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.
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 first photo, taken 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.
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.
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 this photo 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.
I used a telephoto lens to make this photo of a 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.
Some of the work here is done in Lightroom – I lowered the saturation on the blue channel to remove a blue tint from the concrete. But the result is a beautiful portrait that gains power through a limited color palette.
Here’s another portrait with the same model.
In this portrait we have another neutral background that doesn’t distract from the model. I used a short telephoto lens (85mm, full-frame) and a wide aperture (f2.5) to throw the background out of focus.
The neutral background emphasizes the model’s red jumper and headband. They are the only strong colors in the photo.
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. You can also apply the same principles in shoots that you organize yourself.