The inexact science of color and emotion

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What makes this photo identifiable as dawn instead of sunset? Hint: it’s the color. We expect sunsets to be warm, but mornings to be cool and clear.

A series of experiments was done many years ago that showed humans have been conditioned to expect certain things in the way of color: blue ketchup just doesn’t fly, for instance. The theory is that it’s a primeval subconscious response to warn us of danger. Think of it this way: rancid meat looks a certain way, and has a certain color. Even if we can’t smell it – looking at a photograph of vomit or something decomposing makes us go ewwww. Such examples are to be found in nature all the time – think of those brightly colored poisonous beetles, for instance. In fact, the link between color and range (and thus emotion) is so strong that many species mimic the coloring of more dangerous species to warn away predators, but at the same time rely solely on that as protection because they pack no venom or toxicity. (Toxicity is energy-consuming to produce, and in food-scarce environments, you want to waste as little of your nutritional intake as possible producing something that’s only going to help you if you’re eaten – and thus probably going to die anyway.)

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A tale of two cities. Shot minutes apart, though. How does the first image make you feel? The second?

How does this relate to photography? Quite simply, when you look at a photograph, how does it make you feel? Ignore the subject for a moment. The remaining emotional response is mostly down to your reaction to the processing: specifically, color. Why do black and white images have that ‘timeless’ or ‘ageless’ quality? Why do they make you feel slightly detached, as you’re an observer but not really part of the scene? It’s all due to color, or in this case, the lack of it. It’s difficult to relate to something if your information or perception on it is limited to tonal information only.

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Why does this shot imply richness and juiciness? How would you feel about pale gray steak with red tomatoes, even if it tasted the same?

In fact, if you look through historical photographs and video – you’ll see that each recent era or block of ~10 years in modern history actually has quite distinct color and tonal styles. And looking at this often makes one feel something – nostalgia, hatred, wondering what one was doing with their youth. Early color photos from the 1930s and 40s have that vintage look, for instance.

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To me, this screams classical photojournalism – because of the contrast, the tonality, and the lack of color. Early photographers didn’t purposely go for that look – they learned to work with it because of the limitations of darkroom chemistry.

A lot of modern photography software capitalizes on this. Instagram and all of those software filter packages are a good example – hell, even Lomography to some extent – they let you instantly create a feeling through a combination of color fiddling and contrast manipulation. There’s a reason why a photo from a Lomo or Instagram looks like a vintage hippy polaroid: it’s because the white balance was shifted warmer by several notches, the saturation decreased slightly, the contrast decreased a lot, and the relative luminance and hue of the red and yellow channels shifted. And there’s probably some grain and gaussian blur in the mix, too. Try it yourself in Photoshop, if you don’t believe me.

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Cool mountain. Nikon D700, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar

The point is, polaroids looked that way because of the chemical process of the day: not because they wanted them to look that way. I’m pretty sure the engineers there were chasing perfect color, too. The upshot of all of this is that a modern photograph processed that way invokes memories of the polaroid era, because that’s how most social images looked then.

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Mmm, natural green freshness.

Most humans respond in similar ways to color, namely:
Red – danger, warning, attention;
Blue – cool, calming, relaxing;
Yellow – warm, friendly, open;
Green – natural, fresh;
Black – mysterious, sinister, classic, premium, heavy;
White – pure, open, light, honest, clean
Gray – apathy

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Multiple light sources can be confusing as hell, but almost always signal ‘party!’

Simply put, there’s a reason why most Ferraris are red, and most hospitals are white.

How does this help you as a photographer?

Actually, it’s fairly simple. Color enters your image everywhere, but makes an impact in at least two major ways. The first is if you’ve got one dominant color in the scene that registers on the subconscious of the viewer even before they figure out what the subject is; it can be the color of the backdrop, for instance. A more subtle way is the ambient light temperature – for instance, a warmer white balance setting will result in a shift towards the red and yellow channels; this in turn imparts the ambient light with a particular quality and tone.

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Warmth. The ambient WB was shifted further away from the primary light source (the flame) to preserve the warm color.

