Color Theory for Photographers

 

Lesson Info

Introduction and Importance of Color Theory

So why is color theory important? Well, let's first backtrack, and what is color theory? You can look at the term color theory, you can Google it, you can find "color theory meaning," you can type it after this, and you can find out all these different things about what color theory is. Really it's just, what I want you to take away from this, is it's color relationships, that's all it is. It's nothing more than how colors work together, and maybe if you wanna talk about the science of it, but what you're going to find is that, just like sarcasm, it's subjective. Color is so subjective. It's subjective to the individual looking at it. It's subjective to the individual that is using it. So it's almost like there's really no one true system to say that if you do this, you will get this. But, we can get pretty close by using color theory. I love color. It might not look like it, because I'm wearing all dark clothes, but it's what's underneath that you can't see, and I know what you're thi...

nking, but it's my socks, alright? (audience laughs) So I got the color theory socks going on. No, I love color, and I love color because it is the ultimate manipulator, that if you can understand this information as a photographer, especially if you're at a very, let's say beginning stage of your photography, this is gonna be some of the most powerful information that you're ever going to hear, and I'm not saying that from a narcissistic point of view. I'm saying that because you can control your viewer. You can manipulate them to see exactly what you want them to see, and that's why, that's one of the reasons why it's important for us as photographers. You are using color theory right now, and you don't even know it, I guarantee you don't even know it. You're using it in every single thing that you do. Because color theory is such a part and aspect of the photo editing process for very simple things. Tint and temperature. Those sliders that you use there are based on color theory principles, and we'll talk about that, you'll make the connection, and be like, "Oh, "man, that makes so much sense now." Hue saturation, color adjustments. If anyone uses the HSL adjustment layer in Photoshop, or the sliders in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, you are modifying things in terms of color theory, mainly in the color properties area. But the other reason why this is important is that you can either use this information to correct your images and be very technical, or you can use this information to exaggerate the things that you want in your images, and be very creative and artistic with it. Another reason why it's important is the viewer's response. As I said before, the viewer is gonna look at your images, and they're gonna feel a certain thing based on what you've allowed them to see. Harmony and aesthetics, you can create some very harmonious images when you know how to use color, but you can create some horrible images if you don't know how to use color. Clashing colors, I mean, if I tried to dress color coordinated, it wouldn't work. I'm not very fashionable when it comes to color, but I understand the ideas of harmony and aesthetics, so I typically tend to go with earthly colors, because I know that's me. But there are some people I see, they just know how to put colors together for an outfit, but then they can't really do it in their artistic work. It's interesting, because they don't think about it in terms of that. But you can control their mood, you can control their emotions, you can control directly how they feel about the image that you're putting in front of them. You can, and it's all up to you, with what you do with these colors and the color theory. And your creative styling, this is probably the most important part, is your artistic expression, and what you come across with color, and how you express yourself with color, based off of what you want the viewer to see, but based on how you want to feel towards that image as well, because we are the director at that point. We're the director of their emotions, and we're the director of our own emotions in the image, which can be sometimes very difficult for us to, uh, to put ourselves out there, because by using those colors and creating those images, we have a very personal attachment to it, just to find out that somebody doesn't like that color palette, and that's why they might not like that image. But your technical expertise, the great thing about this, and with color theory, is that the more you accept it, the more you understand it, and the more you use it, the better you get technically, and the better you get technically, the more efficient you become, and who doesn't want to become more efficient with the things that they do? Because efficiency means more time that you can spend with your family instead of editing endless amounts of photos, because you're trying to see what color combinations work, or maybe you're experimenting a little bit too much, instead of doing, knowing what's gonna happen, and predicting what happens when you use these colors. So, just to give you a couple of examples of how color theory