Color theory is one of the most important aspects of art. Photography is no different. If you’re interested in making fantastic images that stand out its a technique you’ll need to get a handle on. The relationship between photographers and color theory is particularly interesting in that the approach to color has changed entirely over the history of making photographs.
In the early days of photography, images were produced in monochrome. It would still be a few years before the autochrome process became available. But even processes such as color gum bi-chromate or even autochrome for that matter, were more involved than basic monochrome photography. In the early days, the process was natively monochrome and color had to be approached and thought about completely differently.
Today in the digital age this is the complete opposite. Cameras natively shoot color images which are transferred to the computer in an RGB color space. Monochrome images today are made by manipulating a natively color image. This is completely opposite of where photography started. Color theory has become something that’s thought about less since the images just come out in color.
everybody welcome back once again to another episode of the art of photography my name is Ted Forbes and today we're going to talk about color theory a little bit and I want to talk about the deliberate use of composing using color in photographs and I know that might sound obvious to some people it might sound weird to others but I want to look at this today and we're going to look at some images that work really well I want to go over to Pinterest and look at some stuff I've collected and show you guys where that is if you want to study further and I want to talk about color in photography now I know this is a weird way to start this but I want to start it by talking about black and white and personally if you guys are familiar with my work I shoot a lot in black and white that's just my taste it's you know what I like to do and people will ask me from time to time why do you only work in black and white well I don't only work in black and white just the majority of my work is in that but the answer you know I had to think about it and it's this to me it's that when you know and I think it's this way to a lot of photographers for that matter but when you work in black and white you're removing all the color information to a photograph and this goes for any kind of monochrome situation so like a cyanotype even or if you're even if you're toning or staining you're removing the RGB color data from the the scene that you're shooting or your picture and that removes it from reality one two levels you know and so obviously you're not dealing with it you're dealing with this tonal scale that becomes part of the composition the light there's more missus on what the light is doing and you know these are just reasons I personally like black and white photos I like to look at them I like to make them myself now I also like to work in color somewhat and for me because that black and white is that you know removing that dimension of what reality is or what you see day to day the most successful color work and the guys that I look up to that shoot amazing stuff there's always or there's generally well I would say there's always this deliberate attempt when it's successful where that color is a successful part in the composition it's integral to making it work it's not dependent on the color but the color really works to bring it all together and I think this can work in one of two ways you could be out shooting kind of street style improvisational type photography and you know you might see a solid color wall so you can kind of limit the colors and maybe it's a nice contrast or a complementary color to you know what somebody might be wearing you're able to get the shot and a lot of the great work we're gonna look at today is done that way there's also deliberately planning a composition in a studio type situation or location shoot where you have that control and if you can learn to kind of plan this color stuff into I think you're going to get much more successful photographs it's hard to do we don't always do it well but you know that conscious effort is really important so I want to talk about color theory a little bit today before we get you know too much into it then we're going to go over to Pinterest and look at some images I've collected I'll give you the URL so you can you can check that out on your own too so come on over and let's have a look okay so we're going to talk about color theory here for a second and I'm going to use a website to illustrate this and this is a wonderful website I used to use this when I taught my college course and it's really cool students are very receptive to it it's a very visual way of learning all the concepts we're going to talk about here this website is maintained by Adobe it's called Adobe I presume it's pronounced color but it's spelled kul ER so Adobe color and the URL on that is kul ERG Dobby com there's also an iPhone app is free to use you do not have to be a member of the Creative Suite to do this however if you do sign in and I believe the account on this is for you can sync some stuff up between the app and the website and you can save color combinations and etc but anyway I want to talk about what we're looking at here and what you see in the middle here is just a basic color wheel now the way color works is you know the color comes from in in in terms of the light source you have colors of red green and blue or RGB that's the the light spectrum of color so it's the RGB color spectrum and that's how we see things you've heard the term RGB because that's how your monitor works it's how it's calibrated that's how your digital camera works and so we're working in an RGB color space and if we look on here we have a color wheel and you know you see these primary colors when it becomes the most red or the most blue or the most green and combinations of these colors end up making secondary and tertiary colors so for instance everybody pretty much knows that if you mix blue and red together you start to get purple or lavenders which you can see down in here and what we have here are a series of little you know switches you can toggle here and if I click and drag these they stay well for the most part the we have an analogous color combination which basically means we have our primary here which is red and when I move these points on the sides they're going to stay analogous in that they're going to be the same distance from that red so you can see when I move this orange towards yellow you can see the bottom one down