Colour and colour harmony

Colour is a very powerful instrument to influence human emotions. Colour acts on a subconscious level, we see red and we interpret it as aggression. Only after colour has affected us subconsciously do we react consciously by rationalising what exactly that colour expresses, if it is a flag, a dress or a car. Sometimes this secondary rationalisation is not even necessary and we only react subconsciously. Such techniques have been used by some horror film directors who include a single frame, 1/25 of the second, of a red spot. This red spot does not have a specific shape, but it builds tension in the viewers.

There are photos like the next one which would lose their magic if turned to black and white.

Then why do we so often hear different photographer saying ‘professionals shoot only in black and white, so let amateurs enjoy their colours’.

This logic dates back to earlier times, the times of classic film photography. Most famous photographers in the 20th century shot in black and white and for a reason. In those years there was little you could do in terms of the colour harmony of a photograph. Yes, there are colour filters which are used in colour photography, but they have only minimal effect. They can decrease the saturation of a certain colour or enhance another, but they cannot order colours according to the preferences of the photographer. Maybe this logic was best summarised by Ansel Adams. He said that the relationship of an artist with colour was not like the relationship a photographer had with colour. An artist has control over colour throughout the whole process. He mixes a certain tone on his mixing palette, lays it on the canvas, then chooses the next one which he believes will match the previous one, constructing in the process the colour harmony of the picture based on his own criteria. A camera, on the other hand, captures colour as it is. Nature does not arrange colour in order and most often it is best described as a colourful chaos. In this situation it is best to avoid this chaos, over which we have absolutely no control, shoot without colour and focus on the things which we can control – scaling, DOF, composition and viewing point.

It sounds logical. But it is the logic of the past. Today, in the era of digital photography, when we can use the help of photo editing programmes, we can, just like artists, make decisions about the exact colour of each and every element in the frame. We should not lightly dismiss the role colour can play in terms of the impact a photo will have on the viewer. (Naturally, it should not be absolutized either. There are photographs which have more impact in black and white, just as there are photographs which look better in colour).

The photograph on the left is the original one, the photo on the right has been edited. The logic behind this edit is that, simply put, warm and cold tones are in juxtaposition. Opposite tones stand out better in a scene. In the photo on the left you can say that the colours are predominantly in the warm tonality – the yellow and brown colour scheme. The elements which stand out are the cold blue tones of the shirt and the scarf. However, they are not the most important elements of the photo and they should not be catching the eye or standing out as much. That is why in the right photo things have been reversed and the general tonality is cold and in the blue spectre. The colour of the jacket has been changes and the blue tones in the background have been enhanced. You can say that the photograph is predominantly in the blue spectre. The warm tones which stand out are the face, the hat and the pipe. Yes, they are the main elements in a portrait and it is logical to want them to stand out and be distinct.

But let us return on the topic of colour. What we see is the dispersed visible light spectre.

Combinations of colours which are close to one another are harmonic combinations. Such combinations are for example red-orange, yellow-green, blue-purple and so on. Harmonic
combinations are very well accepted by viewers.

Combinations of colours which are further away from one another or sever colours apart from one another are contrasting or disharmonic combinations.. Such combinations catch the eye and draw the attention of the viewer, the contrasting colour is accentuated and stands out.

Rembrandt’s self-portrait makes use of harmonic colour combinations. Van Gogh’s portrait uses contrasting colours.

Artists know very well how to use colours to their advantage by using harmonic or contrasting combinations in their paintings.
In the left picture what visually separates the important elements in the picture is light. In the right, it is the colour combinations.

On the whole, during the classical period, artist worked predominantly with harmonic colour combinations whereas in modern art we tend to prefer contrasting combinations.

This journey from harmonic to contrasting colour combinations took artists several centuries, but took photographers only several decades – from the middle of last century until today.

Regardless of whether we like it or not, modern photography is characterised by very aggressive colour combinations.

This can easily be explained on the one hand by the fact that the senses of the viewers have been overindulged and in order for them to pay attention to your work, you would have to get to their attention using something much stronger and more aggressive to their senses. On the other hand, technical development has also played a role. The classical negatives and diapositives were not able to produce the strong colours, dynamics and micro contrast which can be achieved with the help of computer processing programmes. The media today offer new opportunities. And where there are opportunities, there will always be artists taking advantage of those opportunities.

Two photos from one and the same photo session, executed in two different ways – the left one takes a more classical approach with a more harmonic colour scheme, while the photo on the right is more aggressive in terms of colour with deliberate contrast between the tone of the skin, the red scarf and the bluish hues in the backlit background.

Of course, not everything is the result of computer editing. If a photographer is observant in his or her everyday life, they can discover scenes with wonderful colour combinations and accents.

In my photography, colour and composition are inseparable. I see in colour.
William Albert Allard