Hints & Tips

Punch Up the Color

Tom Bol, March 25, 2017

Here's one of Tom's "old" magazine articles reproduced and edited:

“This is a really nice image.”  I tell Jay, a photo workshop participant.  I’m teaching a landscape photo workshop, and this afternoon we are doing image critiques.

“I like the horizontal line, the foggy atmosphere, and the silhouetted person on the sidewalk.  But there is one thing I would do different.”

“Maybe crop out the side of the tree?”  Jay asks.

“No, I think the tree is okay.  I think you need to crop out the red stop sign.  Everything in your shot implies a tranquil, sleepy scene…except the bright red sign.  Red distracts the viewer from the man, and implies danger and action.  This scene is all about calm.  To improve the image, you need to use color that supports the image concept.”

Color is a critical design element in an image. Some photographers, like Peter Turner and Eric Meola, have based their careers on photographing color.  Color is their subject matter, not a supporting element.  But for many photographers, color is an after thought in their image.  I’m guilty of this mistake as well.  I could change the color in post-production, but this doesn’t excuse my oversight when I captured the image.  Color needs to be considered in every image.

Here’s the million-dollar question: What color(s) is best for your shot? The good news is learning color theory is simple.  And once you understand what color implies, you can use this knowledge to create stronger images.  Just remember one concept when you are composing an image.

Design elements need to support one another and point in the same direction. Harmonious design elements create a strong image.  If one design element goes against the concept that the other elements imply, the image won’t be as strong as it could be.

Color Theory

Before we can look at individual colors and color combinations, we need to have a basic understanding of color theory.  One of my favorite questions to ask a photography workshop is, ‘What are the primary colors?’  Usually more than half the class replies red, green and blue.  We live and work in such a RGB world that it makes sense that these are the primary colors.  For the visible spectrum of light, such as in computer monitors, LCD projectors and our DSLR’s (or mirrorless camera) sensor, red, green and blue are indeed the primary colors.  This is the additive color theory model. That is, when we combine them we get white.

But we photographers (and artists too) work in the pigment and paint based world. Here we use the traditional, or subtractive color theory model where red, blue and yellow are the primary colors. When we subtract them we, again, get white. By the way, they’re called primaries because they’re the only colors that can’t be created by mixing any other colors together. Equal part mixtures of any two of these colors result in the secondary colors of green, orange and purple.  And, yes, there are tertiary (or intermediate) colors too. Continued mixing of these colors results in an endless array of hues.  But to keep things simple, let’s just look at the primary and secondary colors and what they imply to the viewer.

Color Significance

Color has been studied and analyzed since the 1400s and Leonardo Da Vinci.  Designers, painters and photographers use these established theories in their work.  Entire advertising campaigns are based around color and its implied meaning.  The significance of color can be different from a cultural standpoint too.  We think of white as representing purity and innocence, a perfect choice for a bride’s wedding dress.  But in some cultures white signifies mourning and death.  Different cultural color associations may affect how you use color in your image.

Below are popular colors and their established meaning.  The next time you’re composing a shot, study the colors in the image.  Do they help or hinder your concept?  Once you recognize the color significance and use it to your advantage, you are on the way to creating better images.  


Red is one of my favorite colors to use in an image.   Red implies love, danger, heat and action.  Red catches the viewer’s eye, and is hard to overlook.  Since I shoot a lot of adventure sports, red works well.  Adventure sports are often about adrenaline pumping action, and red supports this concept well.  But red can have two different meanings in an image.  On one hand red signifies love, warmth and positive feelings.  But red can also be used to signify danger, anger and jealousy.  In creating an image illustrating two people arguing over a traffic accident, red faces would help symbolize anger.  But a couple embracing with red skin tones would signify love.


Blue has the opposite effect of red.  Blue implies calm and tranquility.  Blue signifies cold as well.  I photograph a lot of assignments in Alaska.  One subject I encounter every year are towering glaciers.  These glaciers are frigid blocks of ice.  What camera technique can I use to help imply cold?  For starters, I want to use a neutral white balance like Daylight, not Cloudy or Shade.  While I use Cloudy white balance for many landscape images, this white balance will add an orange tone and warm up my icy cold glacier, not the right effect for blue fins of ice.  Use blue to support cold scenes, or to contribute to qualm, tranquil scenes.


