How to use the most powerful Design Element for evoking emotions and creating atmosphere
The use of colours and contrasts is one of the most important design elements in photography. 80% of human perception is visual, directly from the eyes the information goes straight to the brain, and enters our minds, unfiltered. Our world is full of colours. Colours for themselves as well as the combination of colours are able to influence the way we feel. How they set the mood in photographs and which effects can be used in respect to colour and contrast will be the topic of this article.
colours IN OUR LIFE
‘Having the blues’ or being ‘green of envy’, these are expressions that reflect that colours are very closely related to emotions. Colours can affect moods, feelings and emotions. They are able to create a certain atmosphere. It seems that there is a special colour for each emotion. If you want to compose your picture in a conscious way it can be very helpful to have basic knowledge of colours and their meaning and what influence they have on the viewer. This article is intended to give you a good overview on the symbolism of colours and the psychological aspects of colours. Using Itten’s colour wheel different kinds of contrast and their effects are introduced as well as the harmonic combination of different colour shades. The last part of this article will be filled with interesting facts about effect of colours on human behaviour, also those linked to gender. There will be some helpful facts about how to use colour in order to create an impression of depth in your pictures and much more.
Colour Symbolism and colour psychology
It is important to recognize on which factors the effect of colours can dependent. Every culture assigns to different colours different cultural and social meanings and values. Additionally men perceive colour in a different way than women. For these reasons one should be aware of one’s target group and which atmosphere is intended best to carry the desired message. What do you want to achieve with your picture? Which impression do you want the viewer to have?
The symbolic meaning of colours has developed in each culture over a long period of time and still does. It is also linked to the local environment. Culture and tradition are two key aspects when talking about the perception of colours. In western countries it is custom and tradition that the bride wears a white dress. The colour white communicates pureness and innocence. In China the colour white is associated with death and mourning. The difference could not be more dramatic.
On the other hand a universal understanding of colours exists independent of culture and gender. It is because of global phenomena and observation of nature that we e.g. distinguish between cold and warm colours. Orange, red and yellow the colours found in fire and the sunset are perceived as warm colours. Whereas blue is in many aspects a cold colour since it is connected with snow, ice and water. Sky-blue, obviously a global phenomenon, is associated with vastness, cheerfulness and good weather. A dark blue is being connected with the night and darkness. Darker colours provoke an intense sensation and are more prone to be associated with something negative. Dark blue might not only transport night and darkness but also fear of the unknown.
the dualism of colour perception
Colours usually have more than one meaning. Red for example symbolises love and passion but is also a common signal colour in nature used to attract and to warn. Examples are sweet ripe fruit in contrast to the threatening glow of a forest fire. Red can make aware of the poison an adversary might carry but can also be the temptation and promise of a delicious reward. Red communicates very different messages but never fails its effect. That is why red is very often the best choice when it is important to leave a mark. It attracts the viewers attention requires him or her to check what is going on. Is is a threat or a reward?
The following chart shows the most popular colours and their symbolic/psychological meaning. The left side shows positive, the right side the negative attributes.
It has to be noted, that just the colour for itself will usually not be associated with something bad. It requires the image content and the combination with other colours to do this. In any case it is not an easy task for the photographer to take personal preferences and individual associations of the viewer into account.
An attempt to simplify things: the colour wheel
The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) looked into the matter of colours and their effect and arranged them into a so called colour wheel. This chart is still used today to illustrate colours and their relationship to each other. If you search the web for colour wheel you come up with many different interpretations. Some are very condensed other show even the slightest colour difference and hundreds of shades. These very detailed versions are not very helpful for the photographer, but are intended for painters, who want to mix their colours. For this reason we will be talking about Itten’s colour wheel which contains 12 colours. It serves as a guideline when selecting the right colours for strong contrasts and harmonies. Opposing colours are contrasting whereas neighbouring colours harmonise. When shooting people outdoors the means at hand to selectively choose all colour in your picture can be limited. Most of the time you can only change the perspective or you ask the model to move to a different location in order to change the background colours.
If you want to create an image which carries a clear message it is best to choose all colours carefully. This is of course easily done in a studio where you simply need to pick the right backdrop. In other locations one might want to wait for the light to create the desired colours and atmosphere. But what colours and their contrasts are suited for which atmosphere? This will be shown in the next part.
Colour contrasts and their effects
Colour contrast can emphasize and create suspense and drama. They can transport happiness and warmth but can also leave a dismal or dull impression. They point out differences and create attention. The considered use opens up many ways of expressing oneself which are not available when using only a single colour and is therefore a powerful tool for the photographer creating the desired atmosphere.
- Colours that oppose each other in the colour wheel form a complementary contrast. It provokes an impression of suspense and drama and let the colours strongly repel each other almost as the like poles of magnets. Well placed, this contrast will cause a lot of attention.
