The Elements of Visual Design – Colour

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Understanding the elements of visual design is important to the craft of making photographs. On some intuitive level most of us already “know” the six elements (tone, colour, line, shape, texture, and perspective) and are using them in our photographs but if we spend some time delving into them further, they can become powerful allies in making better photographs. This week we are going to look at the second element: colour.

Let’s go back to week one and if we think first about colour in terms of the written language and how we use colour in what we write, we realize we can use colour in photography in the same way. Colour in literature is seldom used just for the sake of mentioning colour. Authors use colour to create a picture in the minds of readers so they can have a particular experience while reading about another world. As photographers we can use colour—beyond just recording it—to do exactly the same thing but in a visual way. First though, we have to understand at a basic level what colour is.

Colour is created by reflected light and is described using the hue, saturation, and luminance of that light. Hue is the name we give to colour i.e. red, blue, yellow, etc. Saturation is the intensity of that colour i.e. dull, vibrant, etc. Luminance is the degree of lightness or darkness in a colour.

Let’s look at the picture below of Seattle’s Space Needle. There are red, orange, yellow and blue hues present. Some of the orange hues and the blue hues are less saturated but generally overall this image is quite vibrant. The oranges, reds, and yellows also have differing levels of luminosity, some more noticeable than others.

Seattle Space Needle

In terms of tone, there is some contrast created by the relative brightness between the Space Needle and the Ferris wheel and the surrounding twilight sky. In comparison, there is a better contrast created by the colours versus the tone. Why is that important to note? Well sometimes differences in tone are completely absent so you have to rely on colour to distinguish between the things in your photograph.

Have you ever had a colour photograph you thought would look great in black and white but when you removed the colour the whole scene was flat? Chances are the differences in tone (relative brightness) were missing but the differences in colour (hue, saturation and luminance) were there. This photograph is a good example where the differences in colour outweigh the differences in tone making it a poor candidate for conversion to black and white. As a photographer if you can train your eye to see both tone and colour before you click the shutter, you are well on your way to making better photographs.

Colour has been the subject of much scientific study and academic writing but sometimes it is best understood and appreciated when we simply look at the work of a colour master, someone like Arthur Meyerson. His book “The Color of Light” is on my wish list. Check out Meyerson’s short essay and slideshow on Burn Magazine—you won’t be disappointed.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Line

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