Unless You’re an Alien, You’re All About Color

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We humans looooove color! All you have to do is walk down the aisle of your local supermarket, and you can see how important color is to us humans. We’re pretty color-conscious—even if we’re not consciously thinking about it. If you’re into “visually communicating,” an eloquent way of saying “taking photographs,” then you need to be tuned into colors. And just for the record, black and white are colors. You shoot in color—but do you think in color? Do you consciously use it, manipulate it, and make it an important element in your photo, like that little thing called light?

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Moose Peterson.

With color being so important, I want to encourage you to think of it as just as important a tool and technique as your best lens or Photoshop move. With our current digital-darkroom abilities, many have turned to the “I can do that in post” mentality when it comes to color. And while it’s true we can do much in the digital darkroom when it comes to color—and there are some things that we must do there—I would contend that the best color still comes from our world when we capture it.

Let me provide you with just one piece of “color psychology trivia” to munch on: Research is showing that we have about a 20-second color memory buffer. This is how we humans are made; it’s not a cultural thing. When we’re out in the grandness of our world, we take in all this visual information. Much of it is color. When you take a picture, your memory has already recorded that moment—for the time being. You get back in your car and you look at the LCD on your camera. After 20 seconds, you’ve replaced that visual memory with the one from the LCD. You go back to your computer and look at that image on the computer monitor for 20 seconds, and it’s replaced once again. Make a couple of slider moves in your favorite program, and that memory is rewritten again.

This knowledge can lead you to one of two very accurate conclusions: Getting the color correct in the camera is either very important, or doesn’t mean anything. And the beauty is, both conclusions are perfectly fine. In the exploration of photography, they give you complete latitude to express the world as you see it. But what this doesn’t permit you to do is to blow off the importance of color, or how you communicate the world that you visually explore. Be it in camera or in post, you are all about color! If that’s the case, where do you learn about it?

I know a very talented woman who says she knows nothing about photography. In fact, all she uses is her trusty iPhone, but she is constantly getting rave reviews about her photos. Many think she has some souped-up iPhone with magical powers. What she really has is this amazing command of color. How do you acquire an amazing command of color? My first recommendation has nothing to do with photography.

Take an interior design class. That’s right; an interior design class where they teach you to put this color couch on this color rug against this color wall for a living room, or this combo for an office waiting area, or this color combo for a bedroom. Each room has a different mood to it, and the color combinations you use invoke that mood. You learn how to use color to effect a predictable response from the viewer of a room. This is true manipulation! Take it a step further.

In his new book, “Drunk Tank Pink,” Adam Alter tells how the book received its title. In police stations around the country, the “drunk tank” is where inebriated people are placed, and they’re painted a specific shade of pink. That’s because this particular color calms them down. It mentally puts them in a state where they can sober up with the least amount of emotional trauma. I’m not suggesting you paint your living room pink. I’m just saying that we humans are easily brainwashed with color. Color psychology is a fascinating science, and it’s hard at work at your local supermarket and office buildings. You may want to visit my website and search this topic. It’s a great place to start, if an interior decorating class isn’t in your future.

Color Contrast is More Powerful than Exposure Contrast

Every photographer knows about contrast (the ratio of lights to darks), but few know about (and even fewer have explored) color contrast. Color contrast is this magical combination of colors that can visually communicate to us even in the absence of light. Red-and-white Stop signs, yellow-and-black Yield signs, and green-and-white freeway signs feature color combinations that we humans zero in on visually, faster than a Moose who sees ice cream. That’s color contrast in action.

Some think of this as the color wheel, which shows relationships between primary, secondary and complementary colors, but we’re talking about going beyond basics. Color contrast is defined as color combinations which excite our visual senses, causing us to stop and take notice. Even if the subject is small, our mind’s eye immediately zeros in on it. They are colors that permit us to relate various elements in the frame in the storytelling process. And they are something you just can’t put in a table and memorize, and put into action.

