Photo Coach: Learning Creative Color, Part TWO

Colors are as strongly linked to our emotions as the links in a ship’s anchor chain. What makes photos with red and yellow seem exciting?

Why do we avoid eating foods that are blue? It’s due to our emotional associations with color.

Copyright 2016 Jim Austin Jimages, all rights reserved.


In Beyond RGB, Part One, we learned about creative color ideas. The take away points here are:

  • Understanding color relationships in our photographs.
  • Finding effective Color contrasts.
  • Creating more subtle hue combinations.
  • Ways to use Selective color.
  • Engaging mobile editing software for color changes on the fly.

Let’s first understand a few of the messages of color, then get into commanding colors, and look at how colors advance and retreat. Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page and share about how you use color.

PREFERRED Color: Colors We Love and More

With our images, we can use color to send a message or build a narrative. The signals we send through our particular color choices can be perceived differently across cultures and individuals. Color preferences are intuitive. They are personal. They change: our favorite color in childhood probably differs from our preferred color as an adult.




Above, which picture do you like better? I like the image at left because I see it as a less “busy” color field. Your mileage may vary.

Nature’s living things send urgent messages in color. Not all are colors we love. A poisonous dart frog is small, but its high-contrast red color is a clear warning. While the blue-ringed octopus is only the size of a golf ball, mess with it and bad stuff happens; paralysis and death from its neurotoxin may meet those who’ve ignored the contrasting blue and black rings on its body.

In the human arts, the colors we choose serve as visual references. They are tied to an era of time. For instance, a photograph’s outdated hues may tell us approximately when a photograph was taken.





Why do many pro photographers explore color models beyond RGB? They discover more intriguing color images using an RedYellowBlue (RYB) model instead. Thinking in RYB- one of many color models – can break us out of our color habits, by getting us to capture visually harmonious color combinations.


Contrasting and complimentary colors draw our attention. They command us to look. In a photograph, to hold our viewer’s attention, we can combine contrasting colors. First, we must know that not all colors have the same depth, some move to us and others move away.

COLORS THAT Advance and Retreat

Notice that in the picture of two cars below, red seems to move forward. In fact, red typically is a forward-moving hue. It is a color that advances. We call it a high value color which optically means it has the longest wavelength (700 nanometers), whereas violet, a cooler color, has the shortest (400 nm).



Old Car, New Car: Three ideas here 1) red is a forward moving hue, blues and greens retreat 2) Changing one hues changes all the color relationships 3) Colors reference the era they were produced.


Three key ideas in the comparison above are: 1) red is a forward-moving hue, blues and greens retreat. Using them one behind the other creates perceptual depth. 2) Changing one hue (green shifted to yellow-green on the photo at right) changes all the color relationships in a photograph. 3) Colors reference the era they were produced.

Blue and green are retreating colors. We perceive them as cooler. Most people see yellow before blue.

Yellow gets noticed immediately while blues and greens tend to retreat and get noticed later. In many cultures, yellow is seen as the color of sunshine. In the car photos above, only the green plants had yellow added to them. This let them come forward in the scene more. We can also see that a change of one hue in a photograph makes all the color relationships seem to change.

7 IDEAS for Interesting Color

Now let’s look at seven ways, including mobile editing, we can put color to work in our photography, including mobile editing.



colorwheel2 7

1. High Contrast Color Combinations 

On color wheel models, remember that colors on opposite sides are called complimentary colors.  The most common complimentary combinations are red + green (see the 1985 cover of National Geographic Magazine called “Afghan Girl” by Steve McCurry), and blue with orange (like a sunset against a blue sky).

Beyond these primary combinations, there are other contrasting hues we can capture for compelling color images.

Orange/red + green/blue can also be effective. For greater perceived depth, I tried to capture this four color combination in the image of the children’s fountain above. Here, the yellow-orange, a tertiary color, moves forward in the image. The blue hues are saturated, contrast with the orange and red, and tend to move back or retreat. The contrast of these hues, set against each other, adds a sense of depth to this mid-day scene.

