Part Three: Colour


To what degree should I repeat what I have read about the technical side of colour in my learning log?  I am not sure of the answer to this and feel that it should probably be less rather than more.  However, there should probably be more research of the use of colour by other photographers.  My comfort zone is clearly the former rather than the latter so I will try to do the reverse for this section of TAOP.  However, first some of the theoretical side.

There are a few key technical things to consider, firstly, the colours themselves and how they are represented in the colour circle, including primary and secondary colours.  Associated with the subtractive system, one needs to consider the additive colours of transmitted light too.  Then there is the hue, saturation and brilliance.   One needs to be cognisant of the difference between the behaviour of light mixtures, called additive colour, and the behaviour of paint, ink, dye or pigment mixtures, called subtractive colour.  The absorption of light by material substances follows different rules from the perception of light by the eye[1].

The Colour Wheel

Concentrating for now on reflected light and the subtractive system, the Colour circle or wheel starts with the three primary colours, red, blue and yellow.  When these are mixed in pairs one obtains the secondary colours green, orange and violet.  Mixing a primary and secondary colour forms the tertiary colours.  Various formats of the colour wheel have been developed over the years with its beginnings in the 18th century.  Two formats are presented below.  The colours on opposite sides of the circle are complementary colours.  So, we have blue and orange, red and green and yellow and violet.  Traditionally complementary colours are harmonious but one needs to take into account their relative brightness.  Goethe in 1810 gave colours a value based on their brightness:  Yellow – 9, Orange – 8, Red & green – 6, blue – 4 and violet – 3.  Based on this one obtains the relative proportions that are ‘ideal’:

Red:green –                      1:1
Blue:orange –                    2:1
Yellow:violet –                   1:3
However, there are a variety of thoughts about colour harmonies as explained in Wikipedia[2].

Some theorists and artists believe juxtapositions of complementary colour will produce strong contrast, a sense of visual tension as well as “colour harmony”; while others believe juxtapositions of analogous colours will elicit positive aesthetic response.  Colour combination guidelines suggest that colours next to each other on the colour wheel model (analogous colours) tend to produce a single-hued or monochromatic colour experience and some theorists also refer to these as “simple harmonies”

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours of the RYB Colour model.

Farbkreis by Johannes Itten (1961) From the Wikipedia Commons.

Each colour or hue has properties of its own and the way in which they combine produces different effects.  This is well documented in the OCA resource booklet: Basic colour Theory.

As important are the fundamental qualities of colour:

Hue, Brilliance and Saturation.  The hue is the easiest to understand, as it is the basic colour.  The brilliance is the lightness or darkness of the hue with white and black the extremes of this scale.  Finally, saturation is the variation in the purity of the colour.  The diagram of the Munsell colour system[3] shows this schematically although the axes have slightly different names.  Within programs such as Photoshop one

can alter hue, saturation and brightness.  The latter can be controlled at the time of making the image through altering the exposure.  Using a colour filter can alter the hue, but saturation is not really controllable.

The Colour circle and the Munsell system can also be displayed as spheres.

Philipp Otto Runge’s Farbenkugel (color sphere), 1810, showing the surface of the sphere (top two images), and horizontal and vertical cross sections (bottom two images). Color sphere of Albert Henry Munsell, 1900.

Colours can also be divided into cool and warm colours by dividing the colour circle into semicircles with yellow, orange and red forming the warm colours and green, blue and violet forming the cool colours.  Strong contrasts are developed when one has cool colours set against warm colours.  Sunrise and sunsets produce warm colours whilst shade and blue skies produce cool colours.

For transmitted light the primary colours are red, blue and green.  i.e. the RBG system.  This is important for its use in colour monitors and digital photography.  Printing too is based on this system, but uses the complementary colours of cyan, magenta and yellow.  Black is used to create density and is known as the ‘key’ in printing.  As a result for printing we have the CMYK system.

Additive colour mixing Subtractive colour mixing

Why is Colour Important?

Primarily, colour causes various reactions.  Firstly, there is the objective, visual reaction.  Then there is an emotional reaction and finally, colours mean different things in different cultures.  Thus through using colour in an image one can have a different impact on the viewer.

The meaning of colours is quite well described in the following link.

Within South Africa, and specifically the Zulu tradition, there is no specific colour association.  The colours in the South African flag also have no specific meaning.

The development of Colour Photography is well explained in the following article. Colour photography from Wikipedia.

