Episode 012: Color Theory, Color For Emotion And For Composition

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In this episode of CREATE. PHOTOGRAPHY, host Daniel Sigg will discuss how the color theory, color for emotion and color as compositional element.

The initial theoretical discussion will be supplemented with practical examples and review of 3 images.

Color theory,  color for emotion and as compositional element

Featured image by Steve Johnson (Unsplash)

It is an understatement to say that color is important. In fact, it is of upmost importance to photography. And we see in color. As Jay Maisel says: “Color is”.

Today’s photographs are typically taken in color although many photographic artists still choose to photograph in black and white occasionally, some of them exclusively.  The difference between a color photograph and a black and white photograph is in some ways like night and day. They are two different techniques. A color photograph evokes a different emotion and potential connection with the viewer than a black and white photograph.

We talked about creative choice of black and white photography in greater detail in episode 8, feel free to check that episode out.

So color is important. But why is color theory important? One could argue we do not need to know about color theory in order to make good or even great photographs. And I would wholeheartedly agree. I think it is important to understand how the color models can help us perhaps more deliberately understand what might work in a picture, perhaps even determine a color palette, or perhaps even be more deliberate about composition, but also editing of imagery.

So my disclaimer here is that we will do a little theoretical excursion, but I do believe it is an important and useful one and one that we will in the end bring to practical application with several image example discussions at the end.

Color Models

First, let’s start with the expression hue, saturation and luminance. This is the so called HSL model. Hue, saturation and luminance. It is also referred to as HSB model: Hue, Saturation and Brightness. There is also the RGB (red, green, blue) model (used in cameras and computer screens), the CMYK model (used for printing and by graphic designers), and the LAB model (used not as often in my personal experience).

Each of these models have the ability to precisely define a color by the model’s values. Again, in the HSL model, this would be the value of hue, the amount of saturation and the amount of luminance. In the CMYK model, it would be the amount of cyan, magenta, yellow, and K which stands for amount of black.

In additive color models, such as HSL or RGB, white is the “additive” combination of all primary colored lights, while black is the absence of light.

The CMYK model is the opposite. It is a subtractive color model. White is the natural color of the paper, while black results from a full combination of colored inks.

To save ink cost, and to produce deeper black tones, unsatured colors and dark colors are used by using black ink instead of a combination of cyan, magenta and yellow in the CMYK model.

Why is additive versus subtractive important. In brief, and pragmatically speaking, the RGB and HSL models are models used for backlit screens like computers, while the subtractive models like the CMYK models are used for printing as well as painting.

Let’s get back to the HSL model or Hue, Saturation, Luminance or Lightness model.

What is Hue: Hue is the relative color value of each color. So a yellow has a certain value, and there are even different values with the yellows.

Saturation is how strong the color is (like a color pigment that is stronger versus weaker). Often it is said that the more grey there is, the less saturated. However, painters know that this is not entirely true. One has to add the complimentary color (the color opposite the color wheel) to the color to be desaturated. So the more complimentary color added, the less saturated the color.

Luminance is a photometric measure of the luminous intensity per unit area of light travelling in a given direction. It describes the amount of light that passes through, is emitted from, or is reflected from a particular area, and falls within a given solid angle. Luminous intensity is measured as candela, and is in a sense the power emitted from a light source. The confusing thing is that luminance can be emitted from or reflected.

Brightness is the term for the subjective impression of the objective luminance measurement standard (see Objectivity (science) § Objectivity in measurement for the importance of this contrast).

There is one further term: luminosity or lightness. Luminosity or lightness is our perception of luminance compared to white. I know this gets now really confusing, but one way to remember this is that so called luminosity masks used in photoshop are in black and white, they do not have color information.

Let’s summarize:

Luminance is the light or luminous intensity per area (in a given direction). It is an objective measure and measured with candela.

Brightness is the subjective impression of luminance. For example, a computer screen in a dark room appears much brighter than outside in the sunlight. The luminance is the same in both case, but we feel that in the dark, the computer screen is much “brighter”.

Color Wheel

Now let us discuss the color wheel. The color wheel is a circle that has each primary color (blue, red, yellow) separated by 120 degrees. In between blue and red is purple, in between red and yellow is orange, and in between yellow and blue is green (those are secondary colors). In between the secondary and primary colors, there are tertiary colors. For example, cyan is such a tertiary color. These in between colors could be shown as slices or simply and more correctly as gradients. Please look in the show notes for a depiction of a color wheel.