here starts moving towards blue and we come up with this combination of five colors down here so what we're looking at is an analogous color scheme here and also note that if I drag the middle one down this red look what happens to the colors below I start to wash them out and they become you know less saturated much lighter and so saturation and value are kind of two different things but you know you can have a softer red or harder red depending on you know what you're mixing it with and this is how color all blends together if I spin this wheel around I start to see various color combinations that are indeed what we're calling analogous and this is how these colors are related to one another so that's what we're defining here so if I change my color rule to something like monochromatic you can see that they all stay in various values of one color and so we think you know our Li referred to monochromatic is black and white well that's just shades of black to white and right here we're looking at shades of red or if I start to move this dial around we're looking shades of purple or shades of blue I can go over to yellow or green or somewhere between you can obviously adjust the saturation as well and our scheme here is locked into one that is indeed monochromatic it's what we're calling that because it just deals with one color at a time so that's another color scheme if we look at these these are just various ways of grouping colors that have relationships to each other so the triad scheme is a little bit different because we're taking three colors that are pretty much at you know if you divide the color spectrum by thirds that's where they sit now you can go through and play with all these complementary colors or opposites on the color wheel and so generally they have a lot of contrast to the eye between them so if I take this red over here and we'll look at this an example a minute its complementary color relationship is to green on the other side of the color wheel so that's what complementary means is these two colors are complemented on the color and you can go in you can do compound shades or you can do custom combinations as well but mainly these top ones all but the custom category these are ways of looking at colors in ways that they relate to each other doesn't necessarily mean they're always pleasing to the eye but they can be because there's a continuity there's a relationship and there's you know there's a definition of how these colors relate to each other so that's how that works so go check that out that's colored Adobe com kol er Adobe comm you can download the app and check it out incidentally if you are a designer this is a wonderful tool because it does give you hexadecimal values RGB values etc so you can save color combinations that you like that you might be working for or for a client or something like that but and for photography I think it is interesting too there also is a way in here where you can upload photos and sample colors out of the photos which is pretty interesting too but now what I want to do is I want to switch over and let's talk about relationships of colors in photography in a way that's very successful so I'm going to go over to my Pinterest account here and one thing I want to show you guys because I do refer to the Pinterest account quite a bit because we keep collections in here I'm going to go over to my board so if you want to follow me on Pinterest its Pinterest comm slash Ted Forbes that's te D fo r B es I'll put a link in the show notes and Pinterest has a way of doing pens which I'm clipping from the internet and arranging them and what they call boards which are collections now by default the way the boards work and we've used these on the show before you've seen them the newest boards are always at the bottom of this list so we're going to scroll to the bottom and I have one on color theory that I'm going to look at here and I have three photographers here there are way more than this but I think these are some guys that are particularly interesting to me in the way they used color I'm gonna take these a little out of order here this is a very famous image this is the red ceiling from Green Greenwood Mississippi 1974 from the wonderful controversial William Eggleston not everyone loves William Eggleston I understand I have kind of a love-hate within myself but you know these days it's more love than hate so I'm showing him and I think this is an important photograph to show and you have to remember at the time to that eggleston scre was beginning color photography was not considered fine art at all and Egleston comes around and does a you know series of major exhibitions at you know Museum of Modern Art Orkut cetera and all of a sudden he's the photographer kind of breaks and all of a sudden color becomes accepted as an artistic medium in contemporary photography and his images are a little rough and they're a little raw much in the same way somebody like Robert Frank kind of is when you compare him to Cartier birdsong for instance if you compare Egleston to other consumers of his it's rough its raw it's weird it doesn't always work there's a there's a tension that comes with it anyway this is a very famous image that was taken Mississippi of this red ceiling and you know what makes this work and what makes you remember it and what makes it stand out despite the odd poster on the back with the you know various positions being explained but any one side note is the fact that this is very monochromatic remember monochromatic or shades of the same color well what you're seeing here shades of red some are dark some are light that's what the you know defines the depth which you see the three dimensions of the room in and it works on that scale of being monochromatic you know which is very interesting Eggleston also in a more accessible way did some other photos there's another one that I've shown on the show before that I love these these two women smoking at a diner and what makes this successful and what makes it work is because you can isolate this down to colors that stand out now obviously a lot of these guys were shooting I don't know for sure but what this was shot on but I assume that was Kodachrome which had you know at that time technology was trying to catch up in the film world and Kodachrome had a very specific look to it and it's very beautiful it's very workable with these types of images and you know the main colors that stand out of the grain and the red you know the red on the menu you know these seat cushions are green and then you have some secondary colors the skin tones the pink dress but really the ones that catch your eye are