Learn the Language of Colors in Photography
When composing a photograph, always look for a way to bring in contrast using complementary colors. Thus, when photographing a green field, it is a good idea to incorporate something red, such as poppies. Whether on land or underwater, it is not always easy to combine colors in the best way, but a photographer should look for natural contrasts to create the best possible effects. For example, when photographing a yellow bird, a photographer should try to make the sky in the background as blue as possible.
Sometimes, when it is not possible to bring in complementary colors for contrast, a photographer can use the technique of matching shades by playing with:
- the cameo: juxtaposing several variations of the same hue (a wreck in blue water for example),
- the harmony of shades: juxtaposing different colors that are close to each other on the color wheel (a red fish on an orange background for example),
- the harmony of analogues: juxtaposing warm and cool colors, and
- the harmony of contrasts: juxtaposing complementary colors.
The Language of Colors
Colors are classified according to their temperature. Cool colors (blue, green, turquoise, and violet) are soothing and quiet. They are an invitation to think and relax. When spectators at my photography exhibitions look at pictures dominated by cool colors, they are silent, they meditate, and they think.
The warm colors (red, orange, and yellow) are often associated with warmth, well-being, pleasure and energy. During an exhibition, it is the photos with rich, warm colors that feed conversations, criticism and comments. Everyone has an opinion to give: these colors get people talking. Neutral colors (black, white, and gray) play on the viewer’s emotions. They must be present in underwater photos to compensate for the warm and cool colors. A photo with only red can become aggressive. Adding a little bit of gray can reduce the aggression.
Each color carries its own symbolic meaning; by putting different colors together, you can change the message your photo conveys. The meaning of various colors differs between cultures. Here are some examples from Western culture:
- Blue evokes space, vastness, distance, purity, truth, wisdom and relaxation. It is the color that causes the fewest emotional reactions. This is the color of relaxation, authenticity, well-being, space and infinity. A blue background emphasizes the subject and foreground by creating a strong contrast.
- Green evokes hope, success and stability. It rests the eye and encourages balance and temperate judgement. Green is the color of nature, health and peace. It also encourages happiness and optimism.
- Yellow evokes richness, strength, eternity and jealousy. It's the best color to stimulate creative activity, and is more visible from a distance. It is also the color of optimism. Yellow brings sparkle and vivacity to a composition.
- Orange evokes energy, security, joy, glory, good humor, movement, relaxation and pleasure. It is a color that also stimulates creative activity, provides energy, and awakens desires. In an underwater photo, orange gives the image vitality and makes it more dynamic.
- Red evokes optimism, vigor, hospitality, ambition, and passion, but also aggression, provocation, and danger. It is full of energy, which accelerates the heart rate and stimulates activity. It catches the eye in an image — do not hesitate to highlight a red subject in your photos, however small it is.
- Brown is a neutral color. It does not have a lot of effect.
- Black evokes luxury and seriousness, but also mystery and the darkness of night. It intensifies emotions and absorbs light. It is an oppressive color. It is a pessimistic and despairing color, but also conveys self-assurance and power.
- White evokes purity, elegance and joy. White reflects light. This is the color of light, of innocence, and of the absolute. When it is contrasted with dark colors, it brings a lot of depth to a photo.
- Gray is a peaceful color that does not cause strong emotions. In photographs, gray encourages curiosity and imagination. Test the effect in front of a black and white photo of an underwater wreck: you want to ask questions and find out what happened. Gray accentuates this effect.
I hope that this information has opened up new possibilities for you. Mastering the language of colors can give impact to your images. As photographers, however, I should know how to use what nature gives me. A photographer is not a painter who can choose his palette.
During my nature photography sessions, I always recommend using this simple rule: draw a contrast between warm and cold colors. Emphasize the depth of a dive by bringing out the blue in your image. Accentuate the turbulence of life using red and orange, etc.
Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.