How To Use Color Creatively In Photography

How To Use Color Creatively In Photography

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Color is an important part of your style and voice as a photographer. Good photographers use color creatively. They understand what they are trying to achieve and how they want to do it.

Using color purposefully helps you develop your voice as a photographer. It also helps you create bodies of work, or groups of photos that look as if they belong together.

The phrase “bodies of work” may sound daunting, as if it belongs to professional or serious photographers. But it applies to hobbyists too, if you think in terms of mini bodies of work. 

For example, if you go into your back garden and make a set of photos of flowers, then that’s a mini body of work.

Or if you go for a walk in your neighborhood looking for things to photograph, and make five or six photos that work together as a set you’ve created a mini body of work.

In both examples, you can use color to unify your photos.

As your photographer gets better you’ll become more aware of your creative voice, that is, what you’re trying to say and how you say it. 

Color’s an important part of that. For example, you may find that you’re drawn to using bright, bold colors in strong sun. Or you may find that you like using limited color palettes and soft light. 

In this sense color is like a theme in your work, one that’s as important as the subjects you choose to photograph. 

Once you’ve figured out how you like to use color, you can use it more purposefully in the future. 

The exciting thing about this approach is that you start to develop a style, something that makes your photos recognizably yours even though they may have been made years apart.

Now it’s time to look at four different ways that you can use color in your photos. I’ve illustrated each with a set of photos that show the technique in action.

I suspect that as you look at them you’ll be drawn to a particular way of working. One of these approaches will appeal to you more than the others. That’s a good indication as to how you prefer to use color in photography.

Bold Colors

This is a style of color photographer where you use strong, bold, saturated colors as the building blocks of your composition.

This approach works well if you’re into urban, street or travel photography, as the most brightly colored objects you’re likely to find are man-made.

For even more impact look for colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel (see below), like red and green or blue and yellow (this is called color contrast).

Color wheel

There are some exceptions (flowers being a notable one), but colors in nature tend to be softer and more subtle.

Let me illustrate this idea with some photos that I made in Burano, an island near Venice that’s known for its colorful buildings.

I visited the island on a warm sunny day that invited me to make the most of the intense colors.

Below you can see two sets of three images. The first three images (on the left) are linked by the use of the color blue. The second three (on the right) are linked by the use of green and yellow. 

Bold color in photography

Subtle Colors

Another approach to using color is to use soft, subtle colors rather than strong, saturated ones. 

These are likely to be made in softer light than photos with strongly saturated colors. Let’s say you come across a wall painted bright yellow. On a sunny day you could photograph it underneath a blue sky for strong, dramatic colors. A polarizing filter would make the photo even more dramatic.

Or you could photograph it on a cloudy day, or on a sunny day but with the wall in shade. It’s the same wall, but the colors are softer, more delicate. And it’s all down to the light you chose to shoot in.

You could also choose to use a softer color palette. Bold colors gain strength when juxtaposed with other bold colors – red against green, blue or yellow, for example. 

But with subtle colors you’re looking for colors that are closer on the color wheel (see above), rather than opposite each other.

Also bear in mind that your approach in post-processing has a big effect on the final result. If you use Lightroom Classic, then selecting the Adobe Vivid profile at the start rather than Adobe Neutral makes a big difference to the color. 

Similarly, you can choose to increase or decrease color saturation using the Vibrance or Saturation sliders in the Basic panel or the HSL/Color panel sliders

Below is another set of six photos. All use subtle colors, and I’ve grouped them together because they have a similar color palette, dominated by the color blue.

Unlike the bold color examples, there are no brightly contrasting colors in these photos. Instead there are neutral grays and browns. This is all part of the style of using subtle colors.

Subtle color in photography

Limited Color Palettes

The third approach to using color is to deliberately use limited color palettes. This works with both bold and subtle colors. Just because a color is bold, doesn’t mean it has to be juxtaposed with other bold hues. You can compose with a neutral background, or with similar colors. 

Using a limited color palette shows that you have a good eye for composition and a thoughtful approach to what you’re doing. It shows that you’re aware of color, and that you’re looking for ways to simplify the color composition of your photos. 

To an extent, I’ve used limited color palettes in all the photos that I’ve shown you before. Here are some more, with even more limited color palettes. There are two sets of three images, with red or orange as the dominant hue on the left, and green on the right. Limiting the colors in the frame is a way of simplifying the composition.

Limited color palettes in photography

Color and light 

Another way to work with color is to use the color of the light in the composition of your photos.

For example, a landscape photographer who works during the golden hour will build a collection of images linked by the warmth and quality of the light you get at that time.

But a photographer who works during the blue hour, that is the time between sunset and night when the color of the ambient light is blue, will work with a different color palette. 

You can see how this works in the set of dusk photos below. The main color in each photo is dark blue or purple, and there are lots of oranges and yellows. Each photo uses the natural color contrast between orange and blue (see the color wheel again) for impact.

Color and light in photography

Putting it all together

I’ve just given you four different ways of using color in your photos, but that doesn’t mean you have to choose one of these and stick with it all the time (although you can if you want). 

Feel free to experiment and explore. Over time you’ll find you’ll favor one or two approaches over the others. This is a sign of your emerging style and voice.

As you become aware of this you can consciously work in this way on future shoots.

Further reading

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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