the red and the green and the red is also pretty much echoed in the brick on the wall back there and those are the things that stand out so if you take a quick glimpse at this photo your eye catches those really quickly and those are remember what we called complementary colors because they are opposites on that color wheel the red and the green and so this is an interesting photograph there's a little bit of tension it's an awkward pose it's the back of this woman's head it's kind of neat too in kind of a nostalgic sense and anyway that's one of the things that makes that photo work very well another guy that I've shown on the show beef for that I can never get enough of personally is the wonderful saw leader by the way there is a documentary that is I don't know if it's out yet I think it is on salt later I'll have to look that up and discuss it on the show as well but Saul was an early colorist as well he wasn't discovered really until the 1990s he was a professional photographer did a lot of fashion magazine work most of that was black-and-white at the time and he shot these color photos just his personal projects for his own amusement fun personal gratification practice whatever you want to call it and they were kind of discovered in boxes in the 90s of course all still alive today and they're amazing they're they're mind-blowing you know if you just kind of take a quick glance at this photo again you see these primary colors that are standing out here of their very hard primaries but you are seeing them as that and so you have the yellow and the the red that make up the taxi and then you have this orange and guess what if you mix red and yellow you're going to get orange so you could call these analogous in terms of color and you see this a lot Saul's work also this is not color related but has an abstract quality to it there's lots of street scenes and variable weather conditions there's definitely a style look to it and abstraction plays into that quite a bit usually there's something in the foreground that's blurred out that you don't know what it is but the important part is we're given enough information in this image to understand that it's a taxi and the color is a very dynamic part of that it doesn't define that it's a taxi it just tells you red and yellow the shapes combined with those colors are what you know end up giving you the conception of the car so anyway wonderful stuff another great saw leader here again with you know these soft colors in this case you have a real hard primary red down here that stands out red is very sensitive or your eye is very sensitive to the color red so you don't need a lot of it it can make a wonderful accent color at times you have some you know faded yellows in here and then almost a faded blue light in the background this woman's dress is blue this really works it works wonderfully compositionally in terms of its color and and mainly too and I want to point this out is because there's not a lot going on in these a lot of times photography is not what you put in the photo it's what you leave out of the photo that's the hard part is getting things out of the photos so this composition is not one that is going to be a really easy one just to go to a cafe and take I mean this I'm sure saw was deliberate with this he just had that kind of an eye to him and you know and caught this scene it's a beautiful picture a couple others here again you see a lot of the same use in Saul's photos of the blues reds and yellows and again we see that here interestingly enough though is this pink umbrella back here is a nice little accent color so sometimes you know if you're gonna let another color come in just just a little glimpse or a blip of it has a really nice wonderful effect to it at times but anyway wonderful stuff I also like how the blue is really not created by any specific object it's just kind of the color of the light and being that it's overcast and cloudy a lot of that has to do with you know at this time what kind of film you were shooting on and today's terms would probably equate more to what white balance you were set at can have various effects and you know that if you shoot on the wrong white balance you can get to blue outside but you can also control that and make it just a little bit blue if it works for your composition so anyway some things to consider and then lastly the most one of the more famous ones and I love this this abstract of you know somebody working on the street writing something on a notepad but it's taken from behind a fogged up window and you just see this yellow shape in the background not sure what it is it's probably a delivery truck but you know it's not clearly defined as such anyway absolutely beautiful stuff saw leader is one of my favorites I also want to talk about one other photographer today who I think is an outstanding colorist there's some other things about his work that make it beautiful as well but this is Luigi Giri misspelled gh IRR I on the last name go look him up he is a wonderful Italian photographer he died Oh a little while ago in the early 90s 1992 or so but did some wonderful stuff this first image we'll look at he was a kind of known for his use of Kodachrome and Polaroid both but you know you see a lot in those images a very simple color study and this is very indicative of his style when you start trying to count how many colors you're seeing here they're bounced around in the composition but there aren't very many essentially you're dealing with it you know this this the blue and the you know these jars and you have the juxtaposition of this blue lid over here which is kind of interesting this is probably set up to be so and then this blue ceramic Vaz if you will over here you have kind of this darker red which shares a little bit of hue with the wood on the table and this yellow here and then the rest is kind of you know not so much defined as being color um and and notice that the saturation level that Luigi used on a lot of these is just very very minimal it just has I don't like the word flat because that implies negativity and I don't think it's a negative thing at all but they are flat colors and and they're beautiful they're amazing they don't have a lot of vibrancy to them but that's that's the draw you know again another another Geary piece this is a beach and what's beautiful about this too as I open the link accidentally is the colors that you get out of this are these turquoise colors of how you know the area here where I guess you would play some kind of game or something this ramp is a turquoise color which matches with the ocean which is not far from the blue the colors on the swingset