The second major way is through contrast: if you’ve got a subject of one color against a backdrop of another completely opposite color (red and green or blue and yellow, for instance) then it’ll stand out because it’s the only thing in the scene that is visually discordant. It’s a good thing, in this case, because it draws your eye to the subject and lets the background serve as a stage – which is the way it should be.

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Why does my subject stand out? It’s a different color to the background, of course.

But what if your scene has no dominant color, or is very washed out or low in saturation? Do what the cinematographers have been doing for years, and either impart a global tint as described above – you can easily do this if you shoot raw by shifting the white balance; lower color temperatures that what is accurate are cooler and bluer, and vice versa for higher color temperatures. The other alternative is to use a filter over your lens, or color the light – the latter obviously assumes you’ve got some control over your lighting, though. By far the easiest way to shift color and not land up with odd hues due to the nature of color addition and subtraction is to adjust your white balance.

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KLCC dawn, color slightly shifted. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

One final comment: you need to start with an accurate white balance before you shift the color temperature. This is so you don’t land up with strange colors due to shifts along the green to magenta axis (white balance and color temperature affects only blue to orange/red). Also, remember not to overdo the saturation: shifting the white balance can cause other channels to blow, even if the original appeared to be correctly exposed. And over saturated images just look crude, frankly.

And on that note, I’m going to break until the next topic: chasing perfect color, and white balance myths. MT

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Funky diner colors. Sometimes, your ambient light is close to exactly what you want – and all you have to worry about is color accuracy. Nikon D700, 85/1.4 G


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  1. Amy Sellers says:

    Incredibly interesting essay, thanks Ming. I am curious… what are your thoughts on Instagram as a creative tool in general? There are so many numerous critics slating and elaborating on how the app causes photography that lacks in creativity and originality. I believe there is a lot of repetition, but just because everyone is collaborating the same ideas, doesn’t necessarily means this lacks creativity. The act of flicking of through colour filters itself, and this letting the user have an emotional response enough to select or change to another filter, could be argued as creative thinking/analysis in the first place. I would interested to hear your say? Thanks,

    • I don’t like it because it promotes mediocrity by outsourcing creativity to the person creating the filters. Yes, it creates identical looking images, and worse, implies that those are a kind of gold standard. When you get creative directors who can’t tell the difference between 6×6 film and hipstagram, you know we’ve got a problem.

      You could argue that picking from a handful of filters might require some choice, but arriving at the same conclusion in PS with no guidance requires a lot more conscious creative thought and experimentation/ skill to achieve.

      On top of all of that, each image is different. Why put them all through the same filter? That doesn’t result in consistency, it results in nothing quite being fit for purpose.

      • I highly appreciate your thoughtful, and prompt reply. It is very interesting to hear your opinion. Thanks for this! Will continue to keep updated with this blog, I find it incredibly thought provoking and intriguing. All the best, thanks again.

  2. Do Star Trek TNG colors feel rather timeless to anyone other than me?

  3. Heraldo Botelho says:

    I had the impression also that film went through a Darwinian evolution – the film companies got the feedback from their customers, and adjusted their process to match their taste. In the old film days, I remember noticing that Kodak used to give a much more orange to read tonality, while Fuji a more green one; and Agfa a very cold, glacial tone. At least, that was my perception. Visiting Japan later on, I had this perception of never being far from green (ok, Tokyo is very cement like, but there is always a small green patch around the corner or behind a building… ); and the same with the US and Europe, each one seemed to have a characteristic color. Maybe this is related to the quality and color of light in each region – this quality of light, that I can’t tell exactly what it is, but that I perceive and affects me strongly. For instance, the light in Firenze’s region, and the predominant colors and tones of the landscape, made me understand why the Dutch painters had to come to Italy, to produce nicer paintings. This is only a feeling; but if it has some true, the camera makers today would not be affect the same way, by their main customers taste? I really enjoy reading your writings, they are not only a pleasure to read, and teach a lot, but they also make us think. Thanks!

