There’s this new thing kids are talking about, colour. Maybe this monochrome addict should try it?
In a desperate attempt to learn some new tricks, this old monkey has decided to tackle colour.
All our reality is made up of colour, so, really, how hard can it be?
Point and shoot and have a hoot. Right? 😉
Or so I thought, until I realized I was lousy at it 😉 Sure, my pics were in colour, but the colour added nothing, and often detracted from their impact.
So I devised a learning system for myself. Colour for dummy 😉
Simple as one two three.
Let’s quickly mention level zero. Pointing the camera at a colourful scene without even noticing or caring about the colour content of the image. That was where the habit of converting everything to black and white (with the occasional grey in between) had left me. I – like many of us – didn’t even take note of the colours in a scene, seeing the world in shapes and shadows.
Level one, is noticing colour. As in the three photographs above. They are basically monochrome photographs with one dominant hue, that either anchors the image in reality (green leaves) or provides a striking impression (red explosion).
And if not a single hue, then at least a single palette.
An extension of this – level 1.5, maybe? – might consist of showcasing the colour by contrasting it to an absence of colour, as below. The colour in the food hall isn’t particularly interesting, but contrasting it to the grey exterior makes it more noteworthy.
The next level isn’t so much about learning all of colour theory as integrating a modicum of it into photographs. As many teachers recommend, an ounce of practice is better than a ton of theory.
Color theory covers a set of principles about the meanings and symbolism associated with different colors, and tools used to understand color relationships, such as complementary and analogous colors. At this level 2, I just focused on finding colours that intuitively worked well together.
And, for this section as well, I will rely on the ready baked colours of the Harry Potter studios 😉
But this also works in muggle reality.
One important point to note is that reality doesn’t neatly match the colour theory books.
Interesting contrasts or complements are what mattered to me. Not exact pairings. And here, there were some that worked better than others.
Which leads us to the final stage in my elementary step ladder.
By this I mean finding a scene with interesting examples of matchings happening in real life. Photographs of a scene (as above), as opposed to photographs of the colours, abstracted from a scene (as below). Achieving this consistently elevates you to the lofty plane of elated masters such as Joel Meyerowitz and Saul Leiter. No less. Predictably, I don’t have much to show for myself 😉
In street photography / grabbing mode, the odds of encountering an interesting scene are somewhat slim.
For the colourist, the odds of stumbling on a chromatically interesting scene are somewhat slim.
By virtue of the merciless laws of statistics, the odds of meeting both at the same time multiply slim by slim to a positively skinny likelihood. (there’s only one Saul Leiter, right? 😉 )
This, to say this article isn’t meant to make the reader a master of colourful street photography, but to vaguely structure the attention we pay (or don’t) to colour, as a first step on the ladder to colour mastery.
Here are a few more of mine of varying degrees of success 😉 I tried to adjust post processing to the colour content for a balanced look, and rated them (meh, OK, good) relative to how much colour adds or detracts compared to a b&w shot.
It’s a work in progress, and I will probably revisit them with a fresh eye in a few weeks. Unless my inevitable subsequent monochrome deep dive takes me too far out 😉 Cheers
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For a while there, I thought you were suffering from a defeatism attack of depression. But thankfully you hauled yourself out of it and continued on a lighter plane.
Pascal, there are number of reasons why I was always regarded as a “difficult” child. The most fundamental being my extreme introversion – perfectly happy with my own company, not too sure about other people’s! Actually the internet has provided me with some kind of “cure” for that – by interposing a device like this computer between me and “people”, so I can open up and chatter away like other people do, oblivious of the existence of people at the other end.
But that led on to something far less popular. Extroverts chase acceptance. Extroverts usually end up being conformist – not making as many waves scared of scaring off the fan club, or something. As an introvert, I’ve never had that problem. Too bad if someone doesn’t like it – I am me, and that’s all there is to talk about.
