Repost: 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.

Today’s post is one from the archives; back nearly to the beginnings of the site. I’m pulling it out again to set you up for what comes next. 

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. 

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. 

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.

For more detailed discourse, techniques and postprocessing on style and color, have a look at Making Outstanding Images Episodes 4&5 – they’re both available here from the teaching store.


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  1. I find it interesting that you (Very good work) are busy with capturing feelings and I didn’t see one photo of people looking into the lens as if you want to be invisable or feel that you are. I have an important question. Please answer me… Do you believe the heart controls the emotions or the brain and do you think Emotions are more valid/important than thoughts..

  2. Reblogged this on Behind Every Photograph.

  3. Jackson Jones says:

    Not true at all (“I’m pretty sure the engineers there were chasing perfect color”). Over at you can read former kodak film scientists talk about how they pursued color. To quote: “perfect color never sold well”. Film color exists the way it does *by design*. There’s a reason why Fujifilm color negative film looks distinctly different from Kodak’s. It’s all by design and interpretation about what colors most appeal to people.

    No one wants perfect color aside from specialized technicians. It’s boring. It’s unemotional.

    • It’s boring and unemotional only if it’s used with the wrong subject. Color is merely a tool like everything else – it has to be coherent with the output intention and idea. And I certainly don’t think one color profile fits all, either…

  4. Lucy March says:

    Our emotional response to color is a complex subject, but just a note that the shade of any color matters hugely, e.g. yellows can be sickly and greens antiseptic, and juxtapose colors that clash and you may turn off a viewer entirely. Likewise you may repel or intrigue when colors are not as expected (black soap, anyone?) and it’s of course true that colors can have different connotations across cultures, e.g. drug manufactures realized that while blue is a good color for sedatives in most of the world, it’s not the case in Italy, where passion for the Azzuri run high. And speaking of blue, well, there’s a reason they call it the blues . . .

    • Hence the importance of getting initial white balance right so that there aren’t any objects that don’t match our expecations of them – blue foods, for instance. The G-M hue balance matters, but it isn’t something that you can change much without things feeling ‘odd’.

  5. Well done…enjoyed your dive into the human condition and our psychological, physical and visual responses to color.

  6. That steak looks wonderful. Did they make you one to eat as well?

    • Sadly no…besides, it was heavily garnished with olive oil for lighting/texture control…perhaps too much for taste 🙂

      Almost everything that is shot is not edible not because of toxicity, but either because we have to use things for dressing that would taste bad, or because we’re too busy shooting to be able to eat it…

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      It`s charred the steak and as such not very healthy.

  7. nigelrobinson says:

    Ming, Interesting post. Brooks Jensen of Lenswork discussed something similar some time ago with regards to prints, namely, that there is a human response in a large proportion of the population to warm tones in Black and White photography. I think the number was that some 60% of the population preferred the warmer tones and for this reason he was thus toning the photos.

    • Wouldn’t be surprised; there’s definitely a more positive response to warm-biased color. However I’m not sure it’s always suitable for monochrome; personally I’ve always felt the whole point of black and white is to view a subject from an emotionally detached and somewhat timeless standpoint…

  8. Enjoyable article Ming! Always nice to re-visit a topic. With regards to:

    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).

    Say you shoot RAW without a grey card and select the white balance in post using the eye dropper and then shift the color temperature. How is that different from simply trying 3500 K and then trying something warmer and cooler and then picking a temperature you like? From a tool perspective I see the eye dropper as simply moving the color temperature for you and then you shift the temperature from there. I feel like I am missing a subtle detail…

    Again many thanks. – Eric

    • I guess Eric the dropper gives you a good place to start to get to accurate colour if you have decent perception of colour?

      Anyway an MT absolute classic article which helped shape many of us here on our photographic journey and still totally relevant and damn difficult to really get right

    • Shadows and highlights may take on strange casts, which are difficult to adjust afterwards without affecting global color. There are two axes for white balance – tint and temperature. If you don’t have a grey card, then at least try to remember what should have felt ‘neutral’ in the scene.

