Life Happens in Limited Color Palettes

Life happens in color, but not just any color and not every color all at once.

Being committed to color photography, I am continually thinking about the role of color in my images and evaluating how color is contributing to the emotion and interest of the story I am striving to tell. In this post I explore images that use limited color schemes; using various shades of a only small number of harmonious colors, or by the pervasive use two contrasting colors to create a cohesive image or highlight a detail.

In analyzing the images in my portfolio, I have discovered that my instinctive approach to using color is consistent with the theories used by designers for creating effective color schemes in their work. Designers choose specific color palates based on the sentiment that their client wants to convey: calm, comfort, excitement, danger, etc… Designers carefully consider the both the emotional and cultural aspects of different colors. Their thought processes go beyond simple associations of warm colors as representing the concepts of heat and danger, or cool colors being associated with calm and serenity. Red, for example, is also a color used to represent importance (we roll out the red carpet for important guests), and in some cultures it is a symbol of luck and prosperity.

In addition, the designer uses color to draw the viewers attention in specific ways. Highlight colors are used to draw attention to important ideas, while muted colors can be used to identify interesting details that add depth to the message, but can be glossed over without loosing the overall meaning of the big idea.

Designers will typically work with a five-color color scheme based on a few time-tested recipes. Below I show five specific color scheme patterns and how the colors within them fall on the traditional 12-spoke color wheel.

Color SchemesIf you are interested in learning more about color schemes, I found a very helpful article on creating color palettes by Cameron Chapman in Smashing Magazine from which I have taken parts of the examples above.

The Secret

The cover image of my book, Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto, contains an photograph of a scene from Oaxaca of two young girls waiting to be in a children’s street procession which takes place during the three days of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) activities. Not only did these two girls provide me with a story of friendship and sharing that I could tell through gesture and moment, but the entire scene is composed of a very limited color palette of blue and orange, illustrating the “complementary” color palette. It was a visual gift that the girls’ dresses and makeup so perfectly matched the orange and blue painted walls of town behind them. Not only does this color synergy heighten the image’s visual appeal, but it also connects the girls to the town conveying the concept of belonging.

Japan - Basho's Path November 2016 with Sam Abell and George Nobechi

This fairly abstract image taken at the Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa Japan, illustrates a story about the care taken to protect trees from damage due to the heavy winter snow-falls in this region of Japan. The color palate is predominately the complementary colors green and maroon. As any garden architect would confirm, the juxtaposition of these specific colors within the garden was undoubtedly planned. It is my goal as a photographer to recognize these color patterns, planned or unplanned, and seize the opportunity to use them to my advantage in creating compelling and coherent color photographs.

The lead image in this post, of the shy fish monger and his daily catch, caught my attention because of the way that the fish monger used the red tomatoes to draw attention to his display. The overall scene is dominated by brown hues (remember brown is a desaturation of yellow), yet his store front, buckets, and backroom refrigerator provide a recurring pattern of blue highlights. The only breaks in this brown/blue color scheme are the brightly painted triangles on his antiquated scale and those perfect red tomatoes placed out front. This scene provides an example of a “triadic” color scheme where two colors are used predominately and the third is used as a highlight to draw the viewers (or in this case, the shoppers) attention.

Many photographers shy away from the use of color due to its potential for distraction. However, intentional use of color can add depth and emotion to the stories you strive to tell.

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLearn more about making compelling street photographs in my book Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto, or you can hear me talk about my photographic process with Ibarionex Perello and The Candid Frame, Martin Bailey Photography Podcast #616, or Frederick Van Johnson of This Week in Photo.

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