photography, tutorial

Composition – Colour

hand bw with blue filter

Let’s start with the first part of this tutorial. We already did a brief introduction, but now we’re going to talk about colour, as per the index!


It is undeniable that colour has an effect on how we perceive an image. A photograph doesn’t have the same impact in black and white than it does in colour. Even when we have colours, there’s a difference in how we perceive the photograph based on how strong (or saturated) those colours appear.

Couple on a bench in colour

looks like a normal image

Couple on a bench - Barcelona

it looks better in black and white, don’t you think?

Thanks to digital photography we can now choose whether to have an image in colour or black and white after the picture has been taken. Before, it was a decision that had to me made prior to the photo being taken, depending on what message one wanted to send. This was done by choosing the type of film. I’m not going to argue all the advantages of digital photography but in my opinion, you had more control over the image before. When I say control, I am aware digital cameras offer many more options to alter the image by changing every single parameter in a photograph, before and after capturing it. By saying control I mean photographers had to know what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve. A good photographer will still make an informed choice nowadays, of course, but for people like you and me, it doesn’t matter that much if we don’t know what we’re doing as the fact that we can take hundreds of photographs mean we’re  likely to get one or two right, and the rest, well, there’s software for that!

However, it is always good to have an idea of what we’re after before, to think about what we want to achieve. After all, it’s better to work on an image that is almost there in terms of quality, than on one that looks awful. A bad photo won’t look great, no matter how much we work on it.

Sometimes we look at colour as the absence of it. Sometimes is the small detail that stands out amongst the background. Other times it’s the balance that it brings.

It’s easier to take a picture in colour and make it striking, than it is to take one in black and white. We are naturally drawn by colour, since the world we live in is a very colourful one: beautiful skies and sunsets, green lands, colourful flowers… How do you make an impact in black and white? How do you make that little bee stand out from between all the flowers? Planning your image as much as you can, composing it.


sorry, didn’t have any bee at hand

When talking about colour, there are a couple of things we need to consider.

First, we need to know a bit about colour theory, nothing major, I’m sure you already know quite a lot!

I’m sure you’ve already seen a colour wheel before, or a primary colours diagram. Basically it tells us which colours work together, which comes from which and which colours are opposite. An important thing to think about is the fact that you will be working with light, not pigments (although that will change if you decide to print the image – before, with film, developing an image still used light!).

The biggest difference between light and pigments is with light, black is the absence of colour, and if you add all the colours together, you would get white. This can be demonstrated by an image I’m sure you’re familiar with: the typical crystal pyramid with a ray of light going through it, or in a more natural way, a rainbow in the sky. I can practically see you raising your eyebrows: white light? Sky? Yes, the light we receive from the sun is actually white which, incidentally, it’s the light with the highest temperature, but more on that in a moment. We see the sky as blue, but that’s just the light going through a filter: the atmosphere. The light from the sun is white. When this light goes through the rain, the drops act like a crystal and it breaks down the white light into all the colours it’s made of. Cool, huh?

I have to say here that there’s more to light than just a rainbow, with different colours we can’t actually see. We only see a part of the spectrum, which are the colours, because our eyes are made to see certain wavelengths, but there is actually more stuff hidden in the light we get from the sun, such as the ultraviolet waves!

So, why is it important to know that the sun’s light is white? Colour temperature.

Let’s talk about temperature by doing a quick exercise. Which colour do you associate with hot, burning hot? And if I say cold, freezing cold, which colour comes to mind? Normally, your answers would have been red for the first question and blue for the latter. That’s how we perceive colours, but it’s a meaning we have given them. In terms of light, the opposite is true: the warmer it gets, the paler the light, until we reach white. The colder the light, the redder it gets. I know it doesn’t seem like I’m making any sense, so let me explain.


we associate red and orange with hot temperatures

Perito Moreno

bbrrrrr… can we add some red in here please? it’s freezing!

Let me ask you something: what (light)  is warmer: a normal bulb, or a fluorescent tube? Chances are, you probably won’t know the answer (please, don’t go around touching bulbs, as I don’t want you to burn yourselves!). I wouldn’t know either if it wasn’t because of photography. Now, if I asked you to tell me what the hottest object (light) is between the sun and a normal bulb, I guess we would all agree the sun is hotter.

bulbs around a door in Camden

not quite like the sun, are they?

Now, I’m not sure if you’ve ever used an old camera, with actual film rolls. If so, the you would know a bit about this already: there were different types of films, depending on the ISO, for example. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film was, the lower the number, the less sensitive (and more light was needed). When you bought a roll of film, you had to make sure you got the correct ISO (although they would normally give you a standard one unless you specified something different). However, there was another detail to take into account: whether the film was for outdoors or sunlight, or indoors or tungsten (normal bulb).

