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.


Street Noir


When I’m out shooting at night, I am often asked: “How are you doing that in such low light?” I see many photographers put their cameras away in dismay grumbling something about high-ISO and image quality under their breath.

Night shooting can be tricky stuff. Exposure settings are critical, and the photographer must continually think about balancing the shadows and the highlights while managing each of the three exposure variables: shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In these dimly lit night scenes, these settings may need to be used at their extreme, and worst performing, settings. Slow shutter speeds introduce the potential for motion blur, large apertures reduce the areas of the image that will be in focus, and high ISO settings produce digital noise. (If you are unfamiliar with how these three settings work, I’ve added an “Appendix” at the bottom of this post that describes them in more detail.)

Many photographers start pulling out their tripods for long exposures, leaning on a rails, or packing up completely. But because my street work focuses on human interaction and relies on nimble movement to find just the right angle, using a tripod is not really an option for me.

My solution, instead, is to use the constraints of darkness and light to add character and depth to the story I am capturing. I accept the digital noise in the shadows and the motion blur in the people. Indeed, a big part of my approach to all my photography is to seek story first and carry a carefree attitude of “image quality be damned” if the light is just not right.


It would be easy enough for me to leave the discussion here and just say: “Stop complaining, stop pixel-peeping, crank up your ISO, frame up your scene, and take your image.” But this would be a little disingenuous. There are some specific techniques and camera features that I use to get the best out the night.

  • Pre-focus on the lit areas: The bright areas of the scene will provide the best contrast for your camera auto-focus. It will also be the areas that our human brains will hone in on in the final image. Pre-focus on the bright areas, then wait for the rest of the scene to play out.
  • Camera or lens stabilization features: In addition to lenses with image stabilization (also called vibration reduction or optical stabilization) many of the newer mirrorless cameras have in-body image stabilization. In either case, using a lens or camera with image stabilization will help you reduce blur due to camera movement.
  • Fast prime (single focal length) lenses: A “fast” lens is one with large apertures, f/1.8 or larger. (Remember, the smaller the number, the larger the aperture. For example, f/1.8 is a larger aperture than f/2.8). A prime lens is one with a single focal length (i.e. not a zoom). It is called “fast” because by opening the aperture, you can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speeds. In the digital world, as you open the aperture, you can choose to either increase the shutter speed or  lower ISO to get the same exposure. Unfortunately, you won’t find zooms with apertures larger than f/2.8, and these zooms are larger and more expensive than a good fast prime.
  • Shorter focal length lenses: The focal length of a lens provides its magnification power. However, with more magnification, there is more magnification of even small amounts of camera movement, resulting in blurry images. For night shooting, I recommend to sticking to the shorter focal lengths – 50mm, 35mm, 28mm. They have the dded advantage of providing better depth of field, being lighter, as well as being available with large apertures (see the previous principle on the use of fast prime lenses)
  • Expose for the highlights: Exposing for the highlights typically means underexposing the image overall. While this may seem counter-intuitive for night photography when the scene is already quite dark, the camera metering system wants to expose the full scene to be an average gray forcing a scene which should be dominated by dark shadows to be mid-gray instead. Allowing the camera to average the scene will not only wash out the shadows and blow out the highlights, but it will also require the use of even longer exposure times, slower shutter speeds, and higher ISO values.

Capturing the nighttime stories that play out in pools of light and dark can be very rewarding. I say, forget about image quality. Go ahead a push you camera into new territories using fast lenses and higher ISO. Start looking at the images and not the pixels.

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPGLearn more about making compelling street photographs with my book Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto. Hear me talk about my photographic process on my interview with Ibarionex Perello on The Candid Frame.


Appendix: Explaining the exposure triad of Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO.

Exposure is controlled by 3 variables: shutter speed (how quickly is the picture taken), aperture (how much light is entering the lens), and ISO (the sensor’s sensitivity to light). Each of these variables has a unique impact on the rendering of the final photograph:

  • Shutter speed: controls whether motion is stopped or blurred. Shutter speeds faster than 1/125th of a second are usually required to freeze the motion of people. Also, a slow shutter speed may introduce motion blur due to camera movement. As a rule of thumb, to avoid having the shutter speed impact image sharpness due to camera motion, it should be at least as fast as the fraction of a second represented by one over the lens focal length. That is, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, the shutter speed should be at least 1/50th of a second. Often guides will recommend 2 times this minimum shutter speed, or 1/100th of a second for a 50mm lens.
  • Aperture: controls how much of the scene is in focus at one time, also known as depth of field. Larger the apertures (i.e. small f-numbers such as f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8) create shallower depth of field. Simplistically, the physics of optics dictates that if you focus on a very near object, distant objects will be blurry to some degree. Correspondingly, if you focus on a far object, close objects will be blurry.
  • ISO: controls image quality and digital noise. Increasing the camera’s ISO tells the camera to electronically multiply the amount of light signal actually hitting the sensor. This is like a “gain” control on a microphone. Due to various properties of signal-to-noise physics, this creates color and intensity artifacts that might appear as speckles of light or color in the final image. Lower ISOs (ISO 100, 200, 400, 800) produce smoother and finer image detail. Higher ISOs (1600, 3200, etc…) can produce grainier looking images. The impact on the final image of high ISO settings will vary greatly across different camera makes and models.

