Just a dab of color makes an emotional difference

As I’ve been told in the past, it’s easy to be seduced by color in photography, to end up making images that are full of colors but not meaning.  Autumn is my nemesis – I see all the warm colors and go crazy pointing my camera here and there only to find so few images actually have any composition to them.  From what I read it’s the “fear” of color that drives fine art photographers to black and white.  And by fear I mean the lack of control, the mostly mysterious way color is processed into the developing of film or digital files.  Great color is awesome – slightly not-so-great color is a train wreak.

But does this mean a wholesale fleeing from color in photographs?  Not for me, in spite of my autumn insanity.  Actually a little color added to images can be a great way to alter the mood of an image or bring attention to an element that might other wise be ignored or relegated to secondary status by the viewer.

As an example, an ordinary still life image:

One flash to the left of the subject and a piece of white foamboard to the right to reflect some light back subject.  I altered the lighting ratio (the difference between the brightest and darkest part of the light reaching the subject) in order to give it as much dimensionality as possible.  Nothing fancy and pretty bland.

What could the addition of color do for this?

Same setup as the first image but here I draped a piece of red cloth over the foamboard on the right so the flash would reflect that color back onto the subject.  This image feels a little more mysterious – where could it be setting right now? – probably because this is a movie effect we’re used to seeing in horror flicks.

This is a simple effect to create once you realize the light from a flash will reflect the color of the surface it hits.   A lot of time portrait photographers doing outdoor shoots find this more of a problem than a help, as clothes, trees, or buildings near their subject will reflect the sunlight or flash back onto their subject’s face, giving it a color cast that can look unnatural.  Usually this is solved by merely moving the subject else where but sometimes a white reflector has to be inserted between the subject and the troublesome reflection to correct the problem.

Once you start playing around with this idea it’s fun to see just what colors will have what impact on a subject.  Here’s another simply still life:

Here I’ve added a second flash to the right instead of a white reflector so I could control the amount of light on that side.  The more powerful flash is still coming from the left and the shadows it’s casting on the surface of the fossil as well as on the table to the right really help bring out the dimensionality of the piece.  For this I experimented with different color gels put in front of the flash on the right, just to see what changing the color of the darker side of the piece would do for the overall tone of the image.  Here are some examples:

Some of these look artificial while some look pretty natural.  Warmer tones portray less ominous images than cooler tones, although that’s probably a personal perspective rather than a general one.  Each does, however, feel different from the ordinary first image of this subject.

One lesson the Impressionists taught is that shadows are not always black, nor should they be portrayed that way.  Look in the shade of their trees or the shadow of their subjects and you’ll find many colors all placed there to elicit a sense of that particular shadow.  They recognized how light reflects into shadows from other sources and how the color of those sources influences how the shadows appear.

Watch movies carefully and you’ll see many shadows have color in them.  This isn’t a mistake in post-processing – the lighting director puts gels in front of lights just as I have in order to create spots of color in the overall scene, even where you don’t expect color to exist.  One problem with playing around with photographic lighting is you start to pay more attention to details in the movies and not so much to the plot!

A great thing about this technique is you can apply it to macro images of tiny things up to portraits of people (you may need some help with bigger reflectors, especially on a windy day).  My first photography instructor showed how to warm up images of flowers by simply holding a gold surface reflector near them and letting the sun bounce off it onto the flowers.  Really brings out the saturation and helps them stand out from the background.

You don’t need fancy “professional” gear for this – grab some cloth or poster board in your favorite color and give it a try!

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7 thoughts on “Just a dab of color makes an emotional difference

    • Wow, Suze. Thanks for doing that. I’m glad you like what I’m doing with my blog ’cause I do enjoy putting the content together and having a dialogue with readers. You’re very kind to nominate me.

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      • Click on (or search on) the keyword Flash on my blog and it’ll bring up a few other posts I’ve written on my usage. Is there something specific you have in mind?

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      • Ok, I will do that. Thanks 🙂

        Lately I have been looking into ways to better light some situations. At the moment I only use whatever light I have, as I refuse to use the on-cam flash, but it is not always sufficient.

        I like to take photos of small objects, simply at home, but also have started thinking about what I can try with portraits for example. So I don’t want to simply buy a Lightbox for the smaller work, but want to get ‘something’ that I can use for multiple purposes.

        Any thoughts are welcome 🙂

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      • You want to be able to control the direction the light comes from, which lets you control the shadows on the subject. For that you’ll need an off-camera flash. If you have a hot-shoe on your camera (a place to mount a flash) check online for equipment reviews for flashes made for your brand of camera or if you have a local camera store talk with the people there about what you want to do. You can use a cable to get the flash off the camera or some have remote firing capabilities using your camera’s hardware. More expensive equipment uses wireless transmitters on the camera and flash. Keep in mind once you move the flash off camera you need some way to keep it where you want it – either a willing assistant or a light stand.

        Alternatively, LED continuous lighting is becoming popular and affordable. These are panels that have LED arrays to give off a continuous light. The great thing is you can see what you will get with respect to the lighting, and you can expose for it when you compose – no more needing a light meter or shooting multiple images and making exposure adjustments to get the lighting right. Also, no need for the camera to “talk” with the lights to trigger them – they are always on! Finally, for portraits, no more blinking subjects when the flash goes off. And because they are cool lights there’s no heat on your subject. You can get them in many sizes, from macro to whole room – check online for more information.

        Hope that helps.

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