There’s this new thing kids are talking about, colour. Maybe this monochrome addict should try it?
In a desperate attempt to learn some new tricks, this old monkey has decided to tackle colour.
All our reality is made up of colour, so, really, how hard can it be?
Point and shoot and have a hoot. Right? 😉
Or so I thought, until I realized I was lousy at it 😉 Sure, my pics were in colour, but the colour added nothing, and often detracted from their impact.
So I devised a learning system for myself. Colour for dummy 😉
Simple as one two three.
Let’s quickly mention level zero. Pointing the camera at a colourful scene without even noticing or caring about the colour content of the image. That was where the habit of converting everything to black and white (with the occasional grey in between) had left me. I – like many of us – didn’t even take note of the colours in a scene, seeing the world in shapes and shadows.
Level one, is noticing colour. As in the three photographs above. They are basically monochrome photographs with one dominant hue, that either anchors the image in reality (green leaves) or provides a striking impression (red explosion).
And if not a single hue, then at least a single palette.
An extension of this – level 1.5, maybe? – might consist of showcasing the colour by contrasting it to an absence of colour, as below. The colour in the food hall isn’t particularly interesting, but contrasting it to the grey exterior makes it more noteworthy.
The next level isn’t so much about learning all of colour theory as integrating a modicum of it into photographs. As many teachers recommend, an ounce of practice is better than a ton of theory.
Color theory covers a set of principles about the meanings and symbolism associated with different colors, and tools used to understand color relationships, such as complementary and analogous colors. At this level 2, I just focused on finding colours that intuitively worked well together.
And, for this section as well, I will rely on the ready baked colours of the Harry Potter studios 😉
But this also works in muggle reality.
One important point to note is that reality doesn’t neatly match the colour theory books.
Interesting contrasts or complements are what mattered to me. Not exact pairings. And here, there were some that worked better than others.
Which leads us to the final stage in my elementary step ladder.
By this I mean finding a scene with interesting examples of matchings happening in real life. Photographs of a scene (as above), as opposed to photographs of the colours, abstracted from a scene (as below). Achieving this consistently elevates you to the lofty plane of elated masters such as Joel Meyerowitz and Saul Leiter. No less. Predictably, I don’t have much to show for myself 😉
In street photography / grabbing mode, the odds of encountering an interesting scene are somewhat slim.
For the colourist, the odds of stumbling on a chromatically interesting scene are somewhat slim.
By virtue of the merciless laws of statistics, the odds of meeting both at the same time multiply slim by slim to a positively skinny likelihood. (there’s only one Saul Leiter, right? 😉 )
This, to say this article isn’t meant to make the reader a master of colourful street photography, but to vaguely structure the attention we pay (or don’t) to colour, as a first step on the ladder to colour mastery.
Here are a few more of mine of varying degrees of success 😉 I tried to adjust post processing to the colour content for a balanced look, and rated them (meh, OK, good) relative to how much colour adds or detracts compared to a b&w shot.
It’s a work in progress, and I will probably revisit them with a fresh eye in a few weeks. Unless my inevitable subsequent monochrome deep dive takes me too far out 😉 Cheers
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