Colour for Colour's Sake

Sometimes, colour is just impossible to resist. It can be a sunset, a flower, an unexpected juxtaposition. You see it; you compose it; you shoot it. A large part of the technique is freeing yourself from the preconception that a photograph has to 'mean' something intellectually. It doesn't. Used right, colour can bypass the intellect.

Green, white and red, with hook

Colour for colour's sake can be as literal as you like. It's easy enough to work out what you are seeing here -- a wall, some sort of deep-green-painted wood shutter, and a dented metal drainpipe, painted red -- and that's part of the charm of the picture. 'Abstracts' where it takes you five minutes to work out the subject can be successful sometimes, but there are also times when they can be curiously irritating. Roger shot this in the South of France with his Leica M8 and 50/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar; ISO equivalent set to 160.

Colour, place and time

Everywhere has its own colours associated with it. There are the vivid blues and whitewashed walls of so much of Greece; the faded earth colours of Venice and (still more) of its colonies; the infrequently-renewed paint in so many French villages and small towns; the searing contrasts of India (and often, of Indian-settled areas elsewhere in the world); the grey granite of Aberdeen, or of many small Cornish villages; the pervasive neon of much of Beijing; the pastel colours of southern California, constantly repainted so they have no chance to crack and fade.

Whenever you go anywhere for the first time -- or for that matter, whenever you go anywhere, including your own back yard, if you have not done the exercise before -- it is worth making a conscious effort to spot these colours, and to work out the best way of recording them.

When you visit a new shopping centre or housing development, too, it is worth studying which colours the architects and others have chosen. What are they trying to say with these colours? Have they succeeded? Sometimes they are echoing, consciously or unconsciously, the predominant colours of the region. At other times, they are trying to make a Statement, with a capital 'S', usually about modernity or their own originality. Unfortunately, this Statement may not always say quite what they intended.

bicycle, blue tiles

Bicycle and blue tile wall

The blue tiles are not exactly unattractive -- but they are not exactly attractive, either. They are an odd combination of ancient and modern. For the former, think of Victorian pubs and public toilets; for the latter, just look at the shape. It is hard to imagine where they would look right. On their own, they do not really make a picture, but the vivid red of the bicycle frame provides an excuse. Roger took the picture in the 1970s on Ektachrome 64 with a 50/3.5 Elmar on a Leica IIIa but had not realized, until he came to write this caption 30 years later, the significance of the way that the bicycle is 'going out of shot', with more space behind it than in front. This is often compositional shorthand for 'no future'. If the bicycle had had more space in front than behind, the mood would be rather different.

Unexpected colour

Often, the most successful pictures that use colour for its own sake are unexpected bonuses that come along as you look for other subjects. Some subjects can pretty much be guaranteed to be colourful, such as sunsets, but many of the best colour combinations are pure luck, such as the bicycle above. Some, too, are completely inexplicable, such as the water-cover on the right.

It is true that often, in black and white, you can make a picture where there would be none in colour, but equally, many of the most successful pictures using colour for colour's sake would not exist, or at least, would be very different, without colour.


The Miracle of the Water

This is one of those pictures that would not exist without colour, but the title is easier to understand if you do not think too hard about it. There are obvious biblical references, including the plagues of Egypt (water turned to blood) and of course Christ's turning water into wine at Cana, but there's also the everyday miracle of clean, fresh, running water, symbolized by something as simple as a tiny cast-iron cover over a tap in the street.

How did the red colour get there? Who knows? And indeed, who cares? As already suggested, intellectualization is not the name of the game in these pictures. Rather, it's straightforward reaction. Grab the picture when you see it, as Roger did in Arles with his Leica M8 and 50/1.5 Sonnar.

miracle of the water


Colour and honesty

This is an interesting question. Each new generation of colour film, as it comes along, is routinely derided by the Old Guard as being too saturated, too contrasty. Likewise, many people complain that the majority of users of digital imaging turn the colours up too far, whether on their monitors or with their ink-jet printers.

Intriguingly, though, if you make a direct comparison between the original subject and the photograph, the original subject is almost invariably more saturated than the picture. There are no doubt Ph.D.s to be earned in this field of perception, as in many others, but the basic truth is that to a photographer, it rarely matters. One of the fundamental tenets of Art with a capital A is that the artist does what he or she thinks looks right. Others may or may not agree, which is as close as you can get to a definition of 'good art' and 'bad art'. Good art is where you think, "Yes, it really does look like that, or even if it doesn't look like that, it feels like that." Bad art is where the artist's incompetence is the first thing that strikes you.

You may have to fiddle about with the colours (see below) in order to get the effect that you want, but always, what looks right, is right.


orange, mertola desat.


