Colour and how it works for good composition
Outdoor Photography for all seasons
The four seasons vary and we may all have our different favourites depending on the images we like to produce. One of our unique qualities that can define us as an artist or photographer, can be our personal likes or dislikes for colour and the way we render it within a composition.
For many landscape photographers, the seasons bring their own individual colours. The low light and muted shades of winter, the atmospheric fogs, mists and pastels of dawn and dusk, will often be chosen ahead of the harsh vibrancy of summer. Autumn and spring are also vibrant times to be shooting for outdoor photographers. Especially so for those of us who enjoy capturing the deciduous yellows, bronzes and golden hues nature throws our way.
Building a newly published website has kept me busy of late. I have been sifting through a lot of images over recent weeks trying to tidy up my archives and the backlog of unedited photographs. Most from over the last year or so. I was looking through the chronological line of images made through the spring and summer months of 2015/16. One thing in particular caught my attention – colour.
This set me thinking about the colour of the seasons, also our use of colour in our compositions generally. I was quite struck by a few images that were quite literally made with only colour in mind. The cartoon like vibrancy being their biggest draw. But is colour enough on its own to create a composition? Well I guess that can only be answered by the viewer of any individual image. As subjective and contrasting as Marmite or jam! A person’s palette for colour is most likely going to be formed from an early age and by many experiences.
One of the most enriching and simple pleasures of my life is spending 1-2-1 time with my two young grandsons. Anyone who knows such joys will understand how it (depending on your engagement with the little people) can be a roller coaster of experiences from absolutely ‘heavenly’ to extremely tiring (to an old crock like me). I spent a good hour or so recently at the table with young Edward doing ‘painting’. A two year old mixes his watercolours indiscriminately. He has no thought for complementary colours, clean brushes, hands or foreheads, a good time was had by all. The fridge is now adorned with two priceless works of art that have already had many ooh’s and ahh’s of appreciation!
So from our infant days we learn that colours have a language of their own. Some colours work together and some only work on their own. As photographers or artists, or both (depending on your outlook), we can train ourselves to read and understand the ‘colour language’. The different ways colour can be rendered, manipulated or simply placed to enhance or transcend the visual experience. But when learning any language we have to invest the time to practise.
The Colour Wheel
Most artists will be familiar with the colour wheel and the use of colour relationships can complement each other. The use of colour is probably the most spectacular and yet divisive instrument we have in photography. It’s that very ability to control the colour that can make or break our composition. If we do it well we will have a winner; do it badly and we may not.
Colour Creates Contrast
Contrast is healthy in an image as it can turn a flat image into a multidimensional one. It can create mood, tension, atmosphere and also break harmony. Contrast is a key element to composition and needs careful consideration when visualising your image. There is a certain serendipity that lies within a natural (landscape) image. This can often decide how much colour or contrast a photographer may include.
Digital photography allows us to be in control of how much colour saturation we include at post processing stage. A simple adjustment on a slider and we can introduce nuances of shade and even texture which can (in the right hands) simply transform an image.
Editing programs like Lightroom or Photoshop offer controls that can de-haze or increase haze, add or remove clarity and even totally remove colour from a scene, rendering the image completely reliant on black and white and all the shades in between. Cameras too can now convert RAW images and save them in styles akin to all the colours of film from yesteryear! So with all the equipment and software choices, modern photography methods offer much more to the photographic artist than even 20 years ago. It’s now easier than ever to control colour in our images and produce fine juxtapositions of shade and texture to create extreme contrast.
But hey, pause a moment – colour formalists from the film era used rich Kodachrome to make their prints, and then later the even richer Fuji Velvia film to enhance saturation; colour isn’t really that new to photography.
Experience, taste and influence
So wherever we may sit on our photographic ladder of experience and taste, it’s good to look at the influence of colour in our own images and how we apply it to our composition, whether enhanced, muted or even removed entirely. The photographic artist has as much control over shade and vibrancy in his composition as any painter does when he wields his brush over his canvas. Ultimately, colour can be the most dynamic and contrasting compositional tool at our fingertips.