Yellow is a friendly, welcoming color.  Just imagine how many front door mats have bright yellow sunflowers on them.  Beyond the attractive flowers, yellow is inviting people into your home.   Yellow implies cheeriness, happiness, hope and high energy.  If you want to photograph young kids and illustrate the exuberance and joy of playing in the park, yellow is a good choice.  Yellow is an advancing, eye-catching color that will attract a viewer’s attention and create optimism in an image.  


To create an eco-friendly image, green is your color.  Green symbolizes the natural world, spring growth, and good health.  Green creates a soothing feeling and promotes harmony with the surrounding environment.  Many advertisers use green to convey an underlying tone to the product they are advertising.  If you are selling a medicine that makes people healthy and eliminates their stress, green is a good choice.  I was hired to shoot images to illustrate how visiting Alaska ‘brought you back to nature.’  We used numerous sweeping green tundra landscapes to help convey this feeling. 


Orange is another eye-catching color that attaches the viewer’s attention.  Think of how many distress symbols and objects use orange…life rings, traffic cones, and buoys. Orange stimulates creativity (a good thing!), enthusiasm and appetite.  It also represents warmth.  Similar to red, I like to use orange in my adventure sports imagery.  Orange is hard to ignore and bound to get a reaction from the viewer, a great choice for a gripping adventure sports shot.  Climbers summiting a peak look terrific in bright colors.  Orange parkas create tension and interest in the shot, perfect for the image concept.  If you have blue skies in the shot, then you have a dynamic complimentary color pattern.  Put the same climbers on the summit in brown coats, and you may not even see them.  You don’t want calm, relaxing colors in this image, they defeat the image concept (determination, perseverance, endurance).


Purple (or violet) signifies uniqueness and royalty.  Purple is a good choice to show something that is special.  Purple is also uplifting and calming, and a color used to reflect spirituality.  If I wanted to photograph a woman practicing yoga and really focus in on the spirituality of the image, purple would be good choice to use in the image.

Complimentary Colors

Complimentary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel.  An effective way to bring some ‘snap and pop’ to your images is to combine primary and secondary colors that compliment one-another. When these colors are used side by side in an image, they set up a “conflict” or “tension” making each hue more vibrant and intense.  Use this color relationship to your advantage in your images.

Red and Green

Red and green used side by side make each hue more vibrant.  Imagine a red maple tree surrounded by green pine trees.  The maple tree just seems to jump off the page.  This is due to both shape and the complimentary color pattern.  I once shot an assignment in the Virgin Islands.  I photographed red kayaks traveling across the transparent green ocean as our group paddled around St. John.  I couldn’t believe how the red sea kayaks seemed to vibrate in my images, all due to the complimentary color pattern.

Blue and Orange

Have you ever wondered why images from the desert southwest look so dramatic?  Sure, the towering spires and arches are stunning subject matter.  But consider the color palate of this arid landscape.  Most of the sandstone is orange, and many days the sky overhead is blue; a perfect complimentary color pattern.  The blue and orange complimentary colors make Delicate Arch even more dramatic!  The desert southwest is one of the most obvious complimentary color patterns in nature.

Yellow and Purple

The last complimentary color pattern is yellow and purple.  Finding this color pattern in the summer is easy.  Many fields of wildflowers are composed of violet and yellow flowers.  Just point and shoot, the colors will be helping you create a striking landscape image.  Spend fall days in Colorado and you’ll find the aspen’s yellow fall color against azure blue skies. If you can’t find a natural complimentary color pattern, make your own.  Set up a purple colored seamless background, and try photographing a model wearing yellow.  Your model will ‘pop of the canvas.’

As you probably know, there are other parts to design that are important to consider as well.  Line, shape, form, texture and pattern all play a role in your image concept.  But it’s color that often sets the tone for a shot.