Might sound strange but it is true. Colors is our brains way of trying to make sense of the light signals it receives from the outer world. In other words, the understanding of colors is all in your head.
Humans are trichromats
The RGB color model has been around for about three centuries, it is not something that came out from a recent invention from Silicon Valley. Thomas Young invented the trichromatic theory in the 17th century. This model describes that we see colors through red, green and blue channels. In short are we able to see colors because of distinct types of receptor cells in our retina, which are sensitive to different light properties, red, green and blue.
What color mean to us
The way colors communicates to us, determined by culture. Cultural Meanings of Color and Color Symbolism has a very interesting comparison on what colors means to different cultures in different countries; I find this particular interesting in the ever globalizing context photography plays in. I can recommend reading Goethe’s Theory of Colors, which first was, published in English in 1840. This book offers great insight on what colors means to us.
Should we bother about colors as a photographer
Most photographers probably never thought about color in an analytical way. For me this is a shame, while they disregard a truly powerful part of visual communicating. Try to take your favorite photo and study it aside while reading this blog post. I am going to argue that you will discover just how important color really is.
What color mean to me
In the following, I am going to describe how I see color, what meaning I am trying to communicate with them. It is likely that you disagree, remember interpretation of colors is not objective, should you disagree with this statement then revisit the arguments in What color mean to us again J
Yellow the first we see, because it is such an eye catcher. We tied the color to “light” and it gives us a warm and satisfying impression. Take a yellow flower or bird; it gives us a feeling of live, so free and stimulating.
Orange and Yellow has many common properties; much like yellow is giving us a cheerful impression is orange having a cheerful effect on us, an effect that intensifies as it progress more towards red. Orange is the fire and flame of the sun and it is almost impossible to be unhappy when seeing orange in the setting sun.
The snap below, taken from the farmers market in Seattle, is an example of Orange. As usual, is the market a display of colors, it almost calls your lens to come near. Do notice how the pumpkin head in the middle creates a feeling of optimism. Even at a dull autumn day with gray skies, it gives a very rejuvenating and uplifting feeling. After my opinion is orange used way to little, I miss its optimistic and uplifting effect, and I do think we should all find ways to use it in our everyday life, maybe more subtle than in this photo, but just as an refreshing element.
Red, watch out, red commands attention! Red gives the impression of heat, fire and raving rage. This is why it ties in with passion and love so well. Red is with its domineering qualities the most powerful of colors. In my photography, I always use red with caution, as it easily tips the balance in my photos, there is something very alarming about the color something that signifies danger, how fitting that we also tie the color to passion and love.
White – symbolizes purity, innocence and birth. I love whites’ ability to establish clarity and contrast in my images. I find that Yellow and White bring a lot together, am I the only one that receives a sensation of a clean, fresh feel when I see the white flower with the yellow core reflecting in the water. What Marit P. Solberg does so brilliantly, in this photo I borrowed from her, is framing the strong visual impact of yellow and white, with a grayish background. This makes the ox-eye daisy stand out particular brilliantly and with brownish colors in the background, is the colored elements in the background toned down.
Pink, I admit it; I got a problem with pink, to me it easily becomes vulgar. I only use pink deliberately, should I portrait something feminine, young, of gentle nature. It works well with babies and soap, but use it in a wrong context and it causes and unsettling feeling of something false.
Purple, sits much easier with me, as a fact I love this color, while it for me represent something majestic and mystical. The magenta in the Milky Way blows me away; it fills me with a mysterious and mystic feeling, so distinct, yet soft and lonely. Purple is a mixture of somber blue and active red. It represent coolness and shadows.
Blue, who can dislike the color blue; it represents temperature, sky, water and ice. It is the second most powerful color. Like Purple, it represents coolness, mist and shadows, but blue has more as it can bring emotions of sadness and fear.
Green, the lust green of the spring, fertility, rebirth and freedom. It gives me a restful feeling, and is almost always very pleasing to me. Notice how the brownish colors dampens the red tiles on the wrecked roof, putting all the attention to the green.
Gray, 18 percent of it, can it get more neutral than this. I personally like grey due to its ability to enhance the effect other colors. Have you noticed how Grey intensify the feeling brought by color it surround?
Brown, trees, wood and leather, much like gray is brown a neutral color with many shades. Where grey enhanced the colors that is surrounded then brown balances out any stronger color.
Black, not a really a color is it. It is rather an understanding of what is not there, the emptiness of space. It promotes a distinction and clarity in your images. I guess that is why it can also be associate with elegance and class, take the groom as an example.
Color contrast is the way colors in your photography enhance each other. Complimentary colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel accentuate each other. Examples would be Red and Green or Yellow and Purple. Heavily saturated will have a higher contrast. Weaker colors have a lower contrast. I can recommend you to read my Contrast is for your eye and mind blog post.