Color triggers psychological responses, emotions, feelings of calm, anger and serenity. It also draws the eye to specific locations within an image. Colors can be soft and muted or bold, vivid, intense and saturated. They fall into spectrums that soothe the mind or create movement and calamity. The strategic use of color is critical to the mood, feeling and impact of an image. It can make up a small part of the composition or the entire photograph. Color is universal and needs no language to be understood. Think of a STOP sign. Whether you drive in an English-speaking country and it reads STOP or in a Spanish-speaking country and it reads ALTO, the striking red octagon shape of the sign leaves no doubt to what you’re required to do.
Striking, saturated and bold colors call out to viewers, while soft and muted tones fade to a whisper. Primary colors are bold, while pastels take on the whispering qualities. If you were to place Easter eggs on a fire engine, although your eye would eventually find them, what draws you to the image is the intense red of the truck.
Colors fall into families, one being warmth. The warm tone family consists of reds, yellows and oranges while cool ones are blues, greens and purples. Warm tones give the illusion of coming forward in an image, while cool tones recede. This is most evidenced when a photo is made up of two colors that fall on the opposite sides of a color wheel. Think of a fall-colored yellow aspen set against a deep-blue sky. The bold yellow tree seems to pop off the page while the sky takes a back seat in the distance. Yellow and blue are opposites as are red/cyan and magenta/green.
A brightly colored small subject immersed in a sea of muted tones allows the tiny focal point to become the primary subject. It may take up a very small percentage of the frame, but because of its color, the eye is drawn to it first and foremost. Color is enhanced just after a storm when the air is fresh and clear. Use a polarizer to remove glare to allow the color to come through. Shoot at sunrise and sunset to add warmth to a scene as the sun shines through the particulates that linger on the horizon. As the sun gets higher in the sky, the spectrum becomes very blue and cool in tone. Study images where the color grabs you. Apply the reasons why this occurred to your next shoot to see if it works. The more you understand light and color, the more you’ll be able to create images using color with impact.