I have reviewed some of the work of Ernst  Haas – see separate my write-up on this.

PROJECT: What Makes a Colour

Exercise #24: Control the Strength of a Colour (5 photos)

The idea of this exercise is to be able to evaluate the brightness of a colour as one alters the exposure.  This sequence of a green wall shows how the brightness varies from 1 stop underexposed to 1 stop overexposure.  I was able to do this with the camera on a tripod and then to alter the under/overexposure at half a stop at a time using the adjustment on the camera.

1/125 f22.0 (i.e. -1 stop)Clearly underexposed and dull.  The colour is much darker than it was at the time of making the image. In Photoshop:Co-ord: X-33, Y-9H-147, S-100, B-19R-0, G-48, B-22Co-ord: X-4, Y-2H-217, S-53, B-52R-63, G-90, B-133
1/90 f22.0 (i.e. – ½ stop)A dark image that may be useful in the future.
1/60 f22.0This is the ‘correctly’ metered exposure.  I think this is darker than the scene was when capturing the image. In Photoshop:Co-ord: X-33, Y-9H-148, S-69, B-36R-29, G-93, B-59Co-ord: X-4, Y-2H-217, S-43, B-75R-109, G-141, B-192
1/45 f22.0 (i.e. + ½ stop)I quite like this and feel that it is probably closer to what I recall from the scene itself.
  1/30 f22.0 (i.e. +1 stop)Clearly overexposed.  The greens are however bright and may well be useful at times. In Photoshop:Co-ord: X-33, Y-9H-149, S-59, B-57R-60, G-146, B-101Co-ord: X-4, Y-2H-217, S-29, B-93R-168, G-195, B-238

Using the information in Photoshop one can see that at the two co-ordinates assessed, the hue remains the same whether the photograph is underexposed, correctly exposed or over exposed.  However, the saturation and brightness both change.


Exercise #25: Primary and Secondary Colours (18 photos)

The objective of this exercise was to find scenes or parts of scenes that are dominated by a primary or secondary colour.  Also, to vary the exposure by ½ a stop either way of the metered value and to decide which of the images I prefer.  I did this for some of the images but not all.  Some examples are shown and in general I felt that the correctly exposed images were preferred.  However, as in exercise #24, I can see that there may well be times when altering the exposure will provide a preferred result.  Modern software of course allows one to alter the colours almost at will, which means that one has a lot of latitude, although this should not detract from making sure that the image is correct in camera in the first place.

Finding images that complied with the brief was not easy, especially, violet was impossible and the images I obtained were more on the mauve side.


Red is such a striking and dominant colour.  In these images it stands out clearly against the browns of the winter grass and blues of the reflected sky and greens in the grass.


(+ ½ stop, 0, – ½ stop)

The blue of the doors does not vary a huge amount with exposure although it certainly does change.  In this instance the ½ stop under exposure is possibly a little better although not enormously.  The doors are not that dominant in these images.  In the remaining two ‘blue’ images the blue is dominant.  In both cases set against the neutral browns.


(+ ½ stop, 0, – ½ stop)

A yellow truck in this image shows very clear differences in the brightness from underexposed to over exposed images.  The first is a bright yellow whist the third is darker and almost seems to have brown undertone to it.  The ‘correctly ‘ exposed image provides a closer match to the original scene although it could possibly be lightened by +¼ stop.


(+ ½ stop, 0, – ½ stop)

In a scene is natural green the closest match to the original is the metered exposure.  Viewing these fields of new growth at the beginning of spring, the green dominated, possibly even more that is evident in the image.


Orange occurred in a number is different ways.  There was the autumn leaf with the afternoon sun for backlighting, there is a sunset and there is the burning grass.  No manmade pigments!


I have not found a true violet and have had limited success with these images of flowers.  They vary from mauve to a pinkish mauve.


Exercise #26: Colour Relationships (6 or 7 photos)

Produce one photograph for each combination of primary and secondary colours.

Red + Green


In terms of the ideal Goethe proportions red and green should be approximately equally in amount in the image.  Broadly speaking that is the case in these two images.  In the first the green of the canon and grass is approximately the same in area to the red roof and reddish brown of the wall.  In the second image the proportions are closer with a red/green split close to the centre line of the photograph.

Blue + Orange

With blue and orange the proportions should ideally be:  blue:orange :: 2:1.  The image of the reactor has too little orange to meet this requirement, especially when one takes into account the blue of the sky as well as the tractor.  In the second image, if one ignores the other colours, the proportion of blue to orange is about correct.