Orange, Mertola, Portugal

In Portugal the fruit from orange trees in public places was traditionally reserved for the poor. Whether because people don't want to admit to being poor, or because they aren't poor and don't want to take oranges to which they are not entitled, there is often a surfeit of unpicked fruit, or of windfalls.

Roger photographed this one with a Nikon F and 90-180/4.5 Vivitar Series 1 Flat Field, using Fuji RF ISO 50 slide film. He underexposed, in all honesty a little too much, to saturate or 'pop' the colour of the orange. In the days before digital imaging, bringing the picture nearer to what he remembers would have been much more difficult: today, it is easy.

orange, mertola

The smaller picture, near left, is as originally scanned; in the larger picture, on the far left, the orange has been selectively desaturated in Adobe Photoshop using the 'Hue and Saturation' control: the plain scan is just too saturated and contrasty for his taste.

The point is that neither version is 'real': both are just representations of reality, and the representation with the less saturated orange is, to Roger, more pleasing. The orange is astonishingly red.


Harmonious and contrasting colours

We use the word 'contrasting' rather than 'complementary' because it's all a lot more complex than complimentariness. Complementary colours are simply expressed in terms of the 'colour star', on the right: colours opposite one another are complementary, with the three primaries (RGB) on one triangle and the three secondaries (CMY) on the other.

Two complementary colours against one another will always draw the attention, even if it makes your eyeballs ache: it is easy to overdo.

But there is a lot more to colour than just hue: saturation and brightness also matter. A saturated colour generally has more impact than one that is desaturated or degraded. The same is true of a bright colour. But the three -- hue, brightness and saturation -- are interrelated in such a complex way that it is impossible to make hard and fast rules.


colour star


In particular, a small splash of vivid colour (with the 'vividness' coming from any combination of hue, saturation and contrast) may have an effect out of all proportion to the area it occupies in the frame, and black or dark silhouettes may draw attention to the colours behind them.


silk bedspread drying


Bedspread, Slovakia

An interesting trick, easily done in the digital age, is to invert colours -- to turn them into negatives, in effect, but without the orange mask found in a film negative. The pattern on the bedspread in the positive is harder on the eyes than the negative: an interesting illustration into the perception of pure colour. Roger, Leica MP, 35/1.4 Summilux, Kodak Elite Chrome 100.



silk beadspread invert

twilight, tien-an-man

Twilight, Tien-an-Man Square

Orange and blue are not normally regarded as harmonious colours -- but we don't realize this when we see them combined in a sunset, because it's so familiar. Even so, part of the attraction is the dramatic combination of what would normally be regarded as clashing colours. A very large part of getting a successful sunset shot lies in finding an attractive or interesting foreground. In real life, our attention is focused on the sunset: in a photograph, it is all too easy to be distracted by incongruous buildings, trees, etc. Here, even without the caption, you know it's somewhere pretty exotic. Roger used his Leica MP loaded with Kodak Elite Chrome 100 and his 35/1.4 Summilux.



'Splash' colour

To some extent, the picture of the orange above is an example of 'splash' colour: a relatively small amount of vivid colour against a neutral or degraded background, though the orange still fills quite a lot of the frame.

There are however at least two other ways of achieving similar effects, whether by hand-colouring a black and white image, as on the left, or by selectively desaturating a colour image, as below.

The problem with 'splash' colouring is that it is easy to overdo it by underdoing it, if you see what we mean: an excess of subtlety, in the form of too small an area of colour, may simply not work.


Heart bell-pull

We are not entirely sure which of us took this picture (we think it was Frances) and still more unusually we are not entirely sure where it is. For a long time we thought it was in Slovakia but there is a substantially identical bell-pull in Loudun.

Whatever its origins, Frances hand-coloured it, and we turned it upside down to emphasize the heart shape. The effect is strange: like a very heavily tethered balloon. It didn't look right until she had coloured the shadow too, but less strongly than the pull itself.

buying painting

Buying a picture of Dracula

These enterprising lads were selling their paintings in Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Dracul; it is now in Romania because of Hungary's inability to choose the right side in either World War. As an all-colour snap (on Kodak Elite Chrome 100, taken with a Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux) it was, well, just a snap. With everything but the painting desaturated, it has rather more appeal: not quite the same sort of 'colour for colour's sake' as the rest of the module, but definitely related. The painting now hangs in Frances's sewing room.

Colour and texture

As illustrated by several pictures in this module, there is often quite a link between colour and texture. There is a lot of difference, again as noted above, between the faded, cracked paint of an old Venetian colony, and superficially similar but flawlessly and recently applied colours in California. Part of this is the connotation of age, and part is the truth that colours rarely fade absolutely evenly. There is of course a whole (paid) module on texture, and you may want to re-read it to see the differences and similarities between photographing colour and texture.

post no bills

Divieto di Affisione

A more or less literal translation is 'Prohibited to Stick'. This is actually in Venice, world capital of cracked, peeling and faded paint. What is the actual appeal? The colours? The textures? The more-or-less harmony of the paint, the brass, the sign, the stained cement? The balance of the shapes in the frame? The humour, that the paint actually isn't sticking? Well, probably, all of the above; but remove any one of them and it would be a a lot weaker. In black and white, it would pretty much be reduced to a one-dimensional joke. Roger used his M8 with 35/1.4 pre-aspheric Summilux for this shot.

