Dozens of detailed books have been written on color photography — how to get good in-camera color, how light affects color, how to control color and how to process color.
In this article I’ll give you a quick look at the aforementioned topics — so you have a basic idea about how to get the color you want in your images. I’ll illustrate the topics with some of my favorite images that I took during Carnavale 2018 in Venice, Italy with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and these lenses: 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 24-105mm IS.
But first, three important thoughts on color:
- Color is usually the first thing we notice in a photograph, painting or scene.
- Good color is subjective, just like good wine or good pizza is subjective.
- Color affects the mood and feeling of a photograph. And when it comes to a photograph, the mood and feeling are the most important elements.
Time of Day
The time of day affects the colors in our images. The opening image for this article was taken in the late afternoon on a sunny day, when the light is warm — meaning that it has deeper shades of red, orange and yellow. Those colors give us a warm feeling, which is one reason why we like sunrise and sunset photographs.
This picture was taken about a half-hour before sunrise on a cloudy day. It was a cool tone, meaning that it has a blue cast. This is the kind of color you’d expect when the sky is overcast around dawn and dusk.
If you have a “mood” in mind for a photograph, choose the time of day that helps you create that mood in your photograph.
The area surrounding a subject affects the color of the subject. I photographed this model in a room with warm-tone murals, which is why the photograph has a warm tone.
This model was photographed in the shade against a blue wall, which reflected some blue color onto the subject, which is why the photograph has a cool overall tone.
Here’s an experiment you may want to try. Photograph someone with a red shirt, a blue shirt, a green shirt and so on. Notice how the color of the shirt affects the color of the person’s face. It’s a good exercise to see how surrounding colors impact a subject’s color.
The White Balance control on your camera lets it adjust color rendition, so that the white areas in your picture look white, which means the other colors in the image will be accurate, too.
I don’t recommend shooting on Auto White Balance. Rather, I suggest setting the White Balance to the existing lighting condition. Illustrated here, with a picture taken in the shade: clockwise from top left: Daylight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent and Tungsten.
As you can see, the white balance setting makes a difference in the color in a photograph. Some photographers like to select a Shade or Cloudy white balance setting in daylight to give their pictures a warmer color. For a nighttime photography effect in daylight, the Tungsten will create a cool-tone image, and can create an overwhelmingly blue-toned image outdoors under overcast skies, particularly if you deliberately under-expose an image.
Many of today’s digital cameras offer three more color controls: Custom White Balance, WB Shift/Bracketing and Color Space. These controls are designed for pros who need super accurate colors in their photographs.
Serious pros sometimes select Custom White Balance, basing white balance from a test shot taken with a white or neutral-toned subject, in the precise lighting they’ll be shooting in. For even greater accuracy, there are third-party digital “gray cards” and similar devices like Passport Color Checker by X-rite, intended to produce optimum Custom White Balance results from a single test photo. I used these in Venice for some of my photographs.
WB Shift/Bracketing lets you fine-tune the white balance and overall “tint” in your image even more. And Color Space lets you choose between Adobe RGB (used by top pros, especially those who print their own images because Adobe RGB has a broader range of colors) and sRGB, which is the default color space used by most photo enthusiasts because it offers consistent colors. If you are publishing photographs on the web, sRGB is the way to go.
Lighting accessories can help you control color while taking a picture. I took the picture on the left using a compact, continuous LED light panel, with a warming filter panel placed over the light source. These LED light panels are increasingly popular with video users, and have become dramatically more affordable in recent years.
The LED light also added some light to the eyes, which were shaded by the subject’s mask. Placing an orange gel over my Canon Speedlite would have achieved a similar effect. The picture on the right, which has a cooler tone, was taken using only natural light.
Reflectors can also be used to add color, as well as to fill in shadows, in a photograph. A gold reflector adds a warm tone, while a silver reflector adds a neutral tone. Sometimes, just a cream-colored piece of fabric can add a little warmth to the tones if you either reflect light off of it, or aim a Speedlite to shoot through it.
