Ernst Wildi explains how to use color to create a mood and improve composition in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Master Composition Guide for Digital Photographers.
This excerpt from Master Composition Guide for Digital Photographers is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media website.
Effective images can be created by nothing more than an effective arrangement of colors within the image area. The subject itself may then be a secondary element in the composition. Such images can be effective either because the colors are similar, complementary, or contrasting, conveying the feeling that they fight with each other. Interesting shapes in the different colored areas can add further impact to such images. When looking for picture possibilities, don't just look for subjects. Always keep your eyes open for color arrangements. The possibilities exist everywhere.
Moods Created by Different Colors
Different colors convey specific moods. Therefore, it is beneficial to know how different colors affect a viewer. Blue tones are considered cool colors and convey that mood in the picture. Cool colors have a tendency to recede. Reds and yellows are warm colors, giving the viewer a feeling of warmth and pleasure. These colors also have a tendency to motivate or to advance in the image. Green and gray are passive colors that are easy on the eye and create a restful feeling. Black is the color of mourning and death, obviously a poor choice for a background color in children's pictures but traditionally used for portraits of older people. White is the color of joy and innocence and, for this reason, it is considered a good background color for portraits of children. Keep in mind, however, that a viewer's eye has a tendency to be attracted by the brightest areas in an image—especially if the bright area is next to a dark area. White next to black always attracts the eye, regardless of how small the areas might be.
Intensity of Colors
Colors can also be more or less intense. They can appear more saturated or be more pastel. The brightness and saturation is determined by the color of the subject itself as well as by the lighting. Sunlight provides brilliance, saturation, and contrast. Red can look brilliant in sunlight but more pastel in the soft light of an overcast or foggy day. In film photography, color saturation can be changed somewhat by exposure. A slight overexposure gives a more pastel look, and slight underexposure produces somewhat more saturation. Keep in mind that exposure change should be limited to small adjustments—perhaps 1/2 f-stop—otherwise, the image can look underexposed or the colors will appear washed out. Remember that digital photography offers less exposure latitude, especially in regards to overexposure.
Wherever colors are used—in photography, art, decoration, or attire—color harmony should be considered. We try to wear a jacket that harmonizes with the color of our slacks or select a tie that harmonizes with a jacket and shirt. Color harmony needs to be considered when decorating or painting a room or house as well.
Colors that go well with each other are harmonious and are usually of similar shades, such as brown and beige. Other colors, like blue and yellow, are complementary. When they appear together, they create contrast and are mutually enhanced. Still other colors clash when combined and will convey an uncomfortable feeling.
The choice of color and color combinations can therefore be used to create a mood in a photograph and can impact the effectiveness of an image.
Paint stores are good places to learn something about color harmony. Paint manufacturers have literature with examples of good color combinations to be used on interior and exterior walls. These illustrations show what trim colors look good against various wall colors. Many retailers also have sample books of wallpapers. Most papers have patterns of colors that harmonize with each other. The papers were created by people with an understanding of color.
Balance of Colors
The importance of creating a balance in the composition was discussed in the previous chapter. In a color image you must try to achieve this balance with colors. Most images call for balancing subjects of the same or similar color as the main subject, not just a subject of similar shape. In an image with an arrangement of all the red apples on the left and all the green apples on the right, you may have a good composition of shapes but not a good balance of colors. To achieve a balance of colors, you must repeat the red on the right, perhaps by placing at least one red apple among the green apples. A small orange boat on the top left of the image frame can be a good balance for a large red boat at the bottom right. However, it is important to note that very bright subjects seldom make good balancing elements as they are likely to attract too much attention, especially when these areas are large. They draw the viewer's attention and may become the main subject.
Since otherwise the choice of balancing elements is almost unlimited, you should seldom have a problem making an image with a well-balanced composition. Look at the subject or scene from different angles, from the left or right, perhaps from different distances or at different focal lengths. A different angle or a smaller or larger area of coverage can usually bring a balancing element into the composition.