Traditional colour symbolism

Of course, you have to consider the emotional freight normally associated with colours: red for fire, blood, danger, for example, or blue for tranquillity. Only quite rarely, though, does this seem to matter very much in a 'pure colour' photograph: often, colour symbolism is trumped by content or (with the best) sheer shape and colour.

burning stump

Burning stump

We were taking a back lane home from Birchington post office when we saw this stump burning in someone's garden. It was all but burned out, so we hurried home and collected the only camera body we had loaded with colour film: Fuji RFP ISO 50 in an old Nikkormat with a 90/2.5 Vivitar Series 1. Unfortunately we neglected to pick up a tripod, and were therefore forced to use a wider-than-optimum aperture in order to have a reasonable shutter speed to avoid camera shake: you can see that depth of field is not what it might be. On the other hand it does look more like molten lava in a volcano, rather than a burning stump in someone's back garden. We thought of running it smaller, to conceal its deficiencies, but decided it worked better as a screen-filling image.


birthplace of zeus



Birthplace of Zeus

We arrived at the Dikteion cave, the birthplace of Zeus himself, just before it closed for lunch, so we had barely time to take pictures: this was some time in the mid-1990s. Most of the colour pictures were taken (by Roger) using a 1950s 21/4.5 Biogon on a Leica M4P: an adapter allows the original Contax fitting to be used on a Leica M without any cutting and hacking. The lens was quite flary -- no great surprise, given its age -- and this actually helped to tame the contrast by means of flare into the shadows, though we have to confess to bending the curves a bit in Adobe Photoshop in the interests of still better tonality.

The blue colour surprised us, but it shouldn't have. After all, all the light coming in the cave mouth was from the intensely blue Greek sky, so what other colour was it going to be? In other words, this didn't start out as a picture where colour was the main thing, but that was how it turned out. Never be afraid to claim credit for your happy accidents!

There was not really enough room to set up a tripod on the wet, slippery rock steps, but with a 21mm lens you can do quite long exposures and besides, Roger was able to rest the camera on one of the wooden hand-rails that can be seen zig-zagging down into the cave. He then bracketed his exposures. From memory, this one was 1/15 or 1/30 second at full aperture.

Picture size

Most of the time, we find that pictures where colour is the main point are most successful when they are run large, hence the succession of pictures in this module at full screen height. This is very different from our preferences with black and white, where we generally favour smaller, 'magic window' pictures (there is a paid module on this subject). Admittedly, even a small picture is typically around 6x9 inches, which is about the biggest we can easily get onto the screen in portrait orientation, and we have a weakness for near-enough whole-plate (6.5 x 8.5 inch, 165x216mm) enlargements from 56x72mm Linhof '6x7cm'. But with colour, on the wall (which normally means ink-jet for us) we prefer at least A4 (210x296mm, 8.3x11.7 inch) paper with an 18x27cm/7x10.5 inch image (from 35mm or digital), and we'd rather go for A3 (296x420mm, 11.6x16.5 inches) with maybe a 25x37,5cm/10x15 inch image on it.

hymns a&m

Hymns Ancient and Modern

This needs to be run pretty large, not just for the colour impact, but also so the 'Hymns Ancient and Modern' on the spines are legible (which they aren't, really, on a monitor). Frances took it when we were testing the then-new Voigtländer 90/3,5 Apo Lanthar, probably on a Bessa-R, using Kodak Elite Chrome 100. High-saturation films like this may present problems with skin tones, but for 'pure colour' shots they are normally unbeatable.

Equipment and materials

Quite frankly, it doesn't matter very much. You need something that focuses reasonably close, but almost any modern camera will suffice, even a rangefinder: most of the pictures in this module were taken with Leicas and Voigtländers. Any reflex should be more than adequate: some of the older pictures were taken with Nikon Fs and Nikkormats.

Despite what was said above about texture, you don't necessarily need a lens with high resolving power. At the risk of repetition, often (as in so much of photography) texture is supplied by our brains, from memory: things look realistic because the picture has pressed one or two 'buttons' (or simply used clichés, to be brutal) and memory fills in the rest.

For materials, historically, Roger has used mostly colour slide, while Frances has favoured mostly colour negative. Today, although Frances still uses almost exclusively film, Roger shoots more and more with his Leica M8.


