that light plays in the process. Dull color is not colorful at all. Color without the proper balance of light has no life…it just lays there on the page.

There are three basic components of color – hue, saturation, and brightness (HSB). The brightness element is the life and sparkle element of good color. In essence, good color is all about the quality of the light. Poorly lit subjects don’t hold the viewer’s interest. This doesn’t mean that all pictures must be bright and cheery, but all pictures must be purposely illuminated to deliver the desired reaction.

Moods are set by shaping light

It’s hard to convey good color in poor or insufficient light. Low-key lighting is ideal for creating somber moods just as high-key lighting tends to convey positive and uplifting thoughts. Learn to capture scenes that deliver a specific emotional message. Make it a point to walk around your subject and observe the light striking it from different angles, especially when shooting nature.

Image: The warmth of the orange skies delivers the beauty, calm, and warm stillness of the ocean at...

The warmth of the orange skies delivers the beauty, calm, and warm stillness of the ocean at the close of the day.

Make it your purpose to set the tenor (or meaning) with each photo, not to simply take a pretty picture. Look at each scene for a theme or message that will address or elicit a human response.

Colors appeal to each of us not only because they are pretty or because they blend, but because each color has a subtle psychological overtone that affects how we perceive the scene. Bright, cheery colors convey lighthearted and positive thoughts, while darker hues can evoke melancholy and even sad thoughts. “Shooting” is a process that involves aiming a weapon at a target while creating a photograph involves conveying a thought and expressing a purpose. Every time you pick up your camera, you have a choice; you can either document an event or convey an emotion.

Chrominance and Luminance

Image: Color is an emotional impression that is comprised of both chrominance (hue and saturation) a...

Color is an emotional impression that is comprised of both chrominance (hue and saturation) and luminance. It is luminance that provides the structure to a photograph. Together, chrominance and luminance deliver the full emotional message.

The two elemental building blocks of color photography involve the hue, or color value and the saturation, or purity of that color. These two aspects are the chrominance portion of an image. The third building block of a photographic image is luminance, or tonality, which is perhaps the most critical aspect of all. This is because it is the very structural framework on which the colors (chroma) are built. Hue and saturation offer no form whatsoever. Only luminance provides the framework or form to a photograph. Balancing these three aspects of HSL (hue, saturation, and luminance) is absolutely essential to achieving success in color photography.

The Visible Spectrum

Image: All color is light energy and white is the combined result of all other colors in the visible...

All color is light energy and white is the combined result of all other colors in the visible spectrum.

The visible spectrum is the color portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that human eyes can see. It is visual energy. The light receivers in our eyes (rods and cones) can only observe a limited subset of this energy. These same lightwaves are captured by your digital camera’s image sensor. The colors of the visible spectrum cascade in a particular order, and for a logical reason. ROYGBIV is the acronym given to this order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. All visible colors of light are perceptible because they travel through space at unique frequencies. All colors are basically vibrations or wavelengths of energy; the only energy visible with human eyesight. The highest (or fastest) frequencies of these colors are “observed” as warm colors while the lowest (or slowest) wavelengths are cool colors. These colors are in this order because of the decreasing frequency of the light waves they represent.

Image: The Electromagnetic Spectrum includes both ultraviolet and infrared frequencies, which are te...

The Electromagnetic Spectrum includes both ultraviolet and infrared frequencies, which are technically not colors simply because they are not visible to the human eye. Each individual color in the visible spectrum is energy that oscillates at a specific frequency. The eye receives these frequencies, and the visual cortex in the brain interprets each as a particular color.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum is the known span of energy that exists in the world as we know it. It includes all energy measurements on both sides of the visible spectrum. These same colors appear in every rainbow and refracted white light. Occasionally you’ll see a beveled glass edge in a window or table that catches a strong beam of white light, reflecting it onto another flat surface. That beveled glass acts as a prism that splits the white light into its component parts; always in the same order of ROYGBIV. When all these component colors are viewed at full strength, you see pure white light. As you must realize, all color is just individual expressions of white light. Without color, there is no light, and without light, there is no color. All colors have their origin in pure white light.

Image: Hue is the Color of Color. It is what differs red from green or blue.

Hue is the Color of Color. It is what differs red from green or blue.

Red is the bookend on one end of the visible spectrum just inside the infrared frequency. Violet is the other, located just inside the ultraviolet frequency. Both infrared and ultraviolet are frequencies just beyond and outside the visible portion of the energy spectrum. Both of these wavelengths can be read by instruments but are beyond the scope of the human eye.

Image: Saturation is the strength of color expressed as a range between pure color and no color. The...

Saturation is the strength of color expressed as a range between pure color and no color. The opposite of saturated is colorless or gray.

The warmer side of the spectrum (reds, oranges, and yellows) contains the longest wavelengths in the spectrum and present a particular challenge to photography when the balance between saturation and luminance is not carefully monitored.

Warm colors are easy to oversaturate, and when oversaturated, the luminance values are seriously challenged.

This is a critical issue because it is the luminance aspect that delivers the detail in a photo. The cooler colors (blue, indigo {purplish}, and violet {toward magenta}), are much easier to control in both saturation and tonality. These shorter wavelength “denser” colors can handle the rigors of color editing more robustly than the warmer colors.

Image: Luminance is expressed as brightness, ranging from dark to light.

Luminance is expressed as brightness, ranging from dark to light.

Color balance

When you think of color balance, you must get beyond the elementary issue of white/gray balance; the neutralizing of colors to eliminate any tints or color shifts.

Color balance embraces a much wider issue that is largely governed by tonality or luminance. Balancing color is as easy as using the eyedropper tool in editing software to identify neutral gray. Tonality shapes the entire framework of the photo and clarifies detail throughout the entire range between highlights and shadows. It is quite possible to produce a technically-correct, temperature-balanced picture that loses detail in the shadow areas and softens the snap in the highlights. Tonality and chroma are equally critical in the accurate reproduction of color photos.

Image: Color pictures are a combination of form, color, and luminance. Digital color images rely on...

Color pictures are a combination of form, color, and luminance. Digital color images rely on all three of these elements to deliver the illusion of what we call photography.

Conclusion

A clear understanding of the basics of color will open up a world of expression for you. Yeah, color science is a little geeky, but it certainly delivers results.

If you want to show your uniqueness as a photographer, invest a little time with color science. Anybody with a camera can publish their pictures across the planet in an instant, but if you want your pictures (and your reputation) to outlast your friends and likes on Facebook…grow your knowledge of color as much as you grow your camera and editing skills!

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Herb Paynter
Herb Paynter

is the owner of Imageprep Communications, a photographer, author, and print consultant suffering in sunny Ormond Beach Florida. He is an award-winning Photoshop plug-in software developer who has been teaching digital imaging and production image editing for more than 20 years. Check his blog The Way Eyes See It, download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store or view his digital color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.