    • That’s an interesting question. I think there’s definitely a difference in quality of light from region to region – I think that has to do with the angle which the sun comes through the atmosphere and how much filtration of longer wavelengths occurs; it’s why the higher latitudes look ‘cooler’. Then there are cultural preferences, pollution affecting ambient light temperature etc…even popular culture affects things. The ‘look’ of National Geographic is very much dominated by Kodachrome; I believe even to this day, the digital files are processed to have the same tonality and color – even though it may not necessarily be the best for their subject matter.

      Tough to tell if this was the case with painting, as it’s far more interpretative an art form than photography; what you see is what they saw in their minds rather than necessarily in reality.

  4. Great article, Ming. Do you know whether film or digital offers more accurate color representation (if the film in question isnt overly saturated, and both use the same apochromatic lens

  5. “In fact, if you look through historical photographs and video – you’ll see that each recent era or block of ~10 years in modern history actually has quite distinct color and tonal styles.”

    This is interesting. I’ve been thinking about this as well. To me, colour photographs from the early 1970s typically have autumn colours – not only because the colours have faded and changed as the film ages, I believe. I think the 1970s had a taste for these colours – and this raises the question what makes a certain age/decade prefer a certain colour palette? Zeitgeist is a difficult subject, but still …

    A current colour trend is the tendency in cinematography to make scenes either teal or orange. Or both at the same time, which is hard to achieve unless you use digital colour grading. Other, more subtle colour trends will likely be visible to future viewers – our “natural” colours won’t look so natural them.

    • Well, the clothes I’ve seen left over from the 70s certainly favor the autumnal palette – but I don’t think the rest of the natural world was in perpetual fall though. So some of the feel must be the actual subject, and some of it must be the impact of the film chemistry (and the aging of it too). What’s interesting is how black and white is always perceived as ‘classic’ or ‘timeless’ – the lack of color cues make it hard to tell if the image was shot recently with vintage clothes, or fifty years ago.

      But yes, I’d love to revisit this topic in five, ten years and see what’s changed. Interestingly, if you look at an episode of House from each season, you’ll see how the processing/ color grading has changed quite considerably in just eight years…

  6. Mikko Moilanen says:

    For sure will come back. Even though I like the B&W Leica it is kinda out of reach for me – but I am very interested to see what kind of pics you take with it.

    + it is nice to see someone in Internet have very good manners. Please keep up the good work in many ways.

    • Thank you! I’m working on the review of the M Monochrom now – tricky because there’s no basis for comparison – do you use a 36MP Bayer sensor (claimed resolution) or the same 18MP Bayer for comparison? Come back on Wednesday…

  7. Incredibly perceptive, it has me thinking about why I am personally so attracted to black and white photography as well as what kind of colour images I find powerful. Great article and blog !

  8. Mikko Moilanen says:

    Thank you very much of the article. I find your blog to be of very high quality. Can’t praise Leica enough to show my appreciation since they gave you the X2 to evaluate and because of that I found this priceless blog!

    • Haha thank you. I only wish they’d let me keep it after the number of sales they made as a result of the review…let it never be said I’m not objective (well, to the extent a person can be). Come back again soon, I’m getting the M-Monochrom next week…

  9. Robert Stark says:

    What an interesting, thoughtful essay. It bears rereading and I shall be doing so.

    I’m sure you’ve also noticed that we like full spectrum light bulbs to enhance the sunlight in a room during daylight hours but such lighting is usually not acceptable at night, at which time we prefer the warmer light that until very recent times was provided by fire — wood fires, various torches and gaslight.

    Let me thank you again for this running blog of yours.

    • My pleasure. I think color theory and the psychological impact it has on us is mostly understood by interior designers and painters, but rarely by photographers – otherwise we wouldn’t see so many people jumping onto the hideously over processed, retina-searing HDR maps.

      • Robert Stark says:

        And I think colour theory and the psychological impact is not understood by clothing designers and certainly not the population at large (except perhaps in France) – otherwise we wouldn’t see so many people jumping into hideously over processed, retina-searing clothes.


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