Bicycle and balloons

Colour for colour's sake is a lot easier with today's saturated films (or of course digital) and digital post-processing. Roger shot this in the late 1970s on Ektachrome 64, using a Nikon F and 58/1.4 Nikkor. Even before it faded it lacked both contrast and saturation. Fortunately with Adobe Photoshop or similar programmes one can do a great deal.


bicycle & balloons


Colour Balance

Remember when shooting with digital (and using Auto White Balance) or when shooting with negative and entrusting your negatives to machine printing, any form of automatic colour balancing must necessarily make certain assumptions about how an image integrates to grey. If one colour predominates, it is entirely possible that the automation will shift away from that colour, because it's not 'average'. Thus, for example, a predominantly blue picture may be desaturated by a shift towards yellow, simply because the colour balance algorithm registers the overall image as 'too blue'.

This is one reason why, when we are shooting digital, we tend to set the colour balance as a Kelvin value (usually 5600 for daylight or 3400 for tungsten, just like the films); to shoot DNG (Digitital NeGative, presumably -- the common-platform RAW); and if necessary to make further adjustments to colour balance in Phase One Capture One. With film, we treat machine colour prints merely as compositional guides if they possess strong colour casts.

mirror red awning

Mirror and awning

We were at a vide-greniers/brocante (a sort of village boot fair cum antique fair) in the French Pyrenees when Roger saw these super-saturated colours reflected in a mirror lying on a table: that explains the odd depth of field. The M8 (with 50/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar) was set for a colour balance of 5600K, so there were no problems there -- though we have to confess that AWB of the M8 is one of the worst on the market, so we always use colour balance pre-sets anyway. ISO equivalent was 160.


With slide film or digital, underexposure always increases the saturation of colours, and is the easiest approach when the overall subject brightness range (free module) is low. A reduction of 1/3 stop will normally yield a small but significant change; 1/2 stop or even 2/3 stop will really 'pop' the colours; and 1 stop is normally as far as you dare go. With longer brightness ranges the shadows will however block up mercilessly.

With negative films, it is normally easier to expose generously at the taking stage, then reduce the exposure more at the printing stage. This assumes, though, that you scan or wet-print your negatives yourself, If you do not, then as with automatic colour balancing, you may end up with a significantly inferior image as a result of the exposure algorithms of the printing machine.

tarragon yellow

Late afternoon,Tarragona

The realistic limit of under-exposure with most slide films is about one stop. The complete blocking-up of the shadows can be used as a graphic element, but you need to watch the colour carefully. With films like the Kodak Elite Chrome 100 used here, a normal facial complexion can turn into a slab of beef (or even liver) if under-exposed far enough. It is often easier, if you are planning on scanning, to use a lower-saturation film, and build saturation (if needed) in post processing. On the other hand, for the right subject, high-saturation films are quicker and easier and give a different effect. Note also that most lenses for rangefinder cameras give more contrast and saturation than most lenses for reflexes. Here Roger used a Leica M4-P and (as far as he remembers) his 35/1.4 Summilux.

Post Production

Although exposure and film selection are historically the main tools for controlling colour saturation, there are rather more options with scanned images, or digital originals. As well as adjusting brightness and contrast in a number of ways, you also have the option of selective colour manipulation: boosting the intensity of one or more colours to make them stand out better against one another.

yellow plants, water

Banks of the Aragon river

The colours are already near-complementary, so it required very little manipulation in Adobe Photoshop to boost the intensity of the yellow and add a little more blue to the slightly greenish water in the background. Is this 'honest'? Well, a lot depends on what you mean by 'honest'. This is closer to what Roger remembers than the unmanipulated image was. After all, the colours in a picture are not the colours of the original: they are re-created, using inks or phosphors or pigments or dyes, from an image that has been recorded on film or a digital sensor. It was the latter in this case, the Leica M8 with the 135/2.8 Elmarit-M.

The bottom line

The best way to get the best out of colour is to wallow in it: shoot first, and ask questions later. At least, that's true with digital or 35mm: if you're shooting 8x10 inch transparencies, it may be a good idea to exercise a little more self-restraint. Then again, we'd suggest that before you start shooting 8x10 inch colour, you might do well to familiarize yourself with what you want and what you like by experimenting with a cheaper medium.

The first and most important trick is that when you see a colour you like (or, equally likely, a colour combination), take a picture. Or two. Or three, or however many you feel you need in order to do justice to the subject. Judge the picture later. You'll be amazed how fast you learn.


Chained shutters

You couldn't even use the excuse of composition or texture in black and white for this one: the colour, really, is the vast majority of the picture. A machine print would probably be desaturated, because the picture is 'too red', but that is always recoverable after scanning or in wet printing. For the same reason, we'd recommend 'daylight' or '5600K' colour balance instead of 'AWB'.


chained red door


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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks