How to Use a Limited Color Palette in Photography

How to Use a Limited Color Palette in Photography


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In color photography it’s tempting to use bold primary colors like red, blue and yellow to create strong compositions. Yet it’s often more interesting to compose photos with subtle or limited color palettes.

Using a limited color palette requires strong powers of observation and a deep understanding of the principles of photographic composition.

If you’re working in a studio, defining a color palette is easy. You can choose the color of everything, from the background, the model’s clothes (if it’s a portrait) and props.

But it’s not so simple when you’re out and about with your camera. In this case you have to hone your observation skills. Think about the colors you see in front of you. Focus on creating simpler compositions with fewer colors.

Good photographers tend to move away from using saturated colors towards a more limited and subtle palette as their skills and vision evolve. As you look at the work of other photographers, especially professionals, you’ll see that the best use limited color palettes.

Let’s explore this concept a little further with some examples.

How to use a limited palette of bold colors

The photo below, made in a Buddhist temple in China, is interesting because it shows the use of a limited range of two primary colors – red and yellow. It works because the red ticket is balanced by a larger area of yellow. The rest of the colors in the photo are neutral grays.

Limited color palette photography

Photos like this are the result of careful observation. The red ticket with the Chinese symbols caught my eye. Then I closed in to find an interesting composition. Getting in close simplified the composition.

This becomes more obvious when you look at some of the alternative compositions I created.

Limited color palette photography

When I stepped back and included more in the frame, I ended up with some green paintwork in the photo.

The green is a distraction that pulls the eye away from the main focal point of the photo, the red ticket. The addition of the extra color reduced the simplicity and effectiveness of the composition.

How to use a limited palette of pastel colors

I made the photo below in the town of San Antonio de Areco in Argentina. This rural town is known for the beauty of its architecture and the presence of gauchos (Argentinian cowboys). Once a week a group of gauchos gather to have lunch on a field on the edge of the town. They are there to talk to visitors and are happy to pose for photos.

Limited color palette photography

I used a telephoto lens for a tightly composed photo of the gaucho’s traditional belt and knife. The limited color palette of blue and brown helps create a strong composition. The pastel colors of the gaucho’s clothes complement the browns of the fur rug, his leather boots and the tree behind him. The pink handkerchief provides punctuation in the form of an accent of color.

Once again, observation was the key to creating the photo. I noticed the interesting detail (the gaucho’s clothing) and the limited colors, and composed the photo so that there were no distractions in the background.

Limited color palettes and portraits

So far the photos that I have shown you are a result of observational skills. This is important in genres like travel and street photography, where you have little control over the scene.

But it’s a different story with portrait photography. You have much more control on an organized shoot. If you are collaborating with a model you can have a conversation before the shoot about what clothes they are going to wear. You can also select a background that is complementary to those colors.

Neutral gray backgrounds, free of colorful distractions, are ideal backgrounds for portraits.

Here’s an example. I photographed my model standing in the doorway of a concrete bunker. The strongest color in the photo is the pink of her dress. Coincidentally, there was some pink paint on the wall of the bunker that complemented her dress nicely.

Limited color palette photography

The result is a beautiful portrait that gains power through a limited color palette.

Limited color palettes and mood

You can also think about the way that you can use limited color palettes to capture mood. For example, I made both photos below at dusk. When I developed them in Lightroom Classic I made sure that they had an overall dark feel and a blue color cast to express the mood of the light at that time of the day. The result is that both photos have a limited color palette dominated by shades of blue.

Limited color palette photography

Limited color palette photography

I made this photo in fog, so it naturally has a limited color palette.

Limited color palette photography

The three photos below are dominated by the color green, and also have limited color palettes. The idea is to capture the freshness and vitality of nature.

Limited color palette photography

I think you get the idea.

Conclusion

Using a limited palette is a good way of creating stronger color photos. It’s a form of simplification that makes your composition more powerful. You can learn to simplify the use of color through observation and thinking about how to use the colors in the world around you effectively in photos.


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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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