The Problem with Color

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

Photoshop CS4 Used in this Tutorial

Color is a very powerful tool in photography. Every spring photographers head to the mountains to photograph the colorful wildflowers. Every autumn, they head out to photograph the fall colors. People line up at the beach to photograph beautiful ocean sunsets. They fly hundreds, even thousands, of miles to view the georgous, red canyons of Utah. Other photographers hike miles over difficult lava fields make images of the glowing, red lava. I, myself, drove thousands of miles in a few days to see thundering waterfalls surrounded by the lush, green rainforest. The point is that all of these situations draw photographers primarily because of one thing: color. Without the color, these opportunities have little interest for photograpers.

Furthermore, we can't help but be drawn to color. Frankly, we have little choice in the matter. The human perception system is hardwired to react to color. Strong color and color contrast cause the nerves in our visual system to react. A scene with strong color or color contrast will cause an large number of nerves to send signals to the brain that essentially say, "Hey, look at this over here".

Consequently, photographers that understand how to use color can use that understanding to create dramatic images. On the other hand, when it comes to color, not everything is rosy. When used improperly, color can also weaken images.

What Does This Mean

It is eactly the same for photographers. Photographers need to:

What is Really Important

In order to create dramatic images, photographers need to focus on what is really important. Now comes the big question, "What is the most important factor in creating powerful images?" This question is likely to spark some debate. In fact, this exact question was debated not too long ago on a major photography forum. One of the first responses was that the quality of light was the most important factor. One person submitted that the composition was most important. Another claimed that image quality was first on the list.

While these are certainly very important, they play a supporting role. In my opinion, the most important factor in creating powerful images was clearly stated by the late Galen Rowell:

All great photography communicates an emotion

Think about this for a moment. A mother may have a picture of her new born infant. The mother considers the image to be priceless and may keep the image for the rest of her life. This may be the case even though the image was taken in poor light, has a weak composition, and lacks contrast. It doesn't matter. That is her baby! She would not trade that image for the most beautiful, perfectly composted landsape image that was shot in the best light possible. Why? The answer is very simple. The image of the infant sparks emotion in the mother. The emotional impact of the image has more value for the mother than any other factor.

The situation is pretty much the same for everyone. People are drawn to images that inspire an emotion in them.

What's the Problem with Color

That brings us back to the photographer. As previously stated, photographers need to keep their attention on what is really important. In other words, in order to create great images, photographers need to focus on communicating emotion in their images. The corollary is that photographers need to optimize their imagery so that all of the factors work together to communicate that emotion. That means that the light, composition, exposure, depth of field, sharpness, color, subject matter, weather conditions, and all other photographic components need to work harmoniously to communicate the emotion. This is a key point, all of the factors must work together, and no factor can be ignored.

This is where the problem with color can occur. As photographers, we often become so enamored with scenes of color that we tend to focus on capturing and optimizing the color and tend to temporarily forget about the other factors. In other words, we tend to focus on the color rather than on capturing and communicating the emotion that the entire scene exudes.

Figure 1: Fall Color Image

Figure 1 demonstrates this problem. At first, this image seems to be a nice fall color shot. The color does catch one's attention. A photographer might be satisfied with this image.


Figure 2: Fall Color Image Desaturated

However, watch what happens if we take the color away by desaturating the image. Now, the image has lost almost all of its impact. A careful analysis of the image shows that the image has no clear center of interest. There are no leading lines. There is really no composition to the image: it is just a bunch of leaves and branches. Finally, the contrast of the image is poor; the image is filled with murky grays.

In short, this image depends completely on the use of color. Pretty much all of the other photographic elements are missing. Now, this is not to say that this is a poor image. It still has some impact when the color has not been removed. On the other hand, the image could have been stronger if all of the other photographic elements had been considered, and better optimized, when taking and editing the shot in order to better convey the beauty of the scene and the emotions that it arouses.


Interpolation -- Part I     Interpolation -- Part III