The pendulum of colour

You have to go too far one way, in order to know where to dial it back. If you never go beyond your boundaries, then you’ll never know where they are.

I see changes in my photography happen slowly throughout the years I’ve been making images. I think we have several muscles that need to be exercised: our visualisation muscle, our composition muscle, our tonal muscle and also with regards to today’s post: our colour muscle.


Learning to use Colour is something many of us don’t even know we have to do. I remember in the early years of my photography how happy I was to just have very strong colour in my images. I never gave colour much thought except ‘is it punchy enough’.

Now I see very differently and understand that some colours:

  1. May not compliment the scene

  2. May cause distraction if too dominant

  3. May cause the scene to be too busy if there is too much of it

  4. May cause the scene to be too ‘dead’ if there isn’t some form of colour in there

  5. Colour needs to be used carefully because it is a component of what we call ‘Composition’.

I think I’ve been working on my Colour-muscle for the past 4 or 5 years. Where I was once happy to just load up the photos with oversaturated colours that caused my eye to be thrown everywhere at the same time, I began a process of reduction. And further reduction, until I began to feel as if my work was just a shade away from being monochrome. I have a theory about this which I’d like to call ‘the pendulum of colour’.

The Pendulum of Colour

We have to learn where the boundaries are. Boundaries are personal: your boundaries will be different from mine. But we all have to find them. Boundaries are important because they tell us a few things:

  1. That we’ve really explored the realm

  2. That we know where the limits of acceptability are to us

  3. Most importantly, that we have found we can go much further than we thought we could.

If you don’t go beyond what you think is acceptable, then how do you know you’ve gone far enough? If you are conservative with your use of colour, tone, composition, focal lengths and stick to the same formats all the time, then you’re never really exploring what’s possible. You aren’t reaching your full potential.

So you have to go way beyond what you think is acceptable to find out where your limits of acceptability are.


I think, for most of us, our use of colour tends to have this kind of trajectory:

  1. We begin our photography by being delighted at having strong colours in the work. Any form of strong colour is great. But we still have to learn how to use colour selectively

  2. As the years go by, we begin to tire of strong coloured photographs and begin to feel we need to find something more. We start to notice that some of the colours are displeasing and we want to reduce them, or desaturate selectively This is what I would call the first pendulum swing: we are now going the other way with our colour use.

  3. Years may pass, but we find we become more aware of colour casts, of shadows having deep hues we never saw when we began our photography. Indeed, looking back at our first attempts causes us embarrassment.

  4. We begin to tune out certain colour casts. The photos become more muted as a result.

At some point, you may feel you’ve reduced colour far too much in what you do. That’s where the 2nd pendulum swing happens. This pendulum swing is different though, for one reason: you have gained experience and understanding of colour. Although you may be re-introducing colour back into your work, you’re much more informed about where, when and just how much you need to use.

As I said at the start of this post today: “You have to go too far one way, in order to know where to dial it back. If you never go beyond your boundaries, then you’ll never know where they are.”

Your use of colour is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. You need to push it far beyond what you’re normally capable of to find out if there’s more potential for you. You also need to do this to understand where the limits are for you. Dialling it back is informative because you begin to understand that you don’t often need as much colour as you once used. When you’ve been doing this for a while you realise that you can re-introduce colour, but it works best when applied selectively and with a much more considered approach.

We change all the time. Our tastes, aesthetics are all on their own pendulum swings, but each time we revert back to something we did a while ago, we do so as a changed person. We don’t repeat: instead we become better at what we do.