The art of photography largely concentrates on subject. What you shoot, how you stage it, light it, frame it. The post process techniques we tend to spend our time with are the “upper Lightroom” controls, dealing with exposure, contrast, curves and the like. When we get a little deeper, into the VSCO world of things, we get only slightly more into color, but it’s mostly a desaturated, low dynamic range (no true blacks or white) look that emulates that analog film quality we love so much. And that’s usually the extent of how much we think about the look of our imagery. Which leaves out, almost entirely, the thing that will distinguish your particular look more than anything — your color palette.
The reason it’s hard to embrace is that by its nature, a color palette is limiting. And most people, especially those new to photography, do not want to limit themselves. But it is not a bad idea to consider how you express yourself through your choices in color.
A limited color palette is an opinion. And people need to know your opinion in order to understand your vision. Your palette is your statement. And in art, you often say more with less. Or, as they say in music, “the notes you don’t play.”
But while most photographers know how to dial in their lighting, their focal length, their locations and their post processing, few have any clue on picking colors.
The easiest way, of course, is to find someone whose work you like and emulate it. But ultimately, you want to find a palette that speaks to you, and for you. This is what brands do — and a lot of what I’ve spent my career counseling them on.
Color is so important to car companies that they often invent their own. They have entire rooms in their design factories dedicated to exploring the colors inherent in different materials. They test and learn about what affects colors have on people. Beauty companies, the consumer package goods industry, consumer electronics — every one of these players knows the value of a distinct and interesting color palette. If you’re a photographer, you should have an equal understanding of color and its affect. But what’s more, you have your own brand to worry about. When someone looks at your body of work, what distinguishes you from anyone else? That’s all defined in your opinions. If you’re leaving out color as part of that opinion, then you may not be telling your whole story.
Here’s how some photographers are embracing color palettes with some very nice results. I can’t really speak for why these artists went this direction, but I can tell you a bit about why I think it works.
Full Spectrum Black and White
Photographers know this, but the black and white palette is actually much more complex than your audience gives you credit for. There’s literally millions of grays possible in today’s 14bit+ images that most of us are working with. Hamid's palette here is pretty even — which is to say evenly spread out across the entire range of black-to-white. And I would describe this as “classic.” We could go very deep into black and white, but maybe another time. In general, a black and white palette is a powerful place to be, capable of being both high fashion and street. It connotes timelessness and is a strong opinion, in so much as it denies color alltogether. It also usually comes with a high degree of seriousness. It’s very hard to pull off a lighthearted black and white look. So, if you’re an artist, looking to be taken seriously and want your work to withstand the test of time, it’s a solid choice.
It’s my own personal opinion — as a person who shoots largely black and white, myself — but I think you only detract from the inherent sense of classicism and timelessness when you don’t use true blacks in your work. It feels slightly apologetic to me when black and white artists don’t embrace pure black in their work, as pure black is the core of the image’s dramatic power. Why take on the intensity of black and white, then not take full advantage of all it offers?
Fire and Ice
Dylan Furst has built a very strong brand as a Pacific Northwest outdoor/lifestyle photographer. He’s remarkably consistent with this palette and it works very well with his subject matter. In large part, it works because it feels very natural to the environment, though it is stylized. It allows for the natural colors of trees and lakes along with the colors of warm light, be that from the sun, fire or fields. It also allows for very nice skin tones. So, it’s everything he needs to convey the best parts of any scene where people and nature coexist.
But most of all, this combination is a classic complimentary color scheme of orange/blue. It is one of the most popular color pairings. When done in a muted way, like this, it has a soothing effect. These colors, like his work, show humanity and nature in concert. And the best palettes seem to be an extension of the subjects. This work does that perfectly.
Xing Liu is a fantastic portrait photographer who I saw because he got featured on High Snobiety. I have to believe his work stood out among the throngs because of his strong opinion on color. He’s embracing a very deep fall palette and is very committed to it. And it seems to drive even where he will shoot, possibly even guiding his eye toward elements that will accentuate these yellows and reds. It’s like he lives in a world of fall leaves, coffee shops, brick walls, amber hair and warm street light reflections. Once again, we’re looking at a palette that works great in concert with his subjects.
Meg Loeks is another great, popular photographer who shoots with a very similar palette, though with a different subject. You can see, in both cases, the palette is often informing the other elements of the image. That is, the artist is probably more likely to invite a brown and white dog, fall leaves, sunset lighting, a brown blanket or red-hued clothing into the frame, to help support the palette. It shows the power of a strong palette, that it can even get the photographer to make subject decisions based on it.
This is an attractive palette for photographers who shoot at night and focus on urban subjects. It has the ability to cover golden hour all the way into the middle of the night, as well as long exposure shots. This palette focuses primarily on yellow and is fairly dedicated to it. The artist, Yu (@5.12) extends into browns and oranges, however I’ve seen some city shooters narrow into yellow, black and white almost exclusively.
Yellow is a poppy color, especially against the dark of a city. Some black and white photographers, including myself, like to add it as an accent color to an otherwise nearly all-desaturated image. If done right, yellow is such a light color that it feels the most natural in a black and white image. It has that “last light of the day” feel to it, where everything is desaturated except that little gleam of sunlight still in the sky. Like the solo light of a campfire. And yellow, of course, is warm and inviting. It humanizes a gritty city shot. So, it has the ability to grab your attention with its pop, but also hold you there with its waning warmth.
This last palette I want to feature (and, really, there’s endless more), I think is interesting because it’s very different, but equally effective. Florian Wenzel (@flopunktwe) has a very desaturated look, and no true blacks, and very earthy. It works fantastically for his landscapes, especially with the amount of white space that he uses. It’s dreamy, almost ethereal and very filmic.
When you get into earth tones, especially combining greens and browns, you bring people back to a place inside them that feels connected to nature. It evokes our sense of being a wanderer or traveler. And just like the other photographers featured here, the use of this palette by Florian completely coincides with his subject, creating a harmony of image and color.
It’s just a smattering of a few options, but maybe it gets your own juices flowing. My advice for any photographer thinking about jumping in and establishing a look is to consider what colors are most significantly associated with your subject. Not conceptually, like “red is danger” or “pink is girly,” but rather physically. What colors, or color, dominates your subjects most? One great way to get to it quickly is to find a photo of yours that you really like, then play around with the saturation of different colors, decreasing the ones that aren’t “necessary” to conveying the power of that image. When you’ve subtracted all the way down to the essential colors (maybe even increasing the saturation of the ones you love), save that as a preset that you can try on other photos and see if it starts to hold together as a cohesive look.
Try it on for a while, like a new set of clothes. And see if it becomes you.
Happy holidays, everyone. Enjoy family, friends and photos.