Funnily enough, I’ve been thinking about “colour” recently. Partly your fault – I found myself admiring some of your scenic shots, because of the interesting use they made of colour – unorthodox combinations, but combinations which I found really striking & impressive. Never one to praise “conventional” views, I was soon scouring through your recent posts, for more.
Even reached a turning point, where I found myself asking whether the colours did in fact work – or I was merely deciding that they did, and attributing to them tonal values they did not really possess. Well, I had to test it, didn’t I? Anyway, the good news is, you won. So I’m now floundering – wondering why on earth you are showering us all with self doubt and threatening once more to convert everything to B&W?
The answer for us both is – the Northern Territory motto – “You’ll never never know, if you never never go”. The attribution for that, BTW, belongs to the wife of one of the early pastoralists in the NT – Mrs Aenaes Gunn. Published about a century ago, and – famously – its title was “We of the Never Never”.
So – as photographers we can choke on the idea of daring to be different – or we can ignore convention and dive straight in, to explore and experiment, and avoid becoming another of those bores who flood the pages of Instagram with a million photos we’ve already seen a trillion times.
No prizes for guessing that I have never liked doing what I’m told – I much prefer to “try something different”. So, it seems, do you.
And if you think this is longwinded, you should have seen all the other thoughts that flew around in my head, as I worked through this article.
Ah, self doubt … powerful ally and and dangerous foe. It’s good to never take anything for granted, and I always look at my best pics wondering whether I’ll ever be able to do better, or even as good. But it’s also important to always be willing to go back to the drawing board. That’s what I’m doing with colour. Something I’m not comfortable with, having avoided it for so long …
At the end of the day, there are so few opportunities for great colour pics, while there are far more for very nice b&w shots, that I often go back to the latter. I guess that’s why colour photographers tend to all show up at golden hour. It’s the one time of day when you’re more or less guaranteed to bring home something decent in colour.
We’ll see. I’ll continue to do both. But my guess is b&w will still dominate for a while 😉
“Once upon a time . . . ”
When I first started taking photos, there was only one option – black & white. Probably some people were already fooling around with colour – but nobody I knew was.
Then colour started to become more generally available. As colour slides, which I never found particularly interesting anyway. So I kept with B&W.
Much much later, it became practical to have colour prints – at a price! – but much more affordable than it was when I started. I did actually have three large prints made at a professional lab, it cost the earth though. Not something I could do on my income at the time, on any regular sort of basis. That came decades later.
And I loved it. Trouble is, vegetable dyes. No archival permanence. Any of those shots that had exposure to daylight had to be scanned into digital ASAP, and reprinted whenever.
A MAJOR issue for me with colour throughout that era was loss of control. I developed all my B&W films, and printed them myself. A good run meant paving most of the floors in the house with prints, drying overnight. Using professional enlarger, and in complete control of process.
But it wasn’t until I tried digital that I could at last control all my colour photos. Or could I? Can YOU, more to the point – because your article hinges around choosing which you intend shooting with.
Yes – maybe – sometimes. And even then, a lot of it comes from turning a blind eye.
But then you get some other shots, shots that you love, where being faithful to the original colours is simply impossible, and getting anything acceptable is damn difficult.
So you sit there wondering what to do next. Can you redo them? Try a different colour balance. A different exposure maybe. Again, yes – maybe – sometimes.
But here’s the killer punch. We’ve set ourselves an impossible task. There are only THREE colours in play. And I do not believe it possible, even at a theoretical level, to produce “accurate” colours at the other end, using only three colours. Close, yes – maybe – sometimes. But NOT on each and every photo. No matter what you try.
“Acceptable”, then? Yes – most of the time – definitely not always. Every once in a while, you will give up – and convert it to a B&W image.
For me, digi provided an overwhelming temptation to go colour for practically everything. I’d been deprived of the opportunity to work colour for half a century, and suddenly I could do it always. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes a problem – for me. Because “always” doesn’t always work – with colour, at least.