Processing your Images
Getting the best in-camera image should always be a goal. And an important benefit of shooting RAW images in your camera is the control you have after an image is taken. Even if you shoot on Auto White Balance or set the white balance incorrectly, it’s easy to correct with RAW original images by changing the white balance setting in Canon Digital Photo Professional, or third-party RAW file processing software like Adobe's Photoshop® or Lightroom®, or similar programs.
RAW processing software programs like these offer numerous tools to alter color, either globally (making the entire image warmer or cooler, for instance), or more specifically (change overall saturation, change how green or red tones appear, and so on). And there are advanced controls to further fine-tune the color and contrast of your images, before you process them and send them to an image-editing program like Photoshop. What’s more, reducing the exposure can make colors look more vibrant, and vice versa.
The color of a background also affects the mood and feeling of a photograph, which of course is subjective. Which one of these three images do you prefer? I like the blue background, but you may prefer one of the others. The main idea here: choose your background color very carefully when you are working on a portrait or a still life.
Several Canon digital SLRs and compact cameras offer in-camera HDR, a feature that takes two additional exposures over and under the recommended exposure setting, and then combines them into a single HDR (high dynamic range) JPEG image. For example, Canon’s 5D Mark IV gives you the original RAW files (the source images) and the finished HDR JPEG image, while cameras like the digital Rebel series cameras and compact cameras only give you the final JPEG file.
Some Canon cameras offer HDR color options. On the 5D Mark IV you have: Natural, Art Standard, Art Vivid, Art Bold and Art Embossed. For this HDR image, which I took in Burano, an island near Venice, I selected the Art Vivid mode for an image that pops with color.
Color in Black and White Photography
Color is important in black-and-white photography, too. If you shoot RAW original images, you have a world of potential control to produce pure black & white images, add overall color toning to them, or even to render part of an image in color while part remains in monochrome. Photoshop and similar image-editing programs are an obvious place to perform these adjustments, but in RAW processing, you can get started on conversions to B&W, toning adjustments, and so on.
Another aspect of black & white imagery is the impact of color filters, used either on the camera lens with traditional B&W film, or simulated with today’s digital cameras. Famed photographer Ansel Adams used glass color filters on his film camera to create the mood in his black & white pictures. He liked to use a red filter to darken the sky for a more dramatic landscape image, for example.
With today’s Canon EOS cameras, the Monochrome Picture Style has options to simulate how black & white would change, if traditional film had been shot with red, green or other color filters on the camera lens. You can try this and sample the effects with RAW images (either by taking multiple pictures at different settings, or by experimenting at the computer, after the fact), or shoot in-camera JPEG files with Monochrome Picture Style active, and have a finished B&W result.
Check out the color of this model’s costume. I like it. But let’s take a look at how just two digital color filters affect this image in a black-and-white conversion.
Left to right: No filter, blue and green. As you can see, a blue filter lightens the model’s costume, while the green filter darkens it.
In looking at these examples, keep in mind that a blue filter will not always lighten a subject and a green filter will not always darken it. The end result depends on the color of the subject. In black & white imagery, the impact of color filters is that parts of a scene that are actually a given color — like something red — will be rendered lighter by a similar-colored filter, and darker by a filter that’s closer to the “opposite” color. My advice is to play with different digital color filters and color sliders to see which effect you like the best.
I’d like to end this article by reinforcing just how much color affects the mood and feeling of a scene. This image is one of my favorites from my Carnavale photography experience, not only because of the awesome models and settings, but because I think the warm colors and slight softening — added with a post-production software package — created a wonderful warm mood.
Here is the original image. I used a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite in a Westcott softbox (triggered by a Canon ST-E3-RT transmitter in my camera’s hot-shoe) to fill in the shadows on the subjects created by the windows in the background. This photograph has a cool tone, which an art director actually may prefer if he or she wants to show accurate colors.
But always remember: there’s a difference between original, “accurate” color, and what you may feel is the “best” color for a given subject or scene.
So the next time you are making or processing a photograph, think about the importance of color — and how you can control it.