For assignment three, we are required to produce 16 photographs (4 each) which illustrate the following colour relationships:
- Colour harmony through complementary colours
- Colour harmony through similar colours
- Colour contrast
- Colour accent through any of the above
We are to ‘try to vary subject matter to include both still-life and found situations’.
Colour harmony through complimentary colours
Complimentary colours are those that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel and have a naturally harmonious relationship. These combinations are inherently pleasing to look at and so are often used by painters and artists who can vary colours to take advantage of this effect. This technique is more common in photography now that Photoshop and similar manipulation tools can replace real-life colours with those chosen by the photographer.
Each of the three primary and three secondary colours that form the standard colour circle are complimented by their opposite. The first two examples here feature the primary blue and its opposing secondary, orange:
This image, a detail of a huge piece of graffiti in a Leicester alleyway, features blues and oranges in a range of hues. According to colour theory, orange is twice as bright at blue and therefore, to balance an image containing these colours, there should be twice as much blue as orange. This theory is complicated when the colour are not ‘pure’ as in this case. There are light blues and dark blues here, as there are oranges. When this is the case, personal preference is more reliable than theory.
In the second example, the dark orange competes with the blue, but the combination still works. The viewer’s personal experiences and associations play an important part in determining their response to colours and colour relationships. This combination immediately brings this particular time of day to mind for me and is a personal favourite. This example also shows how artificial light can colour a scene – in this case the bushes, road and road markings are all orange because of the reflected light.
Another harmonious relationship is between red (primary) and green (secondary). When pure, they have a similar luminosity and so their relationship is harmonious when in equal proportions. The combination is both powerful and common, with green being the most common colour in nature.
In this example, the green of the memorial is not saturated and therefore, to achieve balance, its area should be greater than that of the saturated red. Even when not both in their pure form, the red and green relationship remains strong with the red of the poppies appearing even more intense when backed with the green.
These relationships can also work when they are taking up small parts of the frame as in the example above.
Colour harmony through similar colours
Similar colours can be similar because of their hue – i.e. their position next to each other in the colour wheel, but also in more subtle ways if they share saturation and brightness levels (like pastels and muted colours). The most simple version of the colour scale with have distinct colours whereas in reality, there are no junctions between these hues, just a continuous blending of one to the next.
I used this picture in a previous blog post but it serves to illustrate harmony through similar hues – the greens of his jumper and front door provide a pleasing combination and add to the calmness of his expression. Had the door been orange or violet, the picture would have had a very different feel.
Our fruit bowl contains a combination of reds, oranges and yellows from one half of the colour circle. The colours are similar and harmonious but from a wider range than the previous example that used only various hues of one colour.
Each colour is made up of three elements, Hue, Saturation and Brightness and the wheel only shows hue. To begin to judge how red a red is, we need to understand its saturation and brightness. Pure, primary colours are not particularly common in nature and more often, similar, muted colours can create an harmonious relationship – the harmony provided by the similar saturation and brightness values, even if the hues are different.
Man-made and natural elements in this frame contain both similar hues (colours) but also, because of the lighting (in an old garage under a disused railway arch), the saturation of the colours is similar. This image was shot on Fuji Velvia film – the effects of different film emulsions on colours and saturation, especially at different exposure levels, is a whole other assignment!
In these garage doors, there is little colour, but where there is, its lack of saturation means that it is harmonious with the muted greys.
Colours that sit approximately 1/3 around the colour circle from one another are very different from each other and can provide the greatest contrast. As with much colour theory, it is subjective whether the viewer finds the relationship satisfying or clashing.
The primaries of red, yellow and blue contrast each other but can provide satisfying combination. Ernst Haas is often referred to as a pioneer of colour photography, and one of his most famous images, Route 66, Albuquerque features this combination of colours. When all three are in the same image, and in a pure form, they can fight for the attention of the viewer, but when the proportions are balanced between each of the colours, it can make for an attention-grabbing image – the impact of which might be lessened when three such images are placed together…
Contrast can be achieved using any colours that sit 1/3rd apart on the colour wheel, including secondary colours such as orange and green.
