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How to Use Color More Effectively in Your Photos

By Dan Bailey

In the span of human and cultural evolution, the human brain not only evolved with the need to recognize and differentiate color, it formed an emotional symbolism with regards to the concept of color. Throughout history, people have used color to illustrate and symbolize moods and traditions. As a species, we’re not only drawn to color, we’re driven by it in all walks of life.

Roughly 80 percent of all the visual information we gather comes through our eyes, and much of that is related to color. Some research shows that color can alter our moods and even boost our memory for stored mental images. Close your eyes for a minute and think about some of your favorite images. Do they contain prominent bold colors? How do they make you feel?

Fortunately for us as creatives, the world is full of color. By understanding how the human visual system perceives and responds to color, we can use it to create stronger compositions that impact our viewers. As we discussed earlier, human beings are especially sensitive to certain colors, and as photographers, we can use this to our advantage when making our images.

Blue projects feelings of calm, harmony, confidence, stability, and some times sadness. Blue is noble and dignified. Blue is the color of the sky and the ocean. Being the color of ice and glaciers, it also projects the idea of cold.

Our eyes do not tire of the color blue, which in the context of outdoor photography means that you can use huge swatches of blue in your imagery without overwhelming your viewers. However, blue alone doesn’t always cut it if you’re trying to create a dynamic image; you’ll need to include another element or color to contrast the blue and add life to the cool background.

Red, on the other hand, projects excitement. It’s the color of blood, fire, roses, and the belly of a black widow spider. Red signifies danger, passion, beauty, and anger. Red incites energy, and heightened emotion excitement.

An image that’s predominantly red can overwhelm the viewer. This is not a bad thing if done very sparingly; it can be used on occasion with great effect. Too much red will get old fast, though.

On the other hand, a tiny splash of red in a photograph will act like a visual target. No matter what other elements are contained in the image, your viewer’s eye will be immediately drawn to the red thing first, no matter where it sits in the frame. Including small bits of red in your photos is a very effective compositional tool, and deciding where to place it will affect how viewers look at your image.

In the context of outdoor photography, we find red on autumn leaves, flowers, berries, ropes, packs, and of course jackets. I’m always trying to put red jackets on my models. I’ve got a number of them in my closet and make use of them whenever I can. Nothing in the world stands out better than someone with a bright red jacket as they’re carving turns down a powder slope or running through a landscape. In addition to your camera gear, at least one red jacket or shirt should be an essential part of your adventure photography inventory. Put that on your subject and you’ll increase the power of your shot almost every time.

Yellow is the brightest color in the spectrum and it’s the most stimulating and fatiguing color to look at, for good reason. Things that are yellow are meant to be looked at, like school buses, warning signs, and the stripes of a coral snake, which can kill you with one bite. For this reason you should use yellow sparingly in your images. Like red, the eye will home right in on anything in the frame that’s yellow. There are no hard and fast rules, though. Experiment. Go behind my back and use lots of yellow in your photos. See what happens.

Red, yellow and blue are, of course, the three primary colors. They ALWAYS look good together and an image that features all three can end up being a very powerful shot. I didn’t plan it this way, but this ski photo has been one of my more successful stock photos and it has sold many times over the years. Red, yellow, blue. Triple whammy. Money in the bank.

Between red and blue you have orange, which is often the color of sunsets and brightly colored jackets. Orange often works better than red on outerwear if you’re shooting against green or in front of a dark background, like a wall of granite. Whereas red can get a little muddy in certain scenes, orange will always stand out.

With orange, we’re starting to get into the secondary colors, the second being green. Green is timeless. It’s the color of nature, environment, and hope. Think grass and vegetation. Put green with blue and you’ll create a very serene, subdued image that will project timelessness and tranquility. However, green and blue alone won’t make for a very dynamic shot, and no matter what’s in the frame, it will usually fall a little flat unless you include another color like red or orange.

The last two colors I’ll discuss are the secondary colors of pink and purple. When I use purple in my imagery, it’s usually in flowers or the sky, not jackets. It’s a little dark for your main subject because it tends to pull in too much light. You might as well have your subject wear black. Good solid pink, on the other hand, usually looks great. It stands out extremely well against a variety of backgrounds because it’s bright enough to catch the eye and dark enough to soak up the saturation.

Pink also looks great in the sky at sunset. You know what looks the best at sunset, though? The combination of pink, purple, and orange together. How can you go wrong? Stick an interesting silhouette shape underneath a sky like that and you’ll always have a winner.

Excerpted from Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography by Dan Bailey and used with the permission of Routledge/Focal Press.