If you study this concept and then go back and look at some of your favorite photos, you will find color contrast very much at work. That’s the beauty of it—it’s very powerful, yet it takes a back seat in importance because it just works. So, if you want to get it right in camera (which I’m encouraging you to do), how do you do that?

We Must Start with Some Basics

The most basic aspect you can control with a digital camera is White Balance. Visible white light is a spectrum of colors starting in the reds and ending in the blues. The magic and wonder that is our vision, our eyes and brains, can take almost any type of light and render it as a constant. Such is not the case with cameras. The White Balance function in our cameras tries to imitate our vision, but sadly, it can fall short.

The Auto White Balance (AWB) function on a Nikon D4 works really well most of the time. It reproduces in images the color that we remember (within the realm of our 20-second color memory). AWB, for most cameras, deals with a spectrum of light from 3000 to 8000k (Kelvin is another big topic for another time). The lower-range 3000k is like your basic living room lamp. The higher-end 8000k is your basic sunny, cloud free day. Within this range, the camera can render color quite faithfully. But what about sunrise and sunset, those times of day photographers love to shoot in?

Those gorgeous reds and oranges are near the lower range of the Kelvin scale. And while our AWB covers that range, one thing that most cameras want to do is “dull” that color down, even though we’re trying to bring it closer to a “normal” color. The bottom line is that you want those great reds and oranges, so set your camera to the Cloudy White Balance option, a 6000k setting. Why? When the camera is recording at 6000k, the light is really 3000k, and that correctly captures what is truly a color cast, as far as the camera’s computer is concerned. Color cast…what the heck is that?

Color Cast: It’s all Around Us!

The problem with color cast, until you train yourself to see it, is that your vision makes it disappear. Our cameras don’t have the miracle of our vision, so at times they can be fooled, and they will render the color cast. We just covered the biggest and most common color cast: sunrise and sunset. With one click in Adobe Camera Raw software, we can remove the color cast of the sunrise or sunset; however, this would make getting up early or staying out late a waste of time. These are color casts that we want, and we often want to increase them!

The most common undesirable color cast comes from shade. When you shoot in shade, you often come back with a bluish color cast. That’s because the Kelvin of the shade is well above the 8000k abilities of your AWB. That extra blue of 8000-10,000k brings a blue tint to your photos. How do you deal with that at the point of capture? You can use a filter, manually set your AWB to a higher Kelvin, light your subject with a warm reflector, or you can use flash that is a constant 5500k. There are many options once you recognize you have a color issue.

What’s wrong with a color cast? Nothing, if it’s one you like—such as the reds of a sunset. But if you’re photographing a person in the shade and they have a bluish tint to their skin, what kind of response will the viewer have to this? What about critters? You have a coyote in the shade and it has a bluish tint, and you’ll get the impression it’s up to no good—it’s about to eat Little Red Riding Hood. Take the exact same coyote, and warm the light by taking it out of the shadows, and now that bluish tint is a warm one. The coyote is now all warm and fuzzy. That’s what color cast can do. That’s the power of color!

You Can Manipulate All of This with Exposure

Once you learn, understand, and use color in your photography, then you are truly mastering visual communication. You can make all this happen simply with exposure. This is probably the most powerful part of the whole equation. I’ve already written about exposure in great detail here on B&H Insights, so you’re going to have to click to get, as they say, the rest of the story:

10 Tips on How to Create Better Black & White Images

Exposure is a VERY Personal Thing

Just What is Sharp?

There Must be a Catch

Oh, there is! Once you learn about this thing called color, you can never, ever get enough of it! You will become a slave to it, and at the same time, your photography will grow by leaps and bounds. Color is all around us, which includes black and white, and we can’t help but be influenced by it. It impacts our emotions, and that’s where our photography should be targeted. And the best part, this is all free. You don’t have to order it from B&H (shhhh, don’t tell them it’s free), you just need to learn about it, and employ it all the time. Because, unless you’re an alien, you’re all about color!

If you own an iPad, you can pick up a free copy of Moose Peterson's book Photography FUNdamentals at this link.