Color Theory and Popular Photography


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May 18, 2012
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I made some snarky remarks about contemporary landscape photographers in another thread, which got me to thinking.

Here's a capsule sketch of color theory for decorating rooms, or dressing women:

There's a thing called a color wheel, which arranges the colors in rainbow-order around a wheel, with the purple/violets connected back up to the deep reds. The order is always the same, the details of what's opposite what vary a bit. Anyways. Colors that are close to one another on the wheel are analogous and colors that are opposite one another across the wheel are complementary. We may take "complementary" to mean "pretty darn far away." The basic way to build a color scheme is:

  • pick a color, any color. Maybe at random. Maybe you own a piece that is that color.
  • now pick some analogous colors, similar but not the same as your main color, about the same degree of saturation as your first color.
  • finally pick a complementary color, one that's across the wheel more or less. There's some latitude here. Usually you pick this one to be as saturated or more than the first one.
Your "main palette" is the first set of analogous colors. The room, the outfit, whatever, will be mostly that color. The single complementary color (or, really, small palette of colors) will be your "accent" you'll splash small amounts of it, usually quite saturated and vibrant, around. Not too much, but some.

There's more, but that's the basics of a simple color scheme a decorator might pull together for a room.

Ok, so what?

Let's say you want to sell pictures to decorators to put into rooms. You're going to want to fit into the color scheme reasonably well. This means that:

  • you can draw your colors from a single palette. smaller prints might match the decorator's "accent" color, and larger ones might match the main palette.
  • you can draw your colors from two palettes as long as they are roughly complementary. Then you hope that you hit the main room palette and the accent, close enough to "work"
  • you can add whites, greys, blacks to your picture as you like
Being pretty heavily saturated will help you hit that "accent" palette better. A muted pastel accent color is worthless in the room. So, go pretty saturated all around. You don't know which color palette is going to hit the accent, and it's OK if the main palette is a bit punchy.

Things to avoid:

  • do NOT use more than two palettes of color in your prints. Small amounts of other colors are OK, but not much, and best unsaturated. "Riot of color" prints are right out.
  • b&w is probably a bit iffy.
Now, go look up your favorite mass market landscape photographer and check out their work.

I reserve judgement on what these guys are up to, or why. I reserve judgement on whether it's good or bad. I do, however, claim that the work *I* have looked it appears to be peculiarly well-suited to "matching the couch" applications, by which I mean, really, fitting in with a coherent well-designed decorating scheme.
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Anyways, I should follow up here.

The point of this, really, is that there are certain markets out there with pretty strict constraints on how you use color in your photographs. If you obey those constraints, you're going to do a lot better selling in to those markets. There's a reason those popular guys with galleries selling canvas prints for $4000 a pop make pictures that all look the same. There's a bunch of reasons, actually, but getting the color theory right is certainly one of 'em.
Alain Briot wrote some very good columns of color theory and landscape work. Here's a page from The Luminous Landscape that has the referring URL's to four of the articles, which have some excellent illustrations and color wheels and so on.

Briots View
Thanks, Derrel. I haven't ever run across a discussion of these specific ideas from a photographic perspective, it's usually all about clothes and rooms ;) But the ideas are the same!
In Briot's terms (which are, I think, the standard ones) you can recast my point thus:

"Popular landscape photographers tend to use the Analagous Color Harmony, and the Complementary Color Harmony. Being the simplest of the options, these are the easiest to match to a pre-existing color scheme."

This is an assertion, not a proven fact. The interested may choose to look up some popular artists and make their own judgements.
Having flashbacks to my college art classes.

Anyways this is a fascinating topic. Here is a fun infographic.


The psychology of how color palates affect people is very interesting.

Fun google trick I like to do is type in landscape and then change the color search option to see what comes up.

Red landscapes.,isc:red&um=1&ved=0CDAQpwU
Interesting! If you look at, say, Peter Lik's pictures it is like an unending parade of blue/violet + orange/yellow. Or sometimes just one, or the other. Not every picture, by any means, but a LOT of them.

Apparently movie makers do the same thing ;)

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