Venice Noir

View the whole series

I’ve been very excited to complete the edit of two specific series of images from Venice and Palermo. One is about the tourists, and although I’ve not quite settled on a name, it is definitely about the tourists. In fact, I have images from Japan and Los Angeles that will also fit in the series, so I think this will be a longer project. I’ll be revealing that series in a few weeks.

The other is a series of images of Venice after dark, or Venice Noir. The first few images started as a lark. Amusing myself while walking home from a cultural-appropriate late dinner, I was feeling lighthearted and frisky from the good food, good company, and ample drink. During the week, the weather was mostly overcast with episodes of rain. Nothing dramatic, but certainly enough to bring out the umbrellas and turn the cobble-stone streets into shinny surfaces of light and color.

The patchy light and dark scenes made perfect photographic backdrops. Perfect, that is, if you are not bothered by extreme contrast, slow shutter speeds, and high-ISOs. Is it the fool-photographer who tries to make these images handheld? My shutter speeds hovered around 1/15th of a second and I often underexposed the image in order avoid loosing all detail in the highlights. With a fixed 35mm lens the walls tilted in and out, and the horizon was not always level. But I was not so concerned about perfect images, I was willing to accept all kinds of aberrations in order to capture the mysterious mood of these night-time Venice streets and canals that was in such stark contrast to the hustle-bustle commercial day-time vibe.

There is no “secret” to how I took these images with such low light and high dynamic range. I just went out and made the images. I looked for light and color and waited for some unsuspecting human presence to add some spice.  In post processing I applied, what is for me, a liberal amount of noise reduction and my standard sharpening.

The series is currently featured on my website at I’ll be posting and explaining more of this series on this blog and on my instagram (nancy_lehrer) and facebook (Nancy Lehrer) streams. This, I think, is how Venice should be experienced.

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 in a couple of recent interviews – one on Martin Bailey’s podcast number 616, and the other with Ibarionex Perello on The Candid Frame.

Footnote about Lightroom and graphics acceleration: For a while now (a long while now – perhaps over a year) I have been struggling with my images in Lightroom not looking like the images after being exported from Lightroom. If the images looked right in Lightroom, the exported image had with too much contrast. Before you get on your “calibrated monitor” soap-box – yes, my monitor is calibrated and I assure you the problem is related to something else, as I was finally able to fix it. I had resigned myself to recalibrate my eyes and to make the images look a little washed out in Lightroom in order to print and export correctly. Needless to say, this was never really a satisfactory solution as it was sort of a crap-shoot to determine if I had gotten the adjustment just right. Last week, however, feed up, I took one more dive into a Google search and the Adobe support pages and finally found the answer. The problem was being caused by having graphics acceleration turned ON. Go figure? I turned it off and I am a happy, happy camper. It is in the Preferences menu in Lightroom. If this is happening to you, go take a check. You might want to also check your preferences in Photoshop.

A Venice Story: Mercati di Rialto – Two Views

I just came back from a two-week photographic trip to Palermo and Venice with Within The Frame Adventures led by Jeffrey Chapman and Winslow Lockhart. Even with six international photography trips under my belt, I still feel like a novice international-travel photographer, or maybe it is just my nature to take each trip as if it were my first, since each location reveals itself to me in a different way.

Having just completed my book Life Happens In Color – A Street Photography Manifesto,  I carried with me to Palermo and Venice a high-bar standard for my photography with my book’s first principle: Create a compelling story. A pretty picture alone was not enough. Each image must say something, give the viewer something to think about, or tell a story. In Venice, in particular, what is the story that would emerge from this over-traveled, over-photographed, but unique jewel-box of a city the locals call Venezia? What could I say that hadn’t been already said by dozens of photographers and in dozens of travel books?

My answer laid in staying away from the obvious images of historic landmarks and gondoliers. Instead I embraced the markets, the tourists, and the darkened alleyways and canals at night.

In every photographic outing or trip, there is always a very small set of images that rise above the rest. These tell the story with all the other elements of color, light, moment, and composition that elevate a simple photograph into something more. I am always most nervous about sharing these top two or three images. There are two reasons: 1) I have the most to lose if others don’t also see their brilliance, and 2) if I show these first, will all the others pale in comparison?

