Finding Colour Harmonies

Unless you shoot in black and white you have to pay attention to colour and its ability to make or break your images.

Individually, colours may be loud or quiet. Collectively they sometimes shout at each other and at times they coo in harmony like contented pigeons on a summer’s afternoon.

You can’t just ignore colour and hope for the best. Out there on the streets you’ll find people wearing garishly coloured costumes, or carrying brightly coloured bags or sporting multi-coloured hairstyles in various shades of lurid. You will often find your great composition has been ruined by a coloured hat (dress/bag/hair-do) popping up in the wrong place.

The Colour of Light
When I go out to take pictures my first thought is about colour. Or, to be accurate, I think first about the light and its influence on colours we perceive. Is it a grey day when everything will assume soft tones, lacking contrast and colour intensity? Or is it intermittently sunny and shady, with sunlight cutting through the cloud, bouncing off other clouds and making colour all the more brilliant?

If the light is too intense I tend to move inside a covered area, like a shopping mall. The alternative is to wait until early evening, when a yellowish glow pervades the scene outside. I figure: I can always tone it down slightly in Photoshop. I’m not a great fan of images that appear too warm.

Colour temperature (the measure of the colour of light, from cool, bluish white to warm yellow and red) adds a distinctive colour cast to the world, but we’re not always aware of it. A sheet of notepaper appears white in a New York morning — and still appears white in Miami at sundown. It appears that way because we know what a sheet of white paper is supposed to look like. Only if we start to think about it — and begin to look critically — can we detect the difference.

Colours Unleashed
When the colour balance of your photo is just right (not too warm and not too chilly) the actual colours of the subject can become more, rather than less, unruly. This is because they no longer have the unifying presence of a colour cast, which subdues them into submission by turning them all slightly yellow or blue. Now the reds can fight with the greens, like Nigeria playing Ghana in the FIFA World Cup.

If you don’t want your colours to be unruly you have to look for scenes where they harmonise. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of them.

Colours live in harmony when they sit next to each other on the “colour wheel,” (so-called “analagous colour schemes”). You can make more vibrant harmonies by including colours that group in triadic fashion — taking them from three points of an equilateral triangle overlaid on the colour wheel.

Otherwise, find harmonies within gradations of the same colour, mixed in with a similar range of tones in the above combinations.

Seeing Colours on the Street
In practice, you, the street photographer, are never going to ask: “Am I looking at triadic colours?” when a good subject moves into view. Rather, you develop a knack for seeing harmonies where they exist and finding the right subject within them.

Taken in a mall, my featured image (above) is called “Teenage Pink” and I considered using it for a blog post about “single colour dominance.” I’m glad I didn’t, because here I’ve found so many gradations of pink — together with the yellow on the right of the frame — that I can’t say it’s a “single colour” image. The colours harmonise, as they do in my next image (below).

Reds and browns harmonise beautifully, but you also need a lighter colour to brighten the image. In this shot of three women cleaning a restaurant window I was lucky the subjects had white tunics. White is neutral and it matches the colour of the chefs’ outfits and that of the plates and jars on the tables. On scrutinising the image I can see that the woman on the right appears to be rubbing out my own image which is reflected in the glass.

It’s possible that your style of photography is not dependent on colour harmony. Neither is mine, but I enjoy it when I discover a subject where harmonious colours are present. It’s like finding an unusual, red coloured pebble on the beach: not especially rare, but it’s what catches your eye amidst all the yellowish stones surrounding it.

I find that older people often dress in harmonious colours whereas children are given loud discordant colours to wear. I’m always hoping that some enterprising entrepreneur will start selling “tasteful clothes for children,” but I’m not holding my breath over it. In the image below, everything is reasonably harmonious except for the little boy’s shoes.

The photo looks more peaceful if I crop it heavily, but then you can see that the 1/200th shutter speed was not quite fast enough to freeze the movement of the old lady’s hand. (I remember her placing it in position just as I pressed the shutter button).

I suppose I could dispense with the child and see how Granma looks on her own next to the drying tee-shirts. Not at all bad! But I’ve lost the wonderful skirt, the colourful stools, the bicycle and the sleepy child — not to mention the Thai flag.

In Summary
In street photography we have very limited control over colour because we have to photograph what’s there in the real world. In the photo of the lady and her grandchild I could scarcely ask her to remove the boy’s shoes in the interests of colour harmony. I’d come across these two people by chance in a Bangkok side street and the shot was entirely candid.

Getting colours that are both harmonious and vivid is especially hard. You need good light, clean air, and a subject with the right combination of hues and tones. Muted shades are easier — and it’s best if you exclude toys, fruit, traffic cops, groceries, Chinese restaurants, sweet wrappers, uniformed street cleaners — or anything that tries to attract attention with clashing colours.

Good luck with that.

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