is used, this is one of my favorite images from recently, actually, it's a place called Grinter Farms, in Kansas, and he's got 40 acres of beautiful sunflowers, 40 acres, and he's so open about it, he's, "Come one, come all," you don't even have to pay for it, just he wants a place for everyone to go to, it's a very great place to shoot sunflowers. So, with this, I really wanted to exploit the colors that were there. But this, you're like, "Eh, it's some flowers in a field." But, with something like this, it's exaggerating those colors, it's making you really feel the intention behind those colors. I mean just look at the difference inside the petals of those flowers when we do this, they get really robust and vibrant, to the point where our eyes go right to those sunflowers, and they're no longer just lost in the mist. Now, in this image, this was what I call technically, I don't want to say perfect, but technically adjusted for tones, so that I can move on into my color adjustments, and make these color adjustments get here. So, yes, there's a little bit of tone in there, but for the most part, this is about color control. This is about using the colors that are available in that image, or adding colors into it that I wanted to be there, to get my point across. Here's another image, this is just a normal photograph, hasn't been processed too far, but we can make it subtly a little bit more warm, you might not even see it, it's very subtle, but look at the difference in the hair, it's a little bit warmer. But then we can completely change the mood of this image by going with something like this, where now we're disconnected from this person, just by the mood that's created from the colors in the image, maybe it's like the ice queen concept, because of the blues that we're choosing, as opposed to the warm and inviting color that we're choosing here. Now, whatever your favorite television show is, whatever your favorite movie is, every one of them is doing this in those to make you feel something, and you don't even realize it. If you've ever shot your own video, on your camera, and you put it in your computer, like, "Oh, this is gonna be the most epic scene in the world," and you put it in there, and it's like, "Man, the colors are horrible, it's all contrasty, "how did someone shoot a whole film with the Canon 5DS, "and how did they do that? "It doesn't look like that on my Canon." But when you, when you color grade it, you get that mood, and you get that emotion across. Here's another example coming up here, this was in Yosemite, we had this gorgeous morning, with no clouds, unfortunately, but the sun just peeks right up there in Tunnel View, and I still don't know, maybe why they call it Tunnel View, whether it's because you get tunnel vision when you look at it, or it's at the end of the tunnel, because it's right at the end of the tunnel, too. (laughs) So it could be both. But I love this place, and I love the location, but this image didn't do it, this is, you know, straight out of the camera, you got the nice sun flare going on there, but it doesn't make you feel much about it, other than, "Okay, you got a nice sun flare, "great job, I could do that." But then when you do something like this, and you start controlling the amount of yellow that's coming across in that sun, you amply all the greens that are coming out in front of you, and you start hitting those highlights with some more color, watching that transition, and seeing it paint over here, and then maybe you drop in a sky because you didn't like the one that you had. (laughs) That's neither here nor there for this color theory course, but, it's part of the process. This starts to control the mood a little bit more. This looks like something that someone just gets a camera, they go to Yosemite, and they get that shot that they've always wanted. This is more of that artistic piece that you can, it almost looks like a painting that you can frame on maybe some canvas or even metal at that point. But, I've been talking about the emotive nature of color here, and I really want to dig into that, because you can control the viewer with this stuff, to the point that you make them feel a certain thing. Because colors have a strong effect on who we are as humans. The interesting thing about color, though, is that every culture looks at color differently. There are some tribes that, if you told them to describe, I was going to say something red. If you told them to describe this color red, and you asked 15 individuals, they would all say something different about that color. But all of them still know that they're referencing the color red, but they all have a different way of describing that color red. Whereas we just say, "red." So, knowing that, that culturally color is different, knowing that being male and female, color is very different, especially because it's ingrained in us at a young age, I have a boy, I have three boys, so lots of blue in our life. If we had three girls, there would be a lot of pink in our life, because that's what we do, societally, with color. We also have our own intrinsic feelings about color. So you got the cultural aspect of color, you've got the societal aspect of color, and you've