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Color: Just a little is enough?

Updated: Sep 2, 2020

For the longest time I didn’t understand color in my photography. I would put some color slide film in my camera, locate something I found interesting or beautiful, and take a photo of it. Simple. The result was something the photographer Jay Maisel refers to as “colors.”

About fifteen years ago I began photographing with large and medium format film cameras. The expense and logistical difficulties of with working with large and medium format color film led me quickly to black and white, and I made black and white photographs almost exclusively for ten years or so.

Then I began making color images again. With a digital camera, processing software, and an inkjet printer, I could make prints of very high quality, assuming I did everything well along the way. I continued to give little real thought to color, but I started to notice that many of my favorite images had “little” color.

Now what do I mean by “little?” It is not a very precise term! For example, a little person could be one who is short, or maybe slender, or maybe petty in their treatment of others. For the purposes of this discussion, I will say that “little” color is one of the following:

A limited palette of similar colors.

A limited palette of complementary colors.

Almost no color, or very unsaturated color.

According to Maisel, a photograph using the above color schemes exhibits “color,” versus “colors.” Of course that is simply semantics, but the point is this: a color photograph can be more compelling if the color isn’t “just there,” but makes a contribution equally important as composition and lighting.

Let’s see how each of the above can play a role in a color photograph. Here’s a photograph with a palette that is almost entirely colors ranging from orange to rose:

I would contend that this photograph is far more effective than it would have been had I included some greenery in the foreground and a blue sky overhead, regardless of how good the composition was.

Next we consider a photograph containing primarily just the complementary colors red and green. Here I would say that color is the most important aspect of this image:

Finally, what happens when a color photograph is almost completely lacking in color?

This photograph has very little color, but enough that it does not have the appearance of a black and white photograph. The color is barely perceptible, but important.

If this discussion piqued your interest in color (versus colors!), I would suggest you check out Jay Maisel’s web page and perhaps some paintings by some of my favorites, Claude Monet, JMW Turner, and Georgia O'Keeffe.

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