In the second image this contrast is certainly far more evident than in the first.

Yellow + Violet


Finding yellow and violet – no easy task and this image is the closest I came.  I was tempted to reproduce an image of a pansy where one has violet petals and a yellow centre.  However, I resisted and fortuitously came across the above situation.  The pink banner in the background does however provide a distraction that would have been better if avoided.

3 or 4 images with colours that appeal to me.


Amongst the photographs I have taken while working on this section the above four appeal to me.

  • The first is an Erythrina or ‘Coral Tree’ in which the red flower is vivid against the blue sky which is balanced with the green leaves.  One has the green and blue colours on the ‘cool’ side of the colour circle and the bright red on the ‘warm’ side.
  • The second is the autumn colours of the trees reflected in the dam with the light blue of the sky, which is also reflected in the water.  This image has warmth and peacefulness about it.  To provide high contrast one would have a ratio of blue : orange = 2:1.  In this image there is more orange and the blue is very light so the contrast is not so evident.
  • The children’s slide –dominated by vivid yellow against the bright blue sky.  This is a high contrast image and although orange is the secondary colour opposite blue in the colour circle; the yellow in this image provides a high contrast too.  Goethe’s brightness values are Blue = 4 and Yellow = 9 so to obtain a harmonious balance one needs about half as much yellow.  The image comes closer to equal proportions but feel that this does not detract from the image.
  • The final image is part of a piece of farming equipment with red and yellow providing contrast with the colours a 1/3 rd of the way round the colour circle.  The bright sunlight and relatively pure colours add to the contrast.

Exercise #27: Colours into Tones in Black and White (4 photos)

This exercise is to investigate how one can control the tones in a black and white image so that one may emphasize some object while suppressing others.  To do this one needs to understand that through using colour filters some light is transmitted and some is absorbed.  In digital photography this can be achieved electronically, which is what I have done using Light Room.  The fundamental issue is that a coloured filter passes its own colour and blocks others.  The ‘blocking’ effect is strongest for the complementary colour.

I used some fruit and vegetables in a blue bowl.  On the edge I have included a card with neutral greys and black and white segments.  In each photograph each of these remains about the same, yet with the filters in place the effects on the colours of the fruit and bowl alter significantly.

First, the effects of the blue filter are striking.  The blue bowl is noticeably lightened and the fruit all quite dark.  The Orange (complementary colour) and red tomato, are both black.  The orange is understandable as it is the complementary colour.  The red is not far off.  The pawpaw, which has strong orange undertones, is also very dark where the orange colours are prominent.  The other fruit too is noticeably dark, other than the banana, which is dark grey.

The yellow, red and green filters show more subtle differences.  The tones in the green gem squash remain approximately constant.  This is probably due to the fact that it has some orange and yellow undertones that are evident in the colour image.

The red tomato is lightest with the red filter and darkest with the green filter, as one would expect.  i.e. it passes its own colour and blocks its complementary colour (green).  The highlights on the surface are unpleasant when using the red filter.

The yellow filter is intermediate although closer to the red than green. The reds in the apple and the orange show a similar trend.  The yellow banana is lightest with the yellow filter (expected) and darkest with the green filter (ignoring blue).  This is also expected although I would have expected the red filter to show darker.  This is possibly due to some orange undertones in the banana.

Yellow Red
Blue Green


It is interesting to reflect on where colours are found.  Manmade pigments are found in painted and printed surfaces, where a colour has been incorporated into a material, such as a plastic, and in garments where the fabric is dyed.  In nature there are a variety of sources.  Firstly, there are plants.  Here colours vary from bright flowers to dull brown grass in the winter.  Animals are typically more neutral colours whilst birds are often brightly coloured.  Insects are quite varied.  There is quite a lot of colour in nature although at times it is difficult to capture.  Also, finding it in the proportions needed for specific assignments is difficult.

Have these exercises aided my understanding of the use of colour?  I believe the answer is yes.  Simply having to look for specific combinations has helped in ‘seeing’ the colours around me.  Have I conquered the use of colour? – No!  I think I have a couple of interesting images but can see that I have a long way to go.


Basic Colour Theory – OCA Resource

Colour theory, From Wikipedia.

Colour Photography:


1 Response to Part Three: Colour

  1. segmation says:

    I like this quote, don’t you? “Color is life; for a world without color appears to us as dead.” – Johannes Itten

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