Given the composition, the pepper would always be the centre of attention in this image, but imagine if the pepper were any other colour than orange. Yellow and green peppers would blend with the grass through similarity, red would compliment the green whereas orange contrasts and stands out.
The use of colour that I am most attracted to and that used by several of my favourite photographers (such as Saul Leiter and Fred Herzog, particularly his use of red) is accent, or a small area of bright colour that contrasts with the rest of the image. This can be taken to extremes when an image is desaturated apart from an area of selected colouring – a favourite cliche of wedding photographers in recent years.
Here, the brightness of yellow grabs our attention over the muted reds and blues in the frame, on a cold wet day with the flattest lighting imaginable. If this had been a sunny day with a deep-blue sea and dry, red pavement, there may have been contrast between the elements, but the bench would not have been so dominant, even with this square-on composition.
Colour is an interaction between light and a surface. The colour we see is a combination of the colour of the light and the colour of the surface it is being reflected from. In this scene on Skye, as it got darker, colour faded from the scene until the point that there was little reflected colour, only the light from the sun being coloured by the clouds and atmosphere, providing this gentle, orange and peach accent.
As illustrated earlier, orange and blue have a strong complimentary relationship particularly when represented at a 1:2 ratio (because of their relative luminescence), but when the area of orange is reduced well below that, it becomes a strong accent. Even though the orange feature in this picture is not the subject, or even in focus, it still functions in drawing the eye across the frame.
Red tends to draw the eye whenever it appears in a frame because of our subconscious associations with danger. When that red element is limited to a small, contrasting area of the frame, this draw becomes even stronger.
I touched on some of Ernst Haas’ philosophy regarding colour in my post regarding controlling the strength of colour, mentioning his quote on colour theory:
Beware of colour theories. Theories in colour photography are dangerous. […] A colour philosophy comes much closer to the truth. […] I myself love to read theories without ever using them when working.
Having taken these pictures for this assignment, his idea of understanding colour theories but ignoring them when shooting remains with me. Colour theory is just that; it is extremely subjective.
Some of this theory is more reliable than other. There is for example, strong evidence that a heavily saturated area at the edge of a composition can balance a larger, less saturated one. Likewise, it can be demonstrated that humans have evolved to view and respond to colour in certain ways. The warmth we associate with orange and red from fire and sunlight; water and ice, with blue. The relationships between colours and how we should use them in photography can be guided by this theory and used to our benefit. We can use it to influence mood (a warmly lit portrait will convey friendliness and personal warmth far better than one in black and white) and the viewer’s response. It has been interesting that since studying these relationships, I’ve recognised their use in advertising photography and logo design.
For the preparation of this assignment, I looked through my ‘back catalogue’ to understand my previous use of colour. It seemed that I had paid little attention to the relationships covered in this section. In the past, I have rarely considered the theory explored here, simply shooting whatever was in front of the camera, attempting to recreate if faithfully. I struggled with some of the literature and theory I read initially in this part of the course, finding it confusing and contradictory. It seemed that my favourite photographers didn’t pay much attention to the theory I was learning. It almost feels that during this section, I’ve learnt as much about my taste and style as I have about colour.
My conclusion is that colour theory needs to be used in a similar way to the elements of design thet we studied in the previous section – these elements are not always the reason or central feature of an image, but can enhance the impact or viewer’s engagement with a photograph.
Over the last 3 months I have spent less time on the coursework and exercises and more on research, reading and gallery visits (which are written up here), with part of me avoiding this assignment for the reasons above. I look forward to moving on to the fourth section on Light – something I am more familiar with and practised in.
Barnbaum, B (2010) The art of photography – An Approach to Personal Expression. California; Rocky Nook
Freeman, M (2013) The colour photography field guide. Lewes; The Ilex Press
de Sausmarez, J. (2008) Basic colour: a practical handbook. London; A&C Black Sidaway, I. (2002) Colour mixing bible. Newton Abbot; David & Charles