The Pendulum Swing of Colour use

I find that each time I edit a new set of images, my application of colour varies. Some times the work has very muted tones. Other times the work has too much colour and I find that a few days later I’m re-adjusting the work to be more muted.

Part of the problem is colour constancy, or the lack of ability in oneself to correctly gauge the strength of colour, the more that one stares at the work. Part of the problem is that I’m still figuring out what my style is, and I find as my mood changes, my feeling towards the work also changes. Sometimes the work is stark and monochromatic, devoid of any colour at all. Other times the work is very colourful, and I feel a need to tone it down.


This is not just a case of my mood changing. It mostly has to do with how our brain ‘auto-white-balances’ what we see. Our visual system innately compensates. What we perceive is not always true .

And I’m sure I’m not alone. Most of us have a hard time judging the level of colour to use in our work.

I’ve seen some photographers who completely lack any colour judgement at all. The work is overly garish, the colours sci-fi, horrific in application because there’s just simply too many strong colours competing with each other. I am convinced that photographers who create this kind of work are at the beginning of their photographic journey. They haven’t developed their colour awareness yet, and are still very much in love with the need to over-excite the work they create. They are so enraptured by having strong colour in their work that we can’t get past it. I believe this, because I suffered from this in my early years.

When I look back at my earlier work, delicate application of colour is pretty non-existent. Despite thinking at the time that the colours were great in my photographs, I now realise that I was working from the belief that ‘more is good’. I had a lot to learn.

At the time, I had no idea about colour relationships, let alone that having too much colour, or competing colours in the frame could sabotage the composition. I also had no idea that composition was more than just the art of placing subjects within a frame. Composition is also about the application of colour, as well as tone and form. Each of these three elements has to work with the other for the composition to be successful. Simply plastering lots of strong colour across my images was clumsy at best, and at worst made my images look infantile.


And now twenty years later I’m still wresting with colour. In that I’m wrestling with ‘just how much’ to use. In other words I struggle with the degree of colour to use. I appreciate that colour is dependent on the subject matter, what the actual landscape offered. Some places are simply more colourful while others are naturally less so. So I understand that some photos or portfolios call for very little colour, while others require the colour to be applied selectively to aid the composition.

My recent images from Brazil are interesting because there appears to be a return to stronger colour for me. They are the strongest set of colour images I’ve made in a while.

But if I look at how I used to use colour over a decade ago, I’m aware that the application was more broad, more clumsy back then. Nowadays, I’m more selective. I feel I can produce a colourful image, without swamping the composition.

Colour is a balancing act.

Put too much in and you can swamp your compositions and ruin your work. Put in too little, and the image can appear dead or lifeless. Some sets of images require more colour than others, and of course we have our visual perception of colour to struggle with while we are deciding upon just how much colour is required.

The use of colour is a skill. Just like working on composition is as life long learning experience that never ends, so too is our application of colour. For colour application cannot not mastered overnight and we should expect our perception of it to pendulum swing from too much to too little, and back again.