Traditional color wheel as can be found on color.adobe.com

At color.adobe.com you use an interactive color tool that also depicts various color models discussed, I would suggest to do this in HSB mode.

Why is the color wheel a powerful tool to understand color theory?

Because we can look at it, and quickly understand related colors, and complimentary colors.

For example, if you look at the wheel, you can see the orange and blue are directly complimentary, so a green and red. So if you compose images with those color pairs, we can create substantial color contrast.  We will get to the emotional aspect of this later on.

There are several color relationships or color harmony rules. I won’t discuss them all, but just want to briefly go three of them that are common and useful:  monochromatic, complimentary and analogous.

  1. monochromatic: only one color or shades of the color
  2. complimentary are opposites on the color wheel: like orange and blue
  3. analogous are next to each other on the color wheel: like yellow, orange and red

Now this is very theoretical, however, if you start consciously using those more deliberately, you can create some powerful imagery based on color composition / choice.

For example, a common use of complimentary color is photographing artificial Tungsten and other light during blue hour. The orange tones of the Tungsten lights complement the blue tones of the skies very nicely.

A fruit bowl with yellow, orange, and red fruit will look very pleasing to the eye due to its analogous colors.

Now, what is missing on the generic color wheel? In a generic color wheel, we typically have one set brightness or luminance value. In other words, we have to adjust the brightness for the entire wheel in order to see all the possible colors. Go to color.adobe.com and play around with the color wheel initially in HSB mode.

Color sphere

From https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-CIELAB-color-space-diagram-The-CIELAB-or-CIE-L-a-b-color-system-represents_fig1_338303610

In order to better understand how color also can relate to black and white, it might be helpful to look at a 3 dimensional model and transform our two-dimensional model of a flat wheel into a sphere.

Recall that saturation is the relative amount of grey in a color, with the least amount of grey producing the most saturated colors.

While luminance or luminosity is the relative amount of white in a color, with a 100% luminescence being white.

So now imagine that our color wheel is on the equator (of this sphere). However, only the most saturated colors are on the actually surface of the globe. As we go deeper and deeper to the center of the globe, the colors become less saturated (more grey), until they eventually become completely grey. The North pole of the globe is pure black, and the South pole is pure white. The line connecting North and South Pole is a gradient of grays from deep black to bright white.

I know that this difficult to visualize, but I encourage you to review those two color models in the show notes at danielsiggphotography.com/episode012

Practical applications

Let’s talk about how to intentionally use some of this theory and apply it in our photography.

The great photographer Jay Maisel (who will be featured in a future episode) said and I quote: “Some have said if you take a great picture in color and take away the color, you’ll have  a great black and white picture. But if you’re shooting something about color and you take away the color, you’ll have nothing.” end quote

He also said: “Don’t make plans to photograph in color. Don’t look for one kind of color. You’ll walk past great color while you are trying to complete your plans.” end quote

Jay is telling us that we should be patient, and not force it. The color will come to us if we’re open to it. Jay is advocating the intuitive and probably also spontaneous element in photography. His advice comes from somebody doing a ton of natural light photography in nature and on the streets.

So in other words, I think it’s good to be aware of this color theory, but do not overthink it!

Color and Emotions

Colors can evoke emotions.

The first concept to mention is the one of cooler / calmer tones, and warmer / restless / more excited tones.  The greens, and blues and purples tend to be cooler, while the reds, yellows, and oranges tend to be warmer, more excited.

So warmer tones might help with implying or evoking happiness, love (red is often associated with love), exaltation, excitement, energy …  while cooler colors can evoke sadness, loss, loneliness, but also peace and calm. While those are generalizations, pay attention to ads or commercials, and you will notice that colors are used very deliberately along those lines. The same is true for movies, those of us who know a little bit about filmmaking know that there are professional colorists who do nothing else but help to adjust color tones of cinematic movies or TV shows. Check out movies like the Matrix for an example, or a star is born and pay attention to the incredible color work.

The second concept about color is the emotions that juxtaposing different colors create. If we juxtapose complimentary colors, we create substantial contrast, and potentially tension in the image.

