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Jan 22, 2019
Composing with Color

In photography, composition is key. You may have the most amazing scene before you, but when you take a shot of it, if it is not well composed it will be reduced to the mundane. Composition is one of those things that either comes naturally to the photographer, the keen eye as it is known, or requires many years of practice and experimentation until the eye is trained. There are of course many rules governing composition, the rule of thirds being the most obvious but others might include visual weight, symmetry and of course leading lines. One often misunderstood and perhaps underused aspect of composition is the use of color. Color plays a key role in photographic composition as it does in other aspects of design, it allows us to convey emotions from the warm yellows of a summer’s evening to the cold blue of an Antarctic landscape. Greens and blues are soothing, whilst reds alert us to dangers or problems. Today we are going to take a look at how to use color in your photography by dissecting some images that use color as part of their composition.

Primary Colors 

Red Timber House In Nuuk Greenland
                                    Red Timber House In Nuuk Greenland showing the contrast between primary colors

 The primary colors are red, green and blue and we can use these  primary colors to create a contrast between our subject and the rest of the scene.

In the shot above we have two of the primaries red and green, combining to draw our eye towards the house. By combining compositional rules, we have positioned the lush green grass on the bottom third, anchoring the scene. To the main house is bright red and is positioned on the left third of the image. The white picket fence draws our eyes through the grass and towards the house.

This image is a classic demonstration of the use of all three primary colors and the rule of thirds. The red brick wall to the left anchors the image and forces the eye to the right. On the bottom third of the right we have the green grass which both anchors the bottom third and draws our eye up to the subject matter, the street lamp. The lamp itself of contrasted against the pure blue sky. The result is an image that is both rich in color and nicely composed.

Primary Colors In Copenhagen
Red green and blue combine to make a strong composition to make a strong composition in Copenhagen Denmark

The Warm Colors

As we mentioned above, the warm colors give us a feeling of both warmth and peace. This is demonstrated in the image below, the subtle warm yellows of a Sri Lanka sunset give a feeling of peace to the image. This is enhanced by the location, a temple and by the positioning of the statue on the right hand third. The temple to the left is in the background and slightly out of focus, the warmth of the waters surrounding it add to the mystery and exotic feel of the picture.

Buddha in a Sri Lankan Sunset
Sun sets behind the behind the The Seema Malaka Temple in Colombo with buddha statue

The Cold Colors

The cold colors, such as the seep blue in this picture can convey a sense of isolation and the inhospitable. As with shooting any image, composition with color works best when a combined with other compositional techniques, in this case thirds and a leading line. The image works because it is almost monochromatic, the deep blue sky and to a lesser extent the blue water, top and bottom lock our eye onto the iceberg. The pure white of the berg is enhanced by the blueness of the shadows in the ice and the large crack draws our eye up to the almost volcano like peak of the berg. The whole feeling conveyed is cold and remote yet beautiful

Crack in Large Iceberg in Greenland
Large crack in Iceberg in Ilulissat Greenland

In this shot, the blueness of the ice has added to the sense of remoteness, here the dull leaden skies also give a feeling of coldness yet the sculptured shapes of the bergs convey the beauty of nature itself.

Blue Icebergs in Greenland
The blue icebergs of Narsusuaq Fjord in Greenland

Color Contrast

By using a combination of a primary and secondary color we can create interesting contrast in out images, as can be seen in the follow image.

 In this shot our eye is immediately drawn to the bright warmth of the lamp by the deep dark blue of the building behind. The lighter yellow lights on the left of the building act as counterpoints to the main street lights. Overall the effect of the light is to give the feeling of wanting to be inside the building, the warmth is inviting and suggests a contrast from the dark night outside.

Odessa Opera House During A summer Blue Hour
The Odessa Opera House and Theatre in Ukraine during Blue Hour on a summer evening

 In this shot, the single red flower at the bottom acts as a big contrast to the many pink flowers above it. Our eye is immediately drawn to the red flower despite the abundance of other flowers.

Colorful Tulips in Copenhagen
Colorful Tulips in Copenhagen

Color is a powerful and important tool in the way that we compose our images. By understanding the interrelationships between the primary and secondary colors and by combining color with other compositional techniques, we can greatly improve the way we take photographs.