got the intrinsic feeling of color. All of these colors, and you have no idea that this stuff is even happening in these individuals, or what they even feel about it. But you have to know that we can be triggering both positive and negative feelings with the colors that we choose. So you can either make someone really want to come towards that, or really go away from it. You really want to make me go towards one of your pieces, make it blue and put some circles in it. And I'm like, "Ahh." (audience laughs) Make it pink and throw some rectangles in it, I'm like, "No, not my thing." But that's who I am as a person, and that's what I know about myself, and what I know about color. They can actually have physical effects. Color can make you physically feel something. I get a lot like that with music, music will give me goosebumps, but sometimes color gives people goosebumps, it just depends on how they're wired and how they think, but more importantly, red is a color of hunger. The next time you're driving down the street, look at the fast food restaurants, and tell me how many of them have the color red in their logo. It's gonna be a big portion of them, because they know that red, and why do you think that is? That's because in a hunger-gatherer environment, red, berries, go towards it, it makes you hungry. That's how we're kind of wired as human beings. So part of that intrinsic thing, maybe more of the, uh, what's the word I'm looking for? The innate nature of human beings, to go towards certain colors. But color is also a storyteller. You can completely change the story of an image, completely change the story, just by the colors that you choose. So this slide is my favorite slide, because it makes me wanna, "Ahh, it's too much, it's too much." Is it a positive effect or a negative effect? Definitely on the negative side. And the one I'm going to pinpoint here is the positive negative effect of the color purple. So, the color purple here, on the positive side, is about spirituality, truth, bliss, those are things that people feel when they see the color purple. I think about that from my Catholic upbringing, that Catholic priests would wear purple garb, robes, during the Lent season. But who else wears purple? The Joker. So on the complete flip side of that, you have corruption, you have suppression, you have inferiority. Most bad guys, especially in the DC comic line are purple. Very purple, vibrant purples, to bring out that idea of corruption. Alright, so you have to think about that. You can think about all the different adjectives that are gonna be coming up here when you see this slide. Here's an example. This is a train at the Lackawanna station, in Pennsylvania. That's where my roots are, I used to call home, because that's where grandparents are. This train, this is the normal shot of it, this is no post-processing done, no post-production, but watch the dramatic differences that happen here, is that now we get more of an antique feeling, more of an old feeling, just by changing some of the colors here. Now we have a cold, stale feeling, like, "I don't wanna go in that train, "'cause it's cold." Now we have one here, where this is more of a vintage, timeless feeling, almost like maybe something you'd see in a 1920s film, or something like that. It's got that kinda edgy kind of feel to it. This is, whoa. This is hot. It almost makes you feel exhausted when you look at it, because it has that feeling of summer, really hot summer days. And then we have something like this where it's almost harsh and almost horror-esque, where they put that color grade on, and the person's running to the back of the train, "Oh no, the door's locked." And it's telling a story just by the decisions that we make. This is a subtle mood, with a little bit of a vintage effect. So we had a lot of drastic effects, but here's the subtle mood, and then if we go back to the beginning, this was the normal image, the out-of-camera shot, and then the subtle shot that I ended up going with, to get that mood and that feeling across. But these are all things that I went through in order to get to that point. So, you know, the quote over here says, "Set aside time to experiment." I always set aside time to experiment, especially if you're a business professional, working in photography. If you don't wanna lose that passion in the thing that you do, take time to experiment with something completely different, because that's where a lot of my products actually come from, my courses that I create, come during my experimentation time, it's a very important time for me. My wife's like, "Come to bed, it's 9 o'clock," and I'm like, "No, I got three hours to experiment." Because my kids wake up at 6:30, so I try to plan everything right between that time, so I'm like, that's my experimentation time, if I miss out on that, I might not be able to make the next product, you never know, so set aside that time to experiment, especially when you get into color theory. Here's gonna be a really drastic difference is the Golden Gate Bridge here, this is the normal shot, kinda straight-out-of-camera, a little bit of post-production. Here's a much more dramatic effect, because I've been in San Francisco when it's cold, and