Monday, November 12, 2012

Learning to Compose: Using Color Creatively


We see in color. The camera captures in color. But in our photographs, it is not enough for color to be there just because it was there in our subject: color has to do something. What does it mean for color to do something?  Color can speak to the passage of time. 


Helen van Meene

Alec Soth

Stephen Shore

Because we have an emotional response to color, color can set a mood or underscore a psychological state.


Nan Golden

Bill Henson

Michael Wolf

Color can be jarring. 


Helen van Meene

Martin Paar

Color can be used to attract or seduce.


Xi Sinsong

Color can be the result of process.


Adam Fuss

Color can convey narrative information: time of day, season, or location. 


Philip Lorca diCorcia

Todd Hido

Joel Meyerowitz

Beyond these rather straightforward uses of color, there are formal strategies for using color: in other words, there are color ideas. A color idea organizes the ways the various colors interact in an image, the range of colors present, their degree of saturation, and the proportion of one color to another. We can think of color as having three aspects: hue, saturation and value. Hue is the technical term for what we typically think of as pure color. Red, green, blue, yellow, violet, orange, are all hues. 


Larry Sultan

Kimiko Yoshida

Maciek Kobielski

Saturation refers to the intensity of the hue. An example of saturated reds are a stop sign or Coke label. A less saturated red is weathered brick. Color can be desaturated to the extent that it is barely there.

Izima Kaoru

Alex Webb

Nadav Kander

Igor Klepnev

Value, tonality, or luminance are synonymous terms for how light or dark the hue is. If you imagine a color image in black and white, these terms refer to how light or dark that hue will become. In the portrait below, there is a significant luminance difference between the red on the lips and the red on the cheek. Notice also that the yellow adjacent to the red on the cheek is actually of a lighter value, despite appearing on first glance to be the opposite.


Hasse Neilsen



The red and green leaves below are clearly separated through hue; however, their values are very similiar.

Ernst Haas



The relationships among colors can be diagrammed through the use of a color wheel. Complementary colors are hues which are opposite on the wheel. Complements when paired tend to produce an intense effect. However, complements can be unified through attention to value and saturation.






Martin Parr

Jan Groover

Adjacent hues on the wheel are like hues. A limited palette of like hues can unify: all warm or all cool. Sometimes the barest hint of an opposite, for example, a little warmth against a cool ground can suggest a fuller range of color than is actually present, without disrupting the overall unity of the color.

Todd Hido

Todd Hido

Helen van Meene


Nan Golden


A very narrow range of hue can focus our attention on the nuances of color. Notice how the range of golds transitions from yellow-greenish at the top of the image to reddish at the bottom. 


Ernst Haas


We can unite figure and ground through the use of like colors. Or separate figure and ground via unlike colors.

Pieter Hugo

Alec Soth

William Wegman

Michael Wolf

Helen van Meene

Color is always contextual. A little bit of red against a larger unsaturated ground or a little warmth against a lot of cool makes that red or that warmth seem redder or warmer and has the opposite effect on the ground. Put that same red next to oranges and yellows and it will not read “red” nearly as strongly. Contrast enhances the properties of the colors that are there.





Bruce Davidson

© Mitch Epstein / Black River Productions

Mario Testino


Often there is a personal aspect to color. I've always been intrigued by how Elger Esser uses color; I can only describe it as an impossible mix of red and green milky light.


Elger Esser

Elger Esser


As you look through the examples in this post, notice how color is simplified. Not every hue in the spectrum is present. Generally, one or two hues will dominate. And of the colors that are there, notice how effectively an imbalance of color works to focus our attention. 


Alex Webb

Alex Webb
Bruce Davidson

An expressive use of color is a controlled use of color. It is not enough for the color of the world to be there in your photograph. Just like everything else, it has to be organized to some purpose. Color has to do something. If your color isn’t doing anything, it is probably best to take a look at the image in black and white. In black and white, it is the image's tonality – the range of grays in the image from black to white – which needs to being doing something. But that is a topic for another post.


This is the sixth installment in a series of posts on composition. The entire series is archived on the "For Students" page, accessible at the top menu. Check there for the prior posts in the series, as well as for the following installments. Click here for the next installment, how to use tonality in a black and white photograph to create space and direct the viewer's eye.

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