POTD: Primary colors

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Primary colors. Nikon D700, 28-300VR.

Here’s a good example of an image that wouldn’t work at all in black and white…to be the subject of an upcoming article! MT

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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