Photographic elements 1: Colour

Series introduction

This is the first post of a new series in which I will analyze photographs. I cheerfully acknowledge that I have no expertise in the subject! But I do have an analytical mind, and I apply it to everything that interests me, including photography.

It’s a mug’s game, trying to define what makes art, art. Nor can you create a work of art by mechanically assembling the design elements we’re going to discuss: line, shape, colour, texture, opposition, balance, etc.

But let’s say you look at a photograph and you have an immediate, visceral response to it: I really like that! Odds are, if you stop to think about it, you’ll see that one or more of the above elements contribute to the photograph’s impact. My goal is to make you more aware of the design elements.

Good art teaches us to see things that we had previously overlooked: it enriches our appreciation of our environment. For example, the impressionist painters taught people a new perspective on shadows:

No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors. (Renoir)

I hope this series will inspire you to notice things that previously you had overlooked.

Creative Commons LicenseNB. Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this series are protected under a Creative Commons license. Click on the icon for details.


I decided to begin this series by considering the use of colour in photographs. In fact, the series was inspired by this photograph:

The photographer is a friend of mine, jgrantmac. (The link will take you to his Flickr photostream.) Grant is an amateur photographer with real talent. He has graciously agreed to let me use his photographs as my primary resource for this series.

When I first saw the above photo, I had one of those I really like that! moments. But why? It’s so simple! Grant can’t take credit for the picture on the poster, or for the design on the LCBO awning. But he can take credit for seeing art in the juxtaposition of these colours.

complementary coloursConsider the standard colour wheel. The black line points to the two dominant colours in Grant’s photograph, green and red. You’ll notice that they are opposite one another on the colour wheel.

Any two hues opposite to one another are considered to be complementary colours. That’s what makes latin fever aesthetically pleasing: its striking juxtaposition of the complementary colours, red and green.

Here’s a different sort of effect, utilizing analogous colours:

Fiery Sunrise

I found this photo, by ejp1082, by searching

I want to call your attention to three colours: orange, red, and violet. There are violet patches in the sky, but notice also the second row of hills. (Click on the photo to see it at full size.) Just as Renoir said, shadows are not black — these ones are violet.

Returning to our colour wheel, we see that orange, red, and violet are right next to one other. They are analogous colours.

The complementary colours in Grant’s photo are pleasing because of the contrast between them: the analogous colours in ejp1082’s photo are pleasing because they create a sense of harmony. (For more examples of complementary and analogous colours, see this article by Robert Berdan.)

ejp1082’s photograph mixes warm colours (yellow, orange, red) with a cold colour (violet). Here’s another of Grant’s photos, in a cold colour: blue.

winter brightness

Winter brightness is also an example of a monochromatic composition: the photo is dominated by a single colour, but with a range of shades to sustain interest. Even the shadows in the foreground are a shade of blue.

Grant’s title suits his subject matter: not just this one day, but winter as a season is remarkably bright. Late autumn, on the other hand, can be a drab time of year:

sunrise through fog

This introduces two other colour variables. Colour can be analyzed in terms of value (lightness, darkness) or intensity (the purity or saturation of the colours).

The above photograph, Sunrise through fog 2, comes from my flickr site. I shot it in late October. The colours are dark and muted — especially considering that this is a study of a sunrise! The value and intensity of the colours capture the relative dullness of late autumn.

And here’s a final example of colour as a design element in an effective photograph. The photographer is inspireer. Once again, I found the photo by searching

In this case, the effect is achieved by using colour in only one small portion of an otherwise black and white image.

It would be easy to make cheap use of this technique: I admire the photo because inspireer has used colour so sparingly. She hasn’t overplayed her hand!

UPDATE: I published a second post in this series, on motion, here. Then the series fell into abeyance for a while. But I have picked it up again with a “photo of the month” that analyzes the artistic elements of the chosen photograph. Dec. 2007; Jan. 2008.

Readers might also be interested in Symmetrical Symmetry, a look at one of my favourite Cartier-Bresson photographs.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    Mar 12, 2007 @ 14:45:01

    An excellent photgrapher that uses colour to its best advantage is Freeman Patterson. His Book the Art of seeing is a work of almost abstract phography that uses colour and light as a natural paint brush.


  2. soultide
    Apr 08, 2007 @ 15:28:58

    Thank you for this article. It really helped with a design assignment I am working on.


  3. Aws
    Oct 06, 2007 @ 13:05:08

    Dear Sir/Madam,

    Thanks a lot for this useful article. Do you mind sending me the reference from where you quote Renoir’s “No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors”.



  4. stephen (aka Q)
    Oct 06, 2007 @ 13:59:13

    I’m not sure where I ran across it, but I did a quick google search which led me to a quote here.


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