The quietness of colour

We’re always changing. Developing or regressing, fluctuating even. But all of these changes accumulate to ultimately say ‘you are different now’.

Perhaps the start of my ‘colour reduction’ phase in my own photography.

Perhaps the start of my ‘colour reduction’ phase in my own photography.

When I look back at my earlier work, I see that it had a lot more colour in it. I’ve been discussing my ‘progress’ with a friend of mine today and I was explaining that for me, composition comes in three layers that are all inter-related.

  1. Structure

  2. Luminance (tone)

  3. Colour

When we all start out, we all work and focus on structure. The placement of objects in the frame. Indeed, I think that most of us think that composition is ultimately about where we place subjects in the frame.




For me, it took about maybe six years or so, before I started to realise that the luminance, or tonal properties of my subjects also affected the composition. Indeed, I think that tone and structure are interrelated. You can’t just place objects in the frame by thinking about structure only. I’m sure you will find that the reason why some arrangements of subjects in the frame work better than others is due to their luminance / tonal qualities. So these two layers of composition are connected.

The last stage, is colour. Yep, that’s right - although colour is where most of us start, and we are often delighted with our red-sky photos, a picture washed in garish colour soon becomes tiring for those that are developing a sensibility towards colour as a contributing factor to compositional success.

I think that all good colour photographs still work, when you strip the colour out. Open any colour photo and turn it to black and white. Does it still work? Are the tones there able to support the image without the colour? Good photographs will still work without their colour component.

For me, I feel I’ve been on a quest the past four or so years to quieten the colour in my images. I worked on structure in my compositions for a long time, then I was thinking about luminance and how it related to structure. These days, I think I’ve been reducing down the colour and in sense, have been playing with ‘how far can I reduce it?’.

One needs to find the boundaries, to understand the terrain that they are working in, so they can then let loose where they need to go.

Colour is a vital part of composition. Too much of it, or too many colours can cause the viewer’s attention to be thrown in many directions at the same time. But to a beginner, lots of colour seems exciting, attractive. It just becomes a little tiring after many years when you realise that by reducing colour or de-saturating certain objects in the frame allow others to shine.

Want to get better at colour composition? Take an art-class. Photography and composition are no different in a camera than they are on a canvas or piece of paper. It’s not a problem if you can’t draw, forget whether you need to learn to do that. An art class will give you the understanding of how composition works, structurally, tonally and with colour.

Colour palettes - colour grading

In black and white photography, tinting prints - tritone, duotone, quad tone, is a staple of the process. Black and white often uses hints of colour in the shadows and highlights to give the work a particular feel or look.

But in colour landscape most photographers don’t apply the same principles to their work. When it comes to editing, few consider using colour thematically. By that I mean, few consider using colour to give their work a particular kind of look or feel. Yes, they may saturate the colours or mute them, but that is often as far as it goes.

Adjusting the colour palette, or ‘look’ of a scene has been a staple of the motion picture industry for a very long time. Movies are there to tell stories and to take us into another world. One way that movie producers take us into another world is by the use of colour. They will often adjust the colour palette of a movie to give a certain feel to it. This is called ‘colour grading’.

In colour photography, many of us choose to adjust contrast and overall saturation of colours, but few of us use colour to convey a certain mood of feeling to the work.

Perhaps you feel that adjusting colour in this way is not what photography is about? Perhaps you feel that photography is about recording what was there?

I hope the opposite is true for you. That you like photographs to convey a mood or a feeling, and that you think of photography as a creative medium where you can cast a spell over the viewer. Photographs aren’t real. They never were. Everything about the process introduces a point of view: where you stood to make the shot, what lens you chose, what exposure you opted to give the shot. All these decisions mean that you are telling a particular story. A point of view. An illusion.

One of the most under-utilised tools in our editing process is the choice of colour palette. It’s something I’ve been working with now for about the past five years: I look for photographs that have similar colour palettes to work as a portfolio. Colour and how it is applied, is just as important as where to stand was, or what lens to use. Colour is part of how we tell our stories, and using it in a delicate, considered way to ‘colour grade’ our photographs is a skill that most never consider.

I colour grade my work all the time. I consider the use of colour just as important as all the other more mainstream actions we take. I’m not interested in whether the colour is accurate to what I saw, but more about whether the tonal and colour palettes give me the look and feel I want.