it can be, that wind that blows through there, it's really cold, but I've also been in San Francisco where it's really warm, two completely different feelings from the exact same image, all handled with the principles of color theory in mind. So how do we use color theory? It's a system. It is a system, but don't be scared, okay? Because it's a system for control over a subjective thing, the subjective thing being color, as we've been discussing here. We do that with the color wheel, and very specific color properties for color. So, we can't talk about the color wheel without talking about the painter's color wheel that you all had in kindergarten. And what were those colors? Red, yellow, and blue. Those are your primary colors. Those primary colors are colors that can only, those are the only colors that cannot be made. You cannot make red, you cannot make blue, you cannot make yellow, because of the pigments, but you can make any color you want from those primary colors, that's why they're called primary colors. Next you have the secondary colors, which is where you mix your yellow and your blue to make orange, and your red and your yellow, or your yellow and your blue to make green, and your red and your yellow to make orange, and so on and so forth. I just got done watching something about elementary color with my kids, I should've known that. (laughs) It was on just the other day, I was like, "Why don't I just record this and play this here?" The next thing is a really creative one, I love this one. This is where they got really creative, what they call tertiary colors. And they got really creative with the names. Because it's the combination of red and orange is "red orange." The combination of yellow and orange, "yellow orange." So if you work around the color wheel, it's how these things combine. If you look at this color wheel, you've got your primary colors, and then you've got your secondary colors, and your tertiary colors, and that's how it works. But, I hate to tell you this, I want you to kind of forget about this, in a way, okay? Because in walks the digital color wheel. And this is where things get different, much different. The source of my failure, from that painting, comes from this concept right here. So in the digital world, we have the subtractive color model, which you think of printers that print in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And then you have the additive color model, where you have monitors, or pixel base, which is red, green, and blue. Now, in order to edit properly, in Photoshop, Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, I don't care where you're doing it, you have to understand this principle that you now have six primary colors. Alright? And these colors all work hand-in-hand, that no longer is the complement for red green, but the complement for red is cyan. Which now, if you're thinking, and you're like, "Wait, you inverted all of your reds, "and they didn't turn green, did they?" No, they turned cyan, so, I just gave you the source of my failure. But with that color, you have color properties. You've all seen these before, saturation is just the intensity of a color. How much color is in that color? How potent is that color? How powerful is that color? And we have hue, which hue is probably the most difficult one to understand. It's, what color is that color? Because green and forest green are in the same family. That's a hue of green, forest green would be a hue of green, but when we talk about this in terms of Photoshop, and you're like, "The hue, I can change the hue "to anything I want," and you're right. Because what color is that color? What color do you want that color to be? And I'll show you that here when we get into the actual practical application of this. And then here we have lightness. And lightness is the luminance value, how much white or black is present in that color, or in the painter's world, we call that value, how much value is in there, but we don't call that value in the digital world of processing. So now we have something called color relationships. And color relationships are how you use the color wheel to make certain things jive in the image. And you can create different types of compositions with color, so a lot of times we talk about composition in terms of where we place images, and things in our image, or our photo, this is where we place and manipulate color within our photo, so you can create compositions within it. Here would be several images that look at the complementary color scheme to build their harmony and their contrast within the image. And the powerful thing about color is that you don't have to reduce the saturation of all of your colors by dropping down that saturation down, to make one color boost over another one. You can sometimes just go in and boost one color up a little bit, or if that color is already right where you want it to be, just reduce the saturation a little bit on some of the other colors. Or if you think about it in terms of complementary colors, if you want a higher contrast, place one of those complementary colors next to, or around, the other colors. A lot of contrast comes from this image, because of that green and purple look, a