Let Your Photography Tell Your Story Part 4

March 27, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

This time I am going to talk about the effect of colour on conveying your story. Colour is hugely important and unlike shapes and lines, just one little splash of the wrong colour can totally ruin the entire story of an image. This makes it very important to be able to look at a scene with fresh eyes, trying to bypass the mind that deletes all the stuff that it finds nonessential and therefore causes you to oversee things that are in fact quite essential to the photograph. It is all too easy to look at a waterside scene (reed in the foreground, nicely lit water by a beautiful sunrise, fog floating above the surface) and to miss that cola can that is floating there with a red colour that is totally distracting. Yes, of course....people tell me all the time: use photoshop to clone it out of the picture later, but I am old school and prefer to be totally aware of everything in the scene when I take the picture. I don't like to have any surprises when I come home. I can find another viewpoint that hides the red can or I can be aware of the spot if I can't hide it and know that I can clone it out if I have to, because it is not always possible to clone things out neatly if the distracting element is at a particularly difficult spot.

Just imagine an orange, yellow or red tin peeping out of the reed in this picture. That would totally ruin my story of serenity in this image. Sometimes you have to physically clean things up if the possibility is there...

Misty sunrise over idyllic waterside sceneSerene WatersideMisty sunrise over the wetlands of the Gelderse Poort, The Netherlands

Anyway, let's not get distracted by the floating red can. Actually, we might not be distracted, but the viewers of this picture will immediately spot it, because red is an alarming colour and the human mind is trained to see this first. This means that even though you did not see it, the viewer's eye will keep going to this red can, which is something we don't want. Let's say you have a pastel coloured scene and a runner in neon yellow suit is running through it....It happens....a lot....It totally ruins the look and feel of the image, so be aware of colours that distract from your overall story

Of course colours can be divided into two groups : warm and cool colours. They give a picture an entirely different feel. You can of course change the colour in post-processing, but I like to see my story unfold on the scene and therefore often use my white balance to see what a difference a warmer or cooler white balance will make to my image. Often when it is a cold day, I want to get that feeling of frost in my images and tend to choose cooler white balance settings, when it is a warm summer's day I tend to go for warmer white balance settings. I always, always shoot in Kelvin, so this means I always manually set my white balance. 

Compare these two images

Whimsical oak trees in a misty forestFaerie RealmOak trees in a foggy forest creating a fairytale like scene I took these a few minutes apart with very different white balance settings. I took this picture on the first day of spring, which was a very cold one, so winter was definitely still holding on and I wanted one picture to convey the new spring and the other one to convey the cold winter feeling. I also chose to underexpose the picture below a bit to emphasise the dark mood of the morning

Oak trees on a cold foggy morningThe Long Ago LandA group of whimsical oak trees on a foggy winter morning creating a storybook like feeling of "once upon a time"

Then there are bright and primary colours, the lighter and darker shades and the muted shades. The lighter ones actually have more white in them, the darker have more black in them and the muted ones have more grey in them and this again means that the weather will have a huge effect on the way that colours in a scene are perceived. If you are photographing a field of poppies with dandelions in between in a meadow and you are doing this is broad daylight on the middle of the day under a blue sky, than the colours will have lots of contrast, will be bright and very saturated. If this is not the story you wish to tell, you can wait for sunset when all the colours warm up and the contrast is not as high, you might also prefer to have it look more pastel, which means you need to wait for either a soft lit sunrise or fog, which will mute down colours immensely. Dark colours will be more moody as you can imagine. Just imagine if Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had been filmed in pastel tones, that certainly would have changed the visual story completely. This is why the choice of colour and the shades are so important when you try to convey a vision.

In the picture below you can easily see how underexposing adds to the moody feeling. This picture would look totally different if I were to take it in spring with fresh lime greens lighting up the fog making this a more cheerful and airy scene in that case

Beech trees in a foggy forestMystifiedThe famous dancing beech trees in the Speulderbos, The Netherlands on a very foggy morning

I will not go into colour schemes here, but I will touch on it quickly here. Complementary colours create the strongest possible contrast between two colours, they are on opposites of the colour wheel and they actually make grey if you were to mix them up in paint. They empower the colour opposite to them and this is easily explained by thinking of red and green in one picture. The red will appear more red then if it were combined with orange. There are many colour combinations that might work in telling your story, you could also go for a monochromatic picture, which has several shades of one colour in one image. This, as you can imagine, has a more calm effect that primary complementary colours

Two picture in an almost monochromatic colour scheme. Here you can see that monochromatic does not always mean that there is little colour. There can in fact be loads of colour, but not that much contrast between the various shades, they are all within the same family. Both have been photographed in the fog, but in a very different season and the fog over the blooming moor was lit up by sunrise (it was in fact a glorious summer's day) and the picture below was taken on a grey foggy morning at the end of winter. The branches frozen over and dripping like crazy. The grey fog had taken away all colour from the scene

Sunrise over purple  blooming moorPurple PromiseA beautiful sunrise over the purple blooming moors of the Posbank, The Netherlands Oak trees in the mistGhostly OaksOak trees with frozen branches on a very foggy morning

The most important thing about colours though is they have a meaning of their own. Red is alarming, but could also stand for passion and warmth, pink is more feminine and young, blue is calmer, but also recede, just like warm colours advance. White is pure and simple.....Colours do however have different meanings in different cultures, so ask yourself the question what a colour means to you and use this to your advantage in the pictures that you are taking. If you get this right, they will help improving your pictures tremendously and will help you convey your story.

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That wraps up these 4 weeks of: Let Your Photography Tell Your Story. If you want to read more about this, please join my mailing list and receive this free eBook also called : Let Your Photography Tell Your Story

Part 3 of this series

Part 2 of this series

Part 1 of this series


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