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Color Schemes in Photography

Posted on July 30  2020

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Colour can have huge impact on a photograph, and in landscape/nature photography it can completely change the mood of an image.

However, there is rarely talk about altering colours slightly to better fit a colour scheme. You see talk of colour theory in staged/studio photography, yet you can also utilize colour theory in your editing process. To be clear, I am NOT referring to the practice of simply increasing the saturation/vibrance of all the colors in your photo to get a easy overall enhancement. Instead, I like to adjust the various hues to eliminate certain colors and achieve a more cohesive color scheme in an image. 

Before I delve into the technical aspect of this, I highly recommend checking out Adobe's Colour Wheel for an interactive tool to help understand color harmonies and how they work. Generally speaking, most of these color harmonies are groups of 3-4 colors. In reality, nature doesn't always follow these color harmonies and you might find you have a lot more colors than just 3-4. While having a multitude of different hues and colours can have a dazzling effect, if you are trying to achieve high impact or strong focal points colour harmonies can really help. However changing  the sky to be bright purple and make the grass yellow would also look pretty goofy, so it's a bit more challenging to utilize colour harmonies in your photography.

Taking the color of the sky and the grass as an example. We can create variations of that color by adding another color to it. While it can be difficult to imagine an "orange-ish green" or "reddish green" when you see them side by side such as in the example below, it makes sense. You can experiment with this in Photoshop by taking a color and adding a fill with another color, with a low opacity like 10-30%. 


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   In most cases, all of the colours that have been altered above would be "reasonable" changes when it comes to photo editing, in the sense that you can still detect some of the original colour. And if you were looking for complementary colours, you can now take the yellowish-green and the purplish blue, and suddenly you have nice colour contrast. Alternatively, if you want to reduce contrast in a background and bring focus back to the subject of the photo, you could add blue to the grass and make the sky a bit more cyan to bring those colours closer together. In addition to this, warm colors will often appear to be popping out, while cool colors will recede to the background. There are exceptions to this rule, especially when you factor in brightness/contrast, saturation, and surrounding elements, but generally if you want your subject to pop a bit more, you may want to consider adding more yellow or orange to the focal points or interesting areas f your picture. 

     Alternatively, you can use colour to convey a certain mood or feeling to an image. The easiest example is warmer colors make you feel like you're looking at a hot climate, and convey feelings of energy, joyfulness, and danger. Cool colors make you feel like your looking at a cold climate, and can make you feel sad, calm or add mystery.               

Of course the best way to demonstrate this is to dive in to examples! Below I'll show the before and after pictures of various photos I took, and explain my reasoning behind my colour choices.                

Sunflowers

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The original photo is taken in the afternoon on a warm Summer day, so the shadows are harsh and everything is a bit washed out and dull. I edited two different versions of this photo to demonstrate how different colours can effect the mood of the image.

On the left, I brightened up the yellows and made the sky and the greenery a bit more blue. This gives a bright, cheery mood like the start of Summer. 

On the right, I dulled down the greens and darkened them so the focus was just on the blues and yellows of the sky and the flowers. The yellows in this image lean more red, so the image still reads as a hot summer day, but maybe at the end of summer when things are starting to wilt and brown. 

Barred Owl

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The original photo of this magical moment of meeting a barred owl in a snow storm just wasn't cutting it for me. Because of where the owl originally perched, I only had a boring snowy background to work with and the fact that it was snowing heavily was completely lost. However, I caught a photo of the owl flying into a field moments later that highlighted the beauty of the snowfall, and was able to use as a background to bring the "magic" back into the photo.

Lone Buck

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I took this photo from the drive-thru of a coffee shop, so to say I wasn't adequately prepared is a bit of an understatement. Luckily, I quickly reached for my camera  and took a couple dozen photos before the buck disappeared. I was in love with the incredible contrast of the white bark and the dark forest, but in my haste to focus on the buck the beautiful birch was cropped out. However, thanks to the power of editing I was able to reunite them both again. 

Black Bear

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Full disclosure, this black bear photo was taken in Parc Omega, where this black bear was in a captive environment and the photo was shot from a vehicle. This is likely the only safe way I could get this close of a shot of a bear with the gear I own. That being said, although I loved how sharp this portrait is, the original shot was pretty lackluster. Instead, I tried to accentuate the texture , and bring the focus in to it's face with some heavy vignetting.

Butchart Gardens

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There wasn't much to add to this incredible shot of Butchart Gardens in mid-April, but in order to get all the detail of the garden, I had to add the sky back in from an underexposed shot. In addition to this, I was able to creatively combine dozens of shots spread out over a couple minutes to mask out the tourists from the original photo.

Fox Kit

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These Fox kits called this neighborhood culvert their home, which made them easy to watch, but pretty challenging to photograph due to the dark lighting. I also wasn't thrilled about having a man-made structure in the background, despite it being a common behavior for foxes to build dens close to humans. I just loved the curiosity in this Kit's face, so I cropped in on it and added a strong vignette to focus in on the kit's expression. All further edits were focused on making sure the kit's eyes were front and center.


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