- A quality contrast is created by using colours that have been darkened or brightened by mixing them with grey or white. The quality contrast aims to accentuate the pure colour by opposing it with the darkened or brightened colour, letting the pure colour glow. In photography the different shades are created by the amount of light that shines on the colour. Areas on which more light shone will have a lighter colour than the rest of the picture. The absence of light, i.e. the shadow, darkens the colours. It is simple and fundamental that light determines the colours of the image and their quality. The considered use of the quality contrast increases the intensity of the pure colour and allows the photographer to manipulate the viewer.
- Another special quality of our colour perception is called the quantity contrast. As the name suggest this contrast is about the amount of a colour in a picture. A harmonic impression on the viewer can be achieved when the area of one colour in the picture is in the right ratio to the area of another colour. According to Goethe’s colour theory the effect of a colour depends on it’s luminosity and it’s share in the image. To achieve a harmonic impression the ratio of yellow:orange:red:green:blue:purple is 9:8:6:6:4:3. This means for example yellow has a greater effect than purple. An image needs three times more purple than yellow. The blue area needs to be twice as big as the orange area. Red and green appear equally strong. In other words a photograph in which purple is the dominant colour will lose it’s gloomy impression by the use of a few yellow accents.
A different aspect of the quantity contrast is that if the amount of one colour is significantly smaller, it loses it’s colour quality. For example if you have a large area of blue with only a small spot of orange, this spot will only be accounted for its luminosity and not identified as orange. The colour loses it’s identity as a colour.
- The colour-in-itself contrast grabs the viewers attention effectively. This contrast is composed of three or more strong colours which differ a lot, i.e. are not neighbouring on the colour wheel. The pencil colours of this article’s cover picture were chosen accordingly to maximise the effect on the viewer. The colour-in-itself contrast is colourful, loud, strong and dramatic. Thanks to its signal effect this contrast is common in warning signs and flags.
To achieve the best effect the coloured areas need to be separated by a neutral colour (f. ex. black, white, grey). Otherwise the contrast will be perceived weaker. In the cover picture this separation is established by the shadow between the pencils.
- The cold-warm contrast is a very commonly used design element in photographs (see ‘Colour Symbolism and Colour Psychology’). It is based on the distinction between warm colours, e.g. red, yellow and orange, and cold colours, e.g. blue, violet and green (and any mixture of them). Warm colours are perceived as pleasant and inviting, whereas cold colours leave a feeling of distance and coldness or even sadness. These very different moods are often used to control the atmosphere of a picture. A change of the colour temperature in respect to the white balance can really enhance the desired effect a lot. On the colour wheel red-orange is the on the warm end opposite of the coldest colour blue-green. They divide the colour wheel into a warm and cold side. Yellow and violet are the transition colours.
But as always there are exceptions to every rule. If you place yellow-green (a cold colour) next to red, yellow or orange it will be a warm contrast. Yellow-green next to blue-violet on the other hand will form a cold contrast.
Not only important for landscape photographers is the fact that cold colours create a feeling of vastness. Warm colour on the other hand suggest that things are close by. When taking this into account an impression of depth in a picture can be created.
- The light-dark contrast is created by combining the pure colour with it’s shades, in other words by usi ng colours of different brightness. Photography’s low-key technique is built on this contrast. Low-key is a certain style dominated by dark colour shades and high contrasts. The background is usually dark and the object of the picture is accentuated by a few or a single light sources. The atmosphere of such images is mysterious, dark and dramatic Pictures in this style are often reduced to what is most important and accentuate shapes and forms. It is ideal for portraits since nothing is distracting from the face. The viewer only sees character and expression reflected in the face. This is ta ken one step further by shooting in black and white. In black and white photography it is naturally all about light-dark contrasts and shades of black and white, adding aesthetic and suspense.
- High-key photography complements the low-key style. It is dominated by bright colour tones and the absence of shadows with the background being equally bright or pure white. By using several light sources the object or model is illuminated evenly. Strong contrasts are undesirable. The slight overexposure lets skin appear smooth. Small blemishes, wrinkles and other details disappear.
A high-key photograph is used if one wants to create an image of a generic type of person. Due to the lack of details the viewer does not perceive an individual which makes it easier for him to identify himself with the model. This is often used in commercials and advertisements. Since there are no shadows, high-key images appear flat contrary to low-key photographs. Most high-key images are taken in black and white. They transport happiness, pureness and softness but can also leave a fragile impression.
- The simultaneous contrast exists due to a characteristic of our visual perception, i.e. how our brain corrects the way colours are perceived. The simultaneous contrast describes the subjective change of colour perception induced by another colour. This effect is very strong when combining achromatic colours like white and black with strong colours. On a black background a colour appears brighter and more saturated. On a white background this colour will be much less prominent. This effect allows to selectively choose how much an object is “moved” to the foreground.
In principle will the colour in the foreground appear colder with a cold coloured background and vice versa. The underlying principle is that our eyes are searching the image for strongest contrast, which lets us identify objects much more easily and faster. Under certain circumstances and especially in former times a life saving quality. The simultaneous contrast lets colours influence each other. A red square on a blue background lets the red appear orange. This fact should be considered when choosing a subject’s background.
