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Understanding colour for photographers

Philip Smith
9 January 2012
Blog team: 
Philip Smith shows you how your garden and plant photography can benefit from a richer understanding of colour.

The following blog entry is an abridged extract from Philip’s book ‘Better Plant and Garden Photography’ available from International Garden Photographer of the Year.

How to improve

Just like any visual designer, an understanding of colour theory for the photographer will enhance and improve your work. This is perhaps especially true of the garden and plant photographer who is excited and moved by colour. Skilful gardeners are extremely aware of how colour works in the garden, and it is the photographer’s job to tune into this heightened sensibility.

Knowing how to see and to use colour to create more impact with your photography is a basic part of the art. But it is especially important in a garden where you often hear the phrase ‘a riot of colour’ used to describe a lovely garden – especially in summer.

Harmonious brushstrokes of colour in the garden. Shot with a 105 mm telephoto lens to foreshorten the perspective and emphasise the colour layers. Photo by Philip Smith.

Editing the experience

We humans enjoy a ‘riot of colour’ because our eyes survey the scene and our brains pick out the various elements of the ‘riot’ one by one. We bring certain bits forward to our attention, so that other bits recede for a moment until we focus on them. But unless we are skilful and take care, our cameras will apply the same level of importance to all of the garden elements, without distinction, all in one go, and will compress them into a little two-dimensional space.

So being selective is all important. And if you can be selective with some knowledge behind you to back you up – then all to the good.

Colour concepts

The colour wheel gives a visual reference guide for using colour. Segments of colour which lie opposite one another are said to be complementary. Segments that lie next to each other are said to be harmonious. 

Complementary colours are often thought of as ‘opposites’ – red/green – orange/blue – yellow/purple. If these complementary elements are introduced into a photograph it communicates a strong and immediate colour statement.

Iris shot with a 185 mm macro lens - focusing almost on colour alone brings out the drama.
Photo by Philip Smith. 

Project idea - complementary and harmonious colours

Experiment with complementary colours. Notice how in summer it is more common to see complementary colours in the border than it is at other seasons, with deep red flowers contrasting with green foliage. See how effective it is when dramatic autumn coloured foliage can be set against a blue sky.

Harmonious colours are those which sit next to or near each other on the colour wheel. When these are used in conjunction, they can inspire a sense of peace and calm. This is especially true of blues with purples, greens with blues. If using harmonious colours from the red areas of the colour wheel the feeling is often more dynamic, with yellows and oranges sitting somewhere in the middle. However it works, using harmonious colours gives you a great chance to get the ‘wow’ factor into your image.

Putting the background out of focus gives you an immediate 'colour wash' behind the plant. Use this colour to create counterpoint or harmony. Photo by Philip Smith.

Project idea - same colour

Choose a colour and create a still life – indoors or in the garden – of a range of shades of the same colour. This will help you to ‘tune in’ your eye to the subtleties of colour shades. Most people can distinguish one million different colours – with women often said to be better at this than men. Whether male or female, a heightened sense of awareness comes with practice.

Limiting the colour palette to a narrow range of tones is a technique that often works very well. Colour and tone can be enhanced after capture with Photoshop. Photo by Philip Smith

- Philip -


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