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How To Create Great Color Photos

Posted by Schmidt Fine Art Gallery on

Color is, more often than not, the most important visual element in the scene being photographed. Here’s a simple truth that years of study and many travel adventures has taught me about color.

Of all the elements of design it’s color that first attracts our attention. That's why color needs to be the primary consideration underpinning composition in our photos. Depending upon the story being told or the mood explored that might mean composing the scene around saturated colors, complimentary colors or a more muted color palette.

Let’s explore some of the key facets of color and how to use it to improve the photos you make.


When To Embrace Vivid Color In Your Photos

St. Petersburg is a very beautiful city and visiting the spectacular Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was an exhilarating experience.

The murals inside the church are an absolute delight so it’s natural that your first impression, upon entering the church, is likely to be governed by color.

As color is so essential to the experience, that's probably a good enough reason to base the composition of your photos around color.

While I was struck by the vibrant colors on display making my photos wasn’t made easy after being challenged by a security guard as soon as I walked in the door.

It was already late in the day and, as the light was fading, I decided to take my tripod into the church.

Unfortunately, the tripod must have trigged warning bells and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that photography was not permitted.

However, as other visitors seemed to be making photos without restriction, I decided to see if a compromise could me reached.

I offered to leave my tripod with the security guard and make a few photos, hand held.

He agreed, but only on the condition that I make my photos within two minutes.

That was tricky and I only had the chance to make a couple images before he gestured to me that my time was up.

While I wasn’t happy with this treatment I was still glad to have the opportunity to make the photos I did.

Thankfully the image at the top of this post provides a pretty good impression of the beauty of those colorful murals.

I usually enter such places with a minimum amount of equipment. I find that draws less attention and, as a result, I’m more likely to proceed without impediment.

I can only assume that a tripod is a problem as it signals that you’re a professional and that, supposedly, you’ll derive some financial benefit from making your photos.

I’m always extremely careful not to block anyone’s progress or interfere with the mood or atmosphere in such places.

However, when challenged at the door, there’s little opportunity to demonstrate the purity of my intentions. That’s where diplomacy comes in.

You’ll notice that the foreground columns stand out nicely against those in the background.

The interior of the church was illuminated by a mixture of daylight and incandescent light which bathed the scene in soft, diffuse lighting.

In the late afternoon light the particular qualities of the mixed lighting did a wonderful job of bringing out the vivid colors in these beautiful murals.

Most of the brighter daylight lit the foreground columns, which allowed them to stand out in the image.

While less daylight reached the background columns they were also being illuminated by lovely, warm incandescent light.

Those warm incandescent lights served to highlight areas of the background while also providing a great color contrast with the intense vivid turquoise color in the foreground columns.

I would like to visit the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood again. Hopefully next time I’II be able to spend more time there and more comprehensively photograph this most beautiful space.


Add Impact With Complimentary Color

The use of complimentary color is a great way to produce visually dynamic images.

All images in this post feature complimentary colors.

The image at the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg contrasts blue and yellow, red and cyan within the color murals on display.

The photo made in the late afternoon light of statues atop the General Staff Building in Palace Square, St. Petersburg works in a similar way.

The warmly lit statues really stand out against the vivid blue sky in the background.

Finally, the golden dome of the spectacular St. Isaac’s Cathedral is beautifully highlighted against the cool blue of a summer’s sky in St. Petersburg, Russia.


When More Gentle, Muted Color Is Best

But not all scenes feature such vibrant color. What's more, regardless of the reality under which you find yourself, a more subdued color palette may better suit the needs of the photo you're creating.

That was the case with the above photo of the horse sculpture outside the magnificent St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It would have been so easy to produce a more striking result by saturating the blue and yellow colors in this image.

But, somehow, that didn't seem right. I felt a more restrained color palette would be more sympathetic to the aging beauty of the building.

I made the image as the sun was going down. The quality of light reflecting off the surfaces of the horse sculpture and cathedral was gentle.

It felt right to retain that quiet, nostalgic mood by opting for a more restrained color palette while processing the image on the desktop.


When To Remove Color From Your Photos

I have a fondness for creating black and white images and I've always loved looking at great black and white photography.

However, from the beginning, I’ve felt drawn to color in the world around me. That’s the reason why color is the medium of photography that I’ve most enjoyed working in.

I photograph what my eye is drawn to and, for the most part, my eye has been drawn primarily to color.

I suspect that's the same for most folks.

Nonetheless, these days I leave my personal preferences at the door and let the image suggest to me how it should be processed and whether it's best suited to rendering in color or black and white.

If black and white seems to be the best outcome I work to compose the image so as to enhance elements of composition such as the following:

  • Line
  • Shape
  • Texture
  • Repetition

When You Make Art, Always Follow Your Heart

My recommendation is to follow your heart, by which I mean your initial emotional response to the subject or scene in front of you.

Of course that initial emotional response is stimulated by your senses, one of which is sight.

But try not to be overly influenced by what you see in front of you.

Rather, try to tap into how you feel about what you see and allow that feeling to influence you in the way you go about making the photo in camera and/or during post processing.

If you're drawn to color then photograph colorful subjects and scenes and be sure to make color, whether it be muted or saturated, the main element of your composition.  

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