Colors create depth, mood and communicate cultural meanings

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At its fundamental base, photography is the simple act of capturing the spectrum of light. The eye perceives the visible spectrum of light wavelengths as different hues of color.

Different hues and vibrancy create different moods. Cooler and dimmer tones are more relaxing and calm. Warmer and more vibrant tones are energizing, comforting, or even hostile, depending on the color and strength. However, color is perceived subjectively. It is a complicated and broad subject within photography and requires meticulous focus and understanding to utilize effectively.

Color is a visual cue and a depth cue, and many photographs can be analyzed by their color energy. As a depth cue, it helps create a sense of distance and depth within a 2-dimensional frame.

A photographer can also use split toning to truly capture colors expertly.

Methods of analyzing color in photographs

Color can be analyzed in a few ways: Objective, subjective, and comparative. Objective analysis views it scientifically as the eye’s perception of light wavelengths. Subjective analysis regards how the mind interprets and decodes color in a more abstract and symbolic manner. Comparative analysis describes colors by their associations.

As a depth cue, warmer hues (such as red and yellow) appear closer than cooler hues (blues and greens). Lighter hues of these colors appear closer than darker ones.

This information allows us to break down an image by its energy. Highly saturated, warmer photos will have a high energy; sparse and monochromatic photos have a lower energy. The effects of these two different methods have a variety of subjective impacts.

Color energy determines image tone

An orange and black butterfly on a flower
The warm, vibrant colors project out from the photograph, leading to a very high color energy. Photo by Gene Dianoski.

This butterfly exhibits high color energy in a variety of ways. The hues vibrantly fill the frame and jump at the viewer. The warmth of these hues act as a depth cue to make the butterfly and flower seem larger against the blurred background. Following an objective analysis of this, long, drawn-out wavelengths create tones which we view as warmer (reddish-tints). These stretched wavelengths stand out to the eye and draw our attention more forcefully than their cooler or softer counterparts.

The North Shore coastline of Lake Superior pushes out to a washed-out horizon.
Blues and greens are typically viewed as cooler colors, although the vibrancy of the photograph conveys a higher color energy.

A photo with medium color energy may be more sparse and drawn out. The cooler tones of Lake Superior and the forest, along with the barren sky keep a tame, subdued energy in this photo. Although, the vibrancy of the lake and trees draws the eye inward, and the coastline pushes the viewer outward to the washed-out horizon.

A cat in a window looks intrigued by a birdhouse.
Despite some of the warmer earthy tones from the house, the low contrast and grey shades detract from the color energy, creating a much softer effect.

Although the earthy brown tones in this photograph are on the warmer end of the spectrum, the colors are damp and muted and create an image with low color energy. This gives the photo a softer effect with less vibrancy and a slightly muddier photo that may be easier on the eyes. Also, notice that the immediate mood of this photo (aside from the slightly comedic content) varies drastically from the photo of the butterfly. The ambiance is more relaxed and subdued.

Colors used as depth cues

As mentioned, color plays a crucial role in the composition of depth. Based on the photographs above, it becomes obvious how different tones affect the sense of depth in a 2-dimensional picture. The butterfly practically shoots out of the photograph against the blurred background, whereas the empty birdhouse is obscure along the plane of the house.

These tones create depth cues that coincide with their energy. Warmer and more vibrant hues pop forward, while cooler and softer hues are deeper in the image. Lower energy photos are great for mellow images and high energy is dynamic and demands attention.

Remember, as with everything, successfully using color requires practice and an open mind. Be creative and try new things because photography is an adventure.

Try your hand at it and leave a comment on your favorite use of color in photography. You may also experiment with highly saturated colors created by HDR. We also have a discussion of color happening over at our community forums right now, so come join us!

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