For a quick overview on what effects colours and their combinations have in a photograph:
Last but not least another contrast needs to be mentioned which is important for a great photograph. This contrast is not so much about colours but about content. Opposite pairs like slow-fast, hard-soft, big-small, poor-rich, ugly-beautiful, sadness-happiness can evoke strong feelings in the viewer. If combined with the right colour contrast this effect is obviously intensified and becomes much more attention grabbing.
Neighbouring colours in the colour wheel will create harmonic contrasts. When combining similar colours, shades, saturation and brightness it will create a pleasant harmony.
Harmonies can also be created with different shades of a single colour. This combination avoids strong contrast which would prevent a harmonic perception. The combination of light blue, blue and dark blue creates a pleasant over-all image in unity.
- Combination of neighbouring colour shades on the colour wheel
- Combination of either warm or cold colour shades
- Combination of colours with achromatic colours (e.g. black+pink, yellow+grey, violet+white)
- Combination of pure, saturated colours with lighter tones of the same colour
- Combination of pure, saturated colours with desaturated tones of the same colour (colour mixed with grey)
The page Color Scheme Designer is always worth a visit in this aspect. With only a few clicks you will be presented with several colour harmonies and contrasts for a given colour. This input can really make the difference when composing a picture. The most beautiful and inspiring colour combination are of course found in nature’s great diversity.
more interesting facts about colours
Desaturated, dark and cold colours appear to be in the background, whereas saturated, bright and warm colours move to the front.
- Colours can change the perceived size of objects:
A red area might appear bigger than a green area of the same size, since red is a warm and intense colour.
- Colours can change the perceived weight of objects:
-dark coloured objects appear to be more heavy
-the lighter the colour the lighter the object appears. This is used in packaging design for so called diet products.
- Too many colours confuse: A large number of colours with different meaning can be too much for us to grasp. Too many colours do not appear to have an underlying order. This can confuse the viewer and cause negative feelings. More than seven different colours appear unharmonious and should be avoided.
- The colour red lets women appear more attractive: A study from 2008 confirmed that colours have a direct effect on human behaviour. Men rated the attractiveness of women to be higher if the picture showed the colour red. The result was the same if the picture had a red background, a red frame or if the women wore something red. In case of women rating women, no significant effect of any colour was found. A red accessory or red lipstick can really increase the attraction of your model, scientifically proven
- More scientifically proven difference in the colour preference of men and women:
-men show less dislike for achromatic colours than women
-woman are more conscious about colours and able to distinguish finer differences in colour shades
-men prefer bright colours (e.g. yellow), whereas woman prefer light colours (colours mixed with white, e.g. light yellow). No difference was found in the preference of dark versus bright colours.
-Women are more likely to have a favourite colour.
- Colours and Zeitgeist:
After years of branding environment preservation and energy conservation ‘green’ a shift to ‘blue’ can be seen. Many scandals and fraud are responsible that green lost it’s credibility. The colour blue which has always been connected to clean water and the blue sky is now more and more used in advertising renewable energies and environmentally friendly technologies.
In order to be up to date with colour trends for your pictures sneak a peak into fashion magazines, analyse advertisements or visit designer websites.
The colour trends for 2012 are differing. One trend prefers soft pastel colours combined with beige, grey and sand colours. Another trend is about strong and vivid colours. Bright yellow, red-orange or pink are combined with cyan. This trend is all about casing attention.
Consistent colour appearance or how do I make sure that the colour in my photograph reflects what I see:
Usually the camera automatically determines for every picture what colour temperature should be used for the white balance. That this works is important for the correct colour appearance. If you do not want to rely on the camera you have to do the white balance manually. A standardised grey card is all you need. Just use the eyedropper tool in your RAW converter on the reference picture you took with the grey card, by this determining the colour temperature and applying it to the rest of your series. This is especially useful for portraits since skin tones need to appear natural for a good picture. The correct white balance is of course also important for landscape photography. Reference colours can also be helpful to achieve consistent colour appearance.
The monitor calibration, i.e. the colour profile of your monitor is equally important. It can be an eye opener if your pictures, that look great on your computer, appear underexposed and have a colour cast on a friend’s screen. To avoid this, there exist several devices to calibrate your display. In principle they consist of a primitive camera that sits on your screen. The calibration software displays several colours and identifies any deviation of the colour displayed with the help of the camera. If colour consistency is crucial for your pictures, these steps are equally important.
The deliberate use of colours and contrasts is one of the most important design elements in photography. The knowledge about colours,symbolism, contrasts and harmonious combinations provides a mighty tool for any photographer and helps to create the desired atmosphere.
Have Fun! Get inspired!
Special thanks goes to Paul Wyman who allowed us to display his picture “Changing Shape”.
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- Jörg Michael Matthaei. Grundfragen des Grafik-Design. Heinz Moos Verlag, München, 1. Auflage, 1975.
- Eva Heller. Wie Farben wirken. Farbpsychologie, Farbsymbolik, kreative Farbgestaltung. Rohwohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1994.