Maybe younger people get fed up with digi and go back to film, as a mirror image of my path towards progress, and sigh with relief as they produce one brilliant B&W image after another! Maybe that’s part of the reason why you seem to be vacillating between the two. But of course, as we both know, it isn’t necessary to “choose” – we are luckier than earlier generations – we can have both!
Like that article I did, of all the fire brigades I found in my street one night. Without colour, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective. But colour proved “difficult” – and in the end, I had to do some in colour and some only worked in b&w. And the selection as a whole worked better, combining both, than it ever could have, using only one.
Ah, I agree that digital made things easier. A lot easier, particularly in colour. That said, colour printing has now become easier too, with machines that integrate all of the baths in a neat little box, all at the right temperature, with timers handling everything. I’ll try to find their name for you. But digital is still a lot simpler to play with. But comes with limitations in gamut, which become *extremely* complicated to mess around with when you want to define your own colour science rather than inherit the manufacturer’s.
So yes, I agree entirely that we have to choose between faithful reproduction of colours, which can be lovely when possible, or our interpretation. And the latter is what I find more interesting 😉
“we have to choose between faithful reproduction of colours, which can be lovely when possible, or our interpretation. And the latter is what I find more interesting”
Pete, the processor is a Fujimoto CP-31. It handles the colour print after the enlarger. You can see it in action on Willem Verbeeck’s fantastic channel, including in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCJw61j71ig
I’m jealous! That’s exactly why I so loved doing all my B&W processing & printing. And something I would have loved to have done with colour.
But there were three reasons why not.
One – cost, which he mentions up front.
Two – complexity, which he mentions obliquely but of course it’s pretty obvious.
And three – the dyes are different. One fades, with exposure to daylight. The other is pretty well archivally permanent.
I can admire Willem – but not envy him!
Yes, he’s a pro. It’s his job to deal with the complexity of it all 🙂
I love his channel, though. Very interesting person.
Damn – I wish I saw this first – I’d no sooner sent my comment, than I found this article:
It claims to be telling us everything that’s new, and what we should all be doing, in 2023. Enjoy!
Oh my, that’s quite a list 😉 I love that it begins by eco-friendliness then moves on to drones photography, one of the least eco-friendly forms of photography one can possibly imagine. Only the kitchen sink is missing 😉
Yes, colour and all that jazz. Just like good jazz, it’s not easy to do good colour. There is a photographer Harry Gruyaert and he has a good command colour and use in photography. His approach predates most of the better known colour photographers. He is quoted as saying, with respect to the use of colour in photography “There is no story. It’s just a question of shapes and light,” He appears to make use of saturated complementary colours in the crafting a coloured image. Gruyaert has a superb book of his work titled ‘Between Worlds’ (which I have). Look for it and get a copy, it’ll be worth the effort and cost. Lastly, here’s an ArtNet piece on Gruyaert’s work that may interest you and others:
Thanks Sean. There’s also an excellent documentary about his work and approach on The Darkroom Rumour. That alone is worth the monthly price of admission to that channel 🙂 Cheers.
Hard to argue with this. Trying to get great colour and an interesting image(maybe even the elusive ‘deeper meaning’ shot) is a tricky combo when wandering and hoping.
I like this video, partly because he’s searching for a camera that’s fun to use, but also because of the walkabout video+shots combo. Interesting to see how highlights have been handled in a ‘bring it on’ sort of way that works out rather nicely.
Hi Mer, lovely video thank you. James Popsys is a very interesting youtuber. What I like about his camera is how nicely the sky fades to white. This means he can basically expose however he wants and he will still get a natural looking image. He tends to expose very bright, probably as an homage to film, and it works beautifully with this camera. Compare his highlights to the horror show coming from the gopro on his chest 😉 😉
It doesn’t hurt that he’s an excellent photographer 🙂