lot of contrast here, again, from that green and purple magenta look, and then the blue and the yellow, and the blue and the orange that's going on here in this image. We have analogous colors, this one's really kind of easy. Why are sunsets so gorgeous to us? It's the harmony that's created in there. Because if you look at any sunset or sunrise, it's gonna be doing one of these numbers, or one of these numbers around here. There's a lot of beautiful colors that happen in those analogous schemes. And that doesn't mean that it has to be all analogous. You can do the cool kitsch thing now that they do in houses, where they have the accent color. It's okay to have other colors in there too. But these are examples of images that would have an analogous color scheme, your yellows and your greens, your yellows and your greens, pretty easy to manipulate in those. And here we have the blues and the magentas. And again, maybe a little bit of an accent there, that's okay, I don't need that green to be blue, that wouldn't be natural, okay? We'll just keep that green. (laughs) That's okay. And then we have monochromatic. A a lot of times we think of monochromatic in terms of black and white, but what about monochromatic in terms of color, where we're adding color to those images? Almost like that silver-tone type of look to your images that you would see from film days. And these will be images that embrace that idea of monochromatic images, where all of the tones in this image, all of the colors in this, or the tones in this image have been attributed with the color blue. All of the tones in this image have been attributed with more of a yellowish orange color, and then here, you get that kind of antique green kinda look on the image of the coffin down there below. So what's the most important for photographers? The most important one I want you to understand, especially in this, is the complementary colors. Not necessary for the schemes that you put together, but for editing your images. This is a really critical one when it comes to editing your images. And so we get that relationship between red and cyan, blue and yellow, and magenta and green, and you're going to see this throughout the rest of this practical application, everything I do, you're going to see that these colors all work hand-in-hand together. So what I'm gonna do here is I'm gonna do some practical application in Photoshop, just show you how you can control these things. We're gonna start off, kinda like what I call the high school mentality. It's gonna be the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior level, or if you're in college, the 101, 201, 301, 401 idea. So we're gonna start off pretty basic in Lightroom, or Adobe Camera Raw, I don't use Lightroom, I use Adobe Camera Raw, but you can use this information in Lightroom if you do spend a lot of time in Lightroom. It's a personal preference thing for me. Color properties, and Photoshop manipulation, because what you'll find is that, you're like, "Yeah, well we have all these tools in Adobe Camera Raw "and Lightroom, but I don't need to go into Photoshop." I'm gonna show you that you do need to go into Photoshop. Okay? I spend about 95% of my editing time in Photoshop. 5% on the Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw area. That's also because I'm a fine art photographer by nature. If I was gonna do an event, would I do 95% of it in Photoshop? Probably not, because that would be a lot of Photoshopping to do, very intricate things on little images. Then we're gonna talk about color theory and curves, and you're going to see how these complements work together there, and then color theory and mood, and how we can actually manipulate the image with very quick, very subtle things in Photoshop, that you can't do anywhere else. And then advanced concepts and color theory, and this is where we're gonna talk about breaking certain things down, so we can break our image down, and only modify certain colors and basically become like a painter of color within our images.

Color Theory is often referred to as "Painter's Knowledge." However, the truth is that having a strong foundation in Color Theory as a photographer can make a world of difference in your finishing effects and help you define your artistic style. Post processing expert Blake Rudis walks through Color Theory from the basics to the practical application so that you can improve your photography, post processing techniques, and style.

 
 
 
 

Reviews

  • Mind blown in this short class! MORE, MORE, MORE...I'm going to go find his other classes right now. He does go pretty quick but the tidbits of amazing tricks using curves and gradients are amazing!
  • I really enjoyed Blake’s class. He is very clear and concise and I found it very helpful to learn a bit more about colour interaction and how to play with it. I would also like to know how to add the zone chart.. many thanks!
  • A lot of new information in here for me. The theory is very well presented: clear and engaging. I'll need to learn more about Photoshop to fully take advantage of the practical aspects, but that's OK, always good to have something new to learn. This is a course I'll be happy to come back to as I learn more.