High contrast schemes make sense when we think back to the Tertiary colors on the color wheel. We examined ways to use these tertiary colors in Apogee Photo Magazine Beyond RGB, Learning Creative Color Part One.

Dominant Color


2. One DOMINANT Color

BlueWarm-Cool-Colors is the dominant hue above. Making an image with a dominant color is not the same as doing sepia or color toning. Dominant color pictures may have two or three other hues along with the main color.

We can photograph a dominant hue that is on the warm side of the color wheel (red, or orange, or yellow), or capture one from the cooler side (blue, or green). The goal of choosing warm vs. cool is to express a mood and evoke a subconscious emotional response from viewers even before they describe how the picture makes them feel.

Another powerful way to employ dominant color is to shift the white balance in your editing software, making warmer hues cooler to change a bright summer scene into one with a somber, mysterious mood.


Grey seal pup at night, lit by a flashlight: Nikon D810, 85 mm, f/1.8, ISO 6400, 1/15th of a second exposure.























3. On SUBTLE Color

Color is often misused, overused and over-saturated. Subtle color can be more expressive and, in contrast, be refreshing.

Form, texture and shape can be expressed effectively when color is more reserved. The purpose of subtle color is to allow other properties in the photo to be expressed. Let me share a short seal story…

When a 3-foot long grey seal came aboard at night, I put a flashlight a few feet away on a swim step, so as not to frighten it with flash.

I took time to get the pup’s eyes in focus, making multiple manually focused exposures as I moved slowly and varied the angle of the small flashlight.

Too much saturation would have detracted from the portrait. I adjusted tones, brightening curves by 20%.

I sharpened the image, but did not boost saturation. A subtle, natural approach to its colors preserved the grey hues of the pup’s coat and the form of its face.

In the next example, the intensity of just a single color was lessened to improve the image.

4. SELECTIVE Color Examples

Above, in the original (A) and edited (B) images, the yellow hues in the edited (B) picture were made less intense than they were in the original (A) photo. The goal of this Selective Color edit was to direct the viewers eye to the cyclist’s colors.

Because yellow and orange are adjacent colors on the color wheel, they work together, but I wanted the orange to dominate the eye scan of a viewer. Here is the Lightroom palette used to make this Selective Color edit:

Lightroom Color Screen Shot

In Lightroom’s Develop Module, I clicked on the yellow colored square, to select a single color,  yellow, and then decreased its saturation by moving the slider to the left.


5. SELECTIVE Color in Photoshop & Lightroom

Photoshop’s Selective Color palettes have been updated. They let you take control over specific colors by individual channels.

In the next image, a New Selective Color Layer was created, in the Layers palette, to easily change the color of a rose. 

To briefly review, Selective Color in Photoshop lets us make a yellow rose blue, add gold to a photograph’s shadows, or color our highlights. You’ll find Selective Color in the menu under Image >Adjustments> Selective color, but I prefer to create, in the Layers palette, a new Selective Color Adjustment Layer with a mask for more precise control over the areas I am enhancing.


6. In CAMERA: A Flash of Color

A Flash of Color

Standing under a mimosa tree while photographing its blossoms, I chose to pop up the on-camera fill flash to improve color in the shadows. In this instance, a lower power fill flash setting brought out the pink hues by boosting the luminance (brightness) of these blossoms.

Colored gels around an off-camera strobe can also be used effectively for more color control.

7. MOBILE Color Editing

Photomate Screenshot


Photomate R3 is a RAW/JPG editing image app for Android. I find it handy for quick color edits on the fly. While not as precise as Photoshop’s Selective Color, Photomate’s Color-Adjustment panel lets you change Hue, Saturation and Luminance in finely graded increments from -100 to +100.

I look forward to your comments and color ideas. Jim

For Book Lovers: Excellent and classic books for those seeking more on the foundations of color photography are:

Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places,

The New Color Photography by Sally Eauclaire

Mastering Color Digital Photography by Michael Freeman.

All your comments on this article are appreciated.


APM Jim Austin JImages Bio 2016


All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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