While juxtaposing analogous colors, or monochrome colors is pleasing and may transcend the underlying color emotion of its family (warm or cold) primarily.

Of course, increasing saturation often has the effect of increasing the drama, in particular if we have more complimentary colors.

Jay Maisel discusses another important aspect of juxtaposition in his book Light, Color and Gesture. And I quote: “we are concerned with a totally opposite aspect of color. … we have to be aware of subtractive color. For instance, if I wished to make a neutral grey look warmer, I could put it next to a very cool green. If I wanted to turn a brown cooler, I would juxtapose it with a warm red. In each the association with the second color changes the first color. “

So the complexity here is that colors do not only affect each other, but also how we perceive a color if it is juxtaposed to another color. And also how individual color perception can be. As Jay says:
“Color is. That’s it. It’s all out there. What’s important to stay open to it.” end quote

I think what we learn here also from color theory is that it is good to know the warmer and cooler colors and color relationships. And also the subjective element of color perception (if a color is juxtaposed to another color).

Often as photographers we can not change the colors we are presented, although we can still change the composition or what might be the focus point. Or we can choose to remove the color if it is distracting and not adding to the image and make the image black and white.

Color Composition

Color is an extremely powerful compositional element in photography. You can use for example more saturated colors in an image to guide the viewer in that image to that particular area of higher saturation. But be careful to not overdo it. One of the most common mistakes is to have too much saturation in images.

You can use saturation and hue to change / modulate the mood. Again pay attention in cinematic movies and you will notice how color science is used extremely deliberately. Another movie with strong and in my opinion fantastic color grading (and cinematography) is Bladerunner 2049.

Color as a compositional element is a huge topic by itself, and I plan to to cover this in a later episode.

Color Consistency

Now, let’s talk about another important aspect of color photography as it relates to our work. Consistency.

Within either a body of work like a project, or an assignment, it often helps to keep the color palette consistent. Look at the color work by Saul Leiter for example. We talked about Saul in episode 7, if you want to check it out and learn more about him.

So if we create a body of work or a project, having a consistent color palette greatly helps the viewer to recognize this work as belonging together. If the color palette is all over the place, and nothing holds the series together, we may have a hard time keeping the viewer focused on our series. Even if the subjects vary wildly, and the compositions, and maybe even the focal lengths we used, but the color palette is similar, we have a creative tool to keep things consistent. I think this can be very powerful.

Of course, painters may work with a certain color palette as well. It might be easier for them as they can choose the colors. But we as photographers can also influence our color palette. For example, by choosing the time of day we photograph (for example golden hour would give us consistently warmer tones). We can choose the process digital file in Lightroom or Photoshop and give it a certain color treatment. I would vouch for not being too heavy-handed on that, and personally favor to get things right in camera. As film photographers, we can work with a specific film stock. That alone of course is not enough, and we need to pay attention to what colors we do choose to photograph if we are working on a project. And how we ultimately select the images.

Having awareness of the color palette in our images is extremely important in color photography. With that awareness, we should go out and try and risk things, make mistakes, and see what ultimately works.

Eventually, I would suggest to print this work out, and put it next to each other, and see if we can create a small project with a consistent color palette.

To end, I encourage you to do google image searches of the following photographers and see if you see potential consistency and perhaps also what kind of color palettes those artists were using (you can click on the links to do the google image searches directly):

Saul Leiter

Ernst Haas

Luigi Ghirri

Annie Leibowitz

Maybe you see the use of monochromes or analogous or complimentary colors or color palettes.

Photograph Review (3 examples)

Photograph 1:

by Jay Maisel Traffic light and birds (page 75, It’s not about the F-stop by Jay Maisel)

Traffic light and bird 

Photograph 2:

by Jay Maisel Red with Silhouette Figures (page 185 in Light, Gesture and Color by Jay Maisel)

Photograph 3:

Rainy Reflection, 1952 (New York in Color 1952-1962 by Ernst Haas)

New York City, 1950s : News Photo

Photography by Ernst Haas. Copyright by Gettyimages(C) (taken in 1952 in NYC)

You will notice a little bit of purple in this image above by Getty. I have the book by Ernst Haas, and it does not look purple at all. So it is unclear to me what happened to the Getty Image, but assume that the colors in the book are accurate. If there was purple, then we would still have analogous color as purple is adjacent to red …

Thanks so much for listening! 

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