      • Thank You! It makes sense now. The eyedropper sets both tint and temperature and then you shift the temperature to obtain the desired result… I would, on rare occasion, leave out the eyedropper step and go straight for the temperature slider…

    • The other thing you have to careful about with the eyedropper is that you are indeed clicking on a truly neutral color in the frame. Lots of materials don’t reflect all wavelengths equally, and a lot of artificial light is missing many wavelengths. Sodium vapor lights for example, have all their energy concentrated in just a few particular wavelengths. A lot of white clothing is blue biased, too. Really good gray cards are expensive for this reason: they’re made to be truly spectrally neutral so that you can use them as a reference in many different lighting environments. I like the WhiBal line of cards, FWIW.

  9. Ming, actually I found the pictures like those you took few years back have much more emotion than current posts

    • More bokeh isn’t emotion.

      • Franco Morante says:

        Ming, different things invoke different emotions among different people. Hhoainam was simply stating that your earlier work is more emotive from ‘his’ perspective.

        • Personally, the main change in my work from 2/3 years ago to now really is an extension (or reduction, depending on your point of view) of depth of field and adjustment of composition to compensate. I don’t think this necessarily influences emotion as much as color or subject matter.

          • Looking forward to the next chapter! For me, the biggest change is your subject matter. It seems like there were more non-anonymous human subjects in your frame back then. Also, you use the vignette tool a lot less these days. 🙂

      • It’s just my subjective opinion and I meant nothing about bokeh or DOF.


  1. […] are the same subject, with different light (albeit self-generated). They have markedly different emotional associations (calm, tranquil vs intense, dynamic) caused purely by shift in dominant color and global contrast […]

  2. […] of light, amount of light/ brightness of the scene and dominant colours. All of these things trigger certain memories and expectations within the audience and can be used (or distracting, if not paid attention to). Warm light and a […]

  3. […] We interpret color temperature as an indicator of mood This is probably a consequence of the color temperature difference between firelight (warm), twilight (cool) and unfamiliar tints that are not part of the natural repertoire (green-magenta) and thus make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. Combined with luminance, dominant colors create an overall mood or feel to the image – much the same as one might decorate a room. Photographic implication: The inexact science of color and emotion […]

  4. […] in color temperature also provide the opportunity to deliberately introduce a difference in mood or subject isolation by separating the feel of subject and […]

  5. […] much, else you sacrifice visual consistency. I also do this to get control over the output palette: subtle biases can influence viewer emotional response; this is one of the many tools in a storytelling photographer’s arsenal. Note: whilst some […]

  6. […] We interpret color temperature as an indicator of mood This is probably a consequence of the color temperature difference between firelight (warm), twilight (cool) and unfamiliar tints that are not part of the natural repertoire (green-magenta) and thus make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. Combined with luminance, dominant colors create an overall mood or feel to the image – much the same as one might decorate a room. Photographic implication: The inexact science of color and emotion […]

  7. […] if you cannot see something, increase exposure. What about globally changing color tone? Surely the dominant color temperature or warmth has an effect on the way the audience responds to a scene; what if you view an image on a poorly calibrated monitor, or a newspaper with a poor gamut and […]

  8. […] If so, how can we do it without falling into a cliche besides pulling the usual levers of dominant color, quality of light and subject matter? Is there more than this, or perhaps certain specific triggers […]

  9. […] it. We can work in super low key without having to have incredibly precise managed lighting, and shift white balance to control dominant color and mood. (I am of course talking about the cinematic style of photography here.) We can of course apply […]

  10. […] impression of transparency in an image. Shifting tonality or color in a plausible but unusual way creates emotion by evoking experience. When you have amounts of both that exceed the limits of our eye/brain combination to process, then […]

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