Bold color composition

Color Composition: Be Bold

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If you’re going to work in color, rather than black and white, then you need to use color properly. Be bold. Show that you’re thinking about the color composition in your photos. 

Here are three tips that will help:

  • Show you understand color relationships. Which colors work well together? What color combinations give you the most visual impact? 
  • Show you have great observational skills. Don’t imitate what you’ve seen on Instagram or elsewhere. What catches your eye? What’s interesting to you? How can you make it interesting to others?
  • Simplify your compositions. This helps emphasize the colors.

Once you’ve decided to be bold with color you’ll start seeing subjects and compositions that fit with this style of photography. 

Here’s a simple example. Flowers can give you amazing colors to work with. One of my favorite technique is to photograph red flowers against a green background. It’s a powerful, bold color combination provided by nature.

Red and green color composition

Man-made colors

The flower example shows that you get bold colors in nature, but on the whole natural colors tend to be subtle and muted. If you want bold, bright color, then you’ll have much more luck in the man-made world. It’s all thanks to our tendency to make brightly colored objects and paint our buildings in dramatic colors. 

Here are some examples. Take a look at the photo below, which shows some colorful buildings on the island of Burano, near Venice in Italy.

Blue and yellow color composition

It has bright primary colors (blue and yellow) plus green. In scenes like this the person who painted the buildings has done the hard work for you. All you need to do is turn up in good light and make an interesting composition.

The next photo (below) gives another example of the yellow/blue dynamic. 

Blue and yellow color composition

The flowers are natural, and the background is man-made. Not only is the wall a fabulous color, but it has plenty of beautiful texture. It’s a double win.

Blue and red is another powerful color combination. In the photo below I moved in close to the Ford logo and used a wide aperture to blur the background. It’s a semi-abstract photo with bold use of color.

Blue and red color composition

These are all examples of color contrast. You can learn more about color contrast and where it comes from in my article How to Use Color Contrast in Composition.

Polarizing filters

Polarizing filters are a great tool for enhancing color. They work by reducing glare from reflective non-metallic surfaces. This gives deep blue skies and saturated colors. You can’t replicate the effect in post-processing, so it’s an essential piece of kit for most photographers. The photo below shows the intense colors you can expect when using one.

Colorful buildings, Burano

Observation and color composition

Use of color is a test of your observational skills. It’s a great exercise to walk around with your camera making photos based on color. If you’re in a location with lots of bright colors, on vacation perhaps, you can use them in your photos. What do these colors say about the character of the place you’re in?

Here are three photos I made in Cozumel, Mexico. Each one uses bold color in a different way. The first fills the frame with blue.

Blue wall Mexico

The second shows strong orange, yellow and blue colors amongst large blocks of white and gray.

Bold colors Mexico

The third shows the feet of a statue on a pink base. I closed in to compose a photo made of two blocks of color (pink and white).

White statue, Mexico

By the way, I made these photos 18 years ago with a compact camera that nobody would dream of using today. They show how your eye for color and composition are far more important than the equipment you use.

Abstract images and color composition

Abstract images give you another way of using bold color. An abstract photo is one where you can’t tell what the subject is, either because the photographer has moved in close and photographed part of it, or because it’s blurred. The photo shows color, texture or pattern, rather than an identifiable subject. 

Here’s an example. I made this photo by closing in on the pattern on the side of a pot in a pottery store.

Abstract color composition

The urban environment at twilight

It can be great fun to make photos in an urban environment as it gets dark. The sky goes a deep blue as the light fades. The key is to make your photos after sunset, but before the sky turns black. The sky is a beautiful deep blue color that makes a great backdrop for your photos. 

Here’s a photo I made in Hong Kong that shows the effect. It’s nearly abstract, and the subject of the photo is the color contrast between the orange light and the deep blue sky. There’s no landmarks or other features that tell you where I made it.

Blue and yellow color composition

Here’s another example of a photo that uses bold color. There’s no sky in this image. I got close to the sign so that there were only two colors in the frame, the yellow neon letters and the orange glow.

Bold color composition

Natural twilight and color composition

You can also get bold colors at sunset or sunrise. It depends on the weather conditions and cloud formations. Sometimes the colors are subtle. But others they are bold and smack you in the face, like in this photo.

Orange and blue color composition

I composed it to take advantage of the orange and yellow light on the horizon. There’s a stripe of deep blue at the bottom (the sea), then a stripe of orange and yellow, then another stripe of deep blue at the top (the sky).

Single bold color composition

Another way to use bold color is to make the entire photo about one color. This is another situation where you need to use your observational skills. The first step is to find an interesting, colorful subject. The second is to move in close so that color fills the frame.

That’s what I did with the photo below, that I made in Bolivia, dominated by the color blue.

Strong blue color composition

And with this photo of a sign, dominated by the color red.

Strong red color composition

Simplicity in color composition

The final element that makes the photos in this article work is simplicity. In each photo I closed in on the subject and made it about color and texture. Too many colors in the image dilutes their effectiveness. That’s why the single bold color approach is so effective. Think about this when composing your photos. How can you make the composition as simple as possible, with eye-catching and dramatic use of bold color?

Mastering Composition ebook

Mastering Composition

You can learn more about all aspects of creative composition with my ebook Mastering Composition. It has 20 heart-felt lessons that take you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the other aspects of composition you need to understand to create beautiful photos.

100 Composition Assignments

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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