None-the-less, here is one of my images from Venice, one that I think rises to a very special place in my portfolio. Two Views – The Realto Market. OK – yes, another reflection image from Nancy; but this image has at least three layers of story 1) the story of the local butcher market that still thrives so brilliantly in some cities, and is almost completely dead in large American cities and suburbs, 2) the story of the repeat customer being waited on by not one, but by two butchers at once…she wearing a magnificent reptile-patterned oversized coat, and 3) the fruit seller that is just a few small steps away, enabling this community to buy everything it needs fresh for today, and then repeat again tomorrow.


I had spent about an hour or so wandering through the market. Most of the vendors pretty much ignored me (and the other photographers who were hanging around). They had business to do. This butcher shop, however kept waving for me to come in, which I did after I took this image. They didn’t know that I needed to be outside in order to capture both views of the market. What I like most about this image is that I was able to capture all 6 hands of the main subjects – each of the butchers and the two hands of the fruit seller seen outside the front window.

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPG

Learn to take more compelling street photographs with my book  Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifestoor you can hear me talk about my photographic process in a recent interview on The Candid Frame.

Available Now: Life Happens in Color – A Street Photography Manifesto

Buy It Here!

A Street Photography Manifesto Cover JPG

I believe in the use of photography to tell candid stories that document the human condition in order to bring people together with understanding and acceptance.

In the chapters of this manifesto, I explain my approach to street photography as an informal genre of documentary photography and visual storytelling. I explain how I go about recognizing and then communicating the stories that I observe. Within the descriptions of my images, I detail my process for identifying photographic opportunities, my thoughts while taking an image, and how I evaluate an image’s narrative strength during editing.

These are the principles that guide my photography:

  • Create compelling stories: Say something, ask questions.
  • Life happens in COLOR: Color carries emotional content.
  • Create visual poems: Composition matters.
  • Composition is additive: Use a lot of adjectives.
  • Connect the dots: Capture the scene as the subject.
  • Create short stories: Tell a story through time.
  • Travel: Spread a worldview of understanding and acceptance.
  • Take chances: An image is more than the sum of its pixels.
  • Follow the National Press Photographer Association’s Code of Ethics.

Buy It Here!

Life Happens in Color - A Street Photography Manifesto

A Street Photography Manifesto 

By Nancy Lehrer
Photo book


Be Curious – Larry Fink

From his work “Social Graces” contrasting the high-society and a rural family

Viscerality is my perceptual mode. Simply spoken, it means that I want to touch everything that I love. Hopefully my pictures are a testimony to the love of the senses. – Larry Fink

Thanks to Ibarionex and the Candid Frame #401 – MSPF: NYC Street Photography Panel, I recently had the opportunity to hear Larry Fink talk about his approach to photography and his career. He is a very metaphorical speaker and this mesmerized me as he talked about some profound ideas about being curious, showing empathy, and portraying a moment of observation.

His photography is B&W, mostly all in a square format. I would describe his images as naked truth. He not a documentary photographer though he shoots in a documentary style.

I encourage you to listen to the episode and discover more about Larry Fink through these links:

  • Larry Fink Photography
    Be sure to look through his blog. Although the last posts were in early 2013, Larry posts many images. I was especially taken by the work he did during the 2012 Presidential election time period. Many of the memes we are struggling with now during the Trump administration were already starting to rear themselves. I find the posts from May 2012 and Feburary 2012 where he covers Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich particularly relevant to today. Buttons reading “Do not trust the liberal media” were apparently already circulating in right-wing circles.
  • NY Times Interview: A Moment with Larry Fink (January 2011)
  • The Photography of Larry Fink (video on Youtube – Larry, and this link, starts around minute 26)
  • Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation. The Photography Workshop Series, Aperture

If you, like me, like to collect and study monographs, I recommend “Social Graces” which is readily available.

Moving Day


Perhaps my favorite memory from my recent trip to Mongolia was our stop to help a family backup their home (their ger) and belongings in a rain storm. I thought we had stopped in order to get the photographic experience. But instead, as a comment on the true Mongolian giving, we stopped so that our guide and drivers could help. In fact, they shooed us back into the vans as it started to rain. I obediently complied but kept the door open and kept shooting. I wish I had been more stubborn and stayed out in the rain. None the less, I came back with some unique images and memories.

In addition, the wind-blown image of the wife rolling up the blue bedding received acceptance into the PhotoPlace Gallery on-line gallery for their January 2018 exhibit, The Decisive Moment, juror Sam Abell.

Moving Day 1_Lehrer.jpg