here of the the metal and then you know in contrast to those this blue and red here as it just has a nice feel to it and and it's a very wonderful composition and the color is a big part of his style another thing that luigi gary did a lot and i'm sorry this is not a huge version of this i will try and link up to a bigger one by the time you look at this this is an image i'll swim in here and this is one thing that that luigi liked to play a lot with in composition was kind of this false sense reality in the context of reality and what this is is it's a it's a photo of a ship and the page is torn and so it looks like it's creeping up behind a sand dune or something at first glance and then you realize that it's just on a piece of cork board or something and the image is actually torn but it looks like it creates the illusion that there's this wave coming down anyway he played a lot with that kind of metaphorical it's metaphor but at the same time it's also just kind of a fun play of composition between reality and non-reality this is another famous of image of his these people that are looking at a poster I assume it's some kind of three-dimensional map but it you know has this feel of these people looking off into a mountain range and of course the mountain range is not real and again look at the subdued colors of the clothing and also the limited color palette and I think that's important in all these it's not a ton of colors and their shapes that are predominantly colored that work together mainly the jackets these people are wearing with the green the light blue the these pastel like this yellow and then the way that echoes in the poster as well so again wonderful stuff another interesting shot I love that the accent color and here's this yellow of this woman and I'm presuming she's not looking at a real cavernous lake here she's looking at a painting or it's a some kind of street art that's been torn up or something but anyway you see have that kind of comic play going on there but also the back of this woman there's that beautiful accent of yellow and her dress which which you know pretty much complements the blues and greens that you see above her so anyway you know I think this was all conscious um you know with all these photographers and this is how you end up getting stuff that's interesting and this is how you end up getting stuff that makes sense and it you know I think all three of these guys Eggleston Gary and Saul leader all three you know their use of color is a big part of their style and there's two things that play into that it's the relationship between those colors and the simplicity so there's not a lot that you're looking at so they stick out they have a relationship with one another and then also the fact that you know in in terms of intensity and saturation of these values too I think played a part in the way these guys work look like you know with leader you see kind of these saturated yellows that are very deep against kind of these gloomy backgrounds a lot of times with a lot of blacks and you know other colors whereas you know Egleston has a very harsh approach to but on the complete other end of the spectrum you have Luigi Giri who does these you know wonderful pastel colored you know kind of quirky funny sometimes scenes I think he's a very very underrated photographer and if you don't know his work I will link to him so go to the show notes and check it out okay so we've talked a lot about color theory today we've looked at some color photographs and you know like I said earlier I think that when this is its most successful that they're you know color becomes part of a composition and color works with your imagery and has an effect within that and I think that and this may sound obvious but it's amazing how hard this is to learn you know I think as we evolved as photographers as we evolved as creative people as we've all those artists most of this is learning how to see and I know that that's given something you hear a lot of people say it's fairly obvious you know you're learning how to see I have a friend of mine that a little bit older than I am this is back in the film days before everybody had a digital camera and you know he was he is a very mentor type personality and a very good friend and he's one of those guys that if everybody's sitting around shooting hanging out and shooting the breeze or whatever somebody has a camera and he'll say hey you know check it out and he's kind of teaching everybody something and he's a very good photographer on top of that and I'm where we're sitting there and and with actually with somebody it was his son that was sitting there and he was showing him he said you know he looked at me says you know most of this is like you know learning how to see and it's amazing that most people who were beginning or don't have much experience with the camera generally will pick it up look through the viewfinder they're not actually looking anything point the thing in the general direction and voila let's hope something comes out and really good photography is always a deliberate attempt to try to control all those elements and learn how to see things learn how to not only look at something but there's an interpretation element of it like you know if I see you know a man standing on a next to a park bench is that a great photo no it's an interesting subject and then your mind what makes you good as a photographer is trying to interpret okay what would make a good photo maybe I wait for him to do something maybe I ask him to pose maybe I changed the angle maybe the lights not right and I want to recreate this layering but there's a million things to go into that so anyway I think colors the same way and it's you know when a consent one is most successful and when it's most dramatic and when it sticks out the most is when it's in a one there's an element of simplicity to it into its deliberately planned and I think it's just like everything else in composition you know something to be said for minimalist approach two things to narrowing things down to just a single track to focus and no pun intended and you know getting the clutter out of the way and really letting elements speak for themselves and then arranging them in a manner that's beautiful so all this easier said than done I struggle with this all the time myself so anyway I hope you found some of this useful today I really hope you found some of it inspiring I love showing work by people that I look up to and these are always five sides for me to do so anyway that's it for today and once again everybody thank you again for watching the arts and photography and I will see you next time