Colour – Part three of The Art of Photography

26 Oct

Earlier on black and white photography was the only available option for photography and of course got the eyes used to seeing in black and white (b&w). Some colleagues even say that they dreamed in black and white, rather than in colour. Could that be a job-related disease? J

Nowadays people often begin with colour photography and may try b&w. Advantages with b&w is that you get rid of disturbing colours and the different elements of design have a bigger role in the frame while colour can be used to evoke psychological and even physical reaction in the viewer.

Different colours have different meanings depending on the cultural background. In Europe and North America white is the colour of purity while it is associated with death in Asia.

I think it is necessary to have some insight in that depending on whom you shoot for and what you want to achieve.

When looking at colour theory you have to decide of you talk about the transmitted light as used in e.g. computer screen or about reflective light, used by painters or in print.

  • Transmitted light has as primary colour Red, Green, Blue (RGB)
  • Reflective light has traditionally Yellow, Red, Blue (YRB) or Cyan, Magenta , Yellow and black (CMYK).

Primary colours are the colours that cannot be created by mixing other colours but can create all other colours. Keyrescources on OCA-student page

How can we describe colours?

  • Hue
  • Saturation
  • Brightness

“Think of hue as the essential quality that decides how we name a colour – red, say, or purple, or blue. In thinking about a particular colour in front of you, first decide on this. Then judge its saturation, on a scale from pure, intense, saturated to dull, weak, unsaturated. Then decide how bright it is. There is no need to be especially accurate about this at this stage – it is enough to say very bright, bright, fairly bright average, slightly dark, dark or very dark.”

(course material TAOP page 106)

In photography, in-camera,  HUE can be altered by coloured filters or a different white balance setting.

SATURATIONN cannot be altered right in the camera, if you don’t have a special setting for that.

BRIGHTNESS is related to exposure, in other words brighter exposure, more brightness.

Colour relationships


Being opposite in the colour circle they balance each other in a satisfactory way.

OBS! They have a ”relative brightness” which leaves us to adjust the amount of colour at which they are balance.

Goethe had already described that.

  • Red : Green                           1:1
  • Orange : Blue                        1:2
  • Yellow : Violet                    1:3

Of course depending on brightness and saturation you can get slightly different numbers.


Contrasting colours are about 1/3 around the colour circle, Having a strong contrast they give tension to the scene.


Lying adjacent to each other on the colour circle they often match each other well, not creating too much of contrast or unpleasing experience.

Accented Colour

Being in contrast or complement to the main colour and just having a small, nut significant space in the frame the accented colour can create energy and tension in the frame.

Warm and cool colours

Colours can even be seen or felt as “warm” or “cold”. That has nothing to do with white balance but mainly with our associations, e.b. orange coud be fire, blue could be ice or water.

When having warm and cold colours in the same picture they, quite obviously, create a strong contrast

Black and white

Earlier on the natural choice for photographers, it has become more difficult to develop an eye for the colourless pictures.

Very difficult to see which colours are going to look how in a b&w image and how contrasts should be to make them look good.

Often associated with documentary or artistic pictures.

The big advantage with digital photography is that you can just “play” around with the pictures when doing a conversion on the computer rather than the camera, leaving more possibilities to experiment.


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