How many times did you take pictures of a family dinner, lit by the usual lamps indoors, only to find out afterwards all the photographs look orangey or red? What about the opposite: you took pictures outdoors and suddenly all of them turned kind of bluish. See where I’m going? Basically, we had used a film ready for a specific temperature, say around 3,000 K (tungsten bulbs), and suddenly we used a light source of around 6,000 K (the sun), or vice versa. That would reveal light’s true colours!

Example of indoors photography with the wrong balance. The bottom part is the wrong one, I tried to correct the colour with Photoshop, but it’s so badly taken, I couldn’t! However, I could apply a “cooling” filter (bluish).

Cheeky indoors

so bad it’s impossible to correct the colour here!
(btw, this used to be my cat)

Below, you can see a better example, this time for wrong outdoors balance. The only thing I had to do was select the white on the street sign on the right and tell Photoshop that is supposed to be white, as we did with the colour correction tutorial. I didn’t touch any other colour or parameter! You can see the difference better on the checked shirt.

white balance

wrong balance on the left, all I did was correct the white

Going back to the fluorescent, by the way, it’s a warmer kind of light than a normal bulb (c.5,000 K, I think), as photos would appear green! Sorry, I don’t have any image as an example!

Please note the values I have given might not be entirely correct and should be taken as a guidance only, as it would depend on the power of the bulbs and tubes, maybe even manufacturer, and for example, there’s a different temperature from a cloudy day’s light than a sunny one, and I’m writing from memory!! Colour temperature is quite interesting, and if you would like to know more, I suggest you search online or buy some books that will probably explain it much better and in-depth than I have!

Of course, we don’t use film any more (not regularly, anyway), although I would still recommend you try it and experiment with it! However, this still applies. How?

White Balance

If you’re still wondering what the white balance does, well, this is it. Lacking a film, this is the setting that tells your camera what the light temperature is. To make it even more simple, white balance tells the camera how to represent the true colours.

Obviously, many of you might want to leave it automatic, and let the camera decide for itself, after all, that’s why the automatic setting is there for. However, if you want full control over the image, you might want to play with the settings a bit, see what happens.

When you look at the white balance, regardless of the camera you have and the symbols you see, there will always be similarities and certain recurring symbols or concepts:

  • Bulb. This will set the camera to tungsten bulbs, or normal indoor lighting.
  • Sun. This is the hottest temperature, for outdoors.
  • Night. Self explanatory.
  • Auto. This lets the camera decide for itself, sometimes it gets it right, some others it doesn’t, but it usually can be fixed later on.
  • Flash. Some cameras might have this option. Interesting to note that the temperature of a flash light is the closest to the sun we can use.
  • Manual…

When you set the white balance to manual, the best thing to do is, of course, read your camera instructions! Normally, it would work something like this: you should get a piece of white cardboard, or a white object such as a door, wall, t-shirt, etc. You need something you can point your camera at. Make sure it is white, and not off-white, (very) light grey, eggshell or anything weird that looks like it’s white but isn’t: you need a white object. Point your camera at it. Different cameras work differently, so you will have to check yours, but basically what you’re telling your camera with the white balance is: this (whatever you’re pointing at) should be white. The camera will then adjust all the spectrum of colours accordingly, so that the object will appear white in the final image. You can try pointing your camera at other colours and while they might not appear as white, the results can be quite interesting!

Now, once you have that out of the way, you can start thinking about the colour in your photograph.

Note: some photographers carry around a white balance card for colour correction in software (you can make it yourself, or you can get it for free in some magazines or books, or buy it at Amazon or similar: white balance card). They always place that card in the first photograph they take, so they can find the black, white and middle grey tones (remember?) afterwards and clone the settings for the rest of the pictures (taken in the same conditions of lighting!)

Colour is very important, as I said above. We see life in colour, and it’s easier to replicate in an image (although more difficult from a technical point of view, such as developing film!). We can waive some of the contrast in exchange for colours. After all, there’s enough contrast between a blue sky and a red field of poppies, for example. But what happens when all colours are similar, like a sky and the sea? We will still need to work hard in both situations to make the images striking. Here’s where we might use saturation, and other elements, of course, remember they all work together in order to compose an image!

cart desaturated

playing a bit with saturation, colours, curves, can make a photograph more interesting


it can be a small detail, like a blue eye

single daffodil

or a flower, in contrast with the rest of the colours in the background

Have you seen the typical image of a beach, on a very sunny day, blue sky, nice sea, the yellowish sand covered by hundreds of people on their towels and under their umbrellas? We would normally focus on the sky, the sea, and the fact that it’s very crowded, but it’s messy. It is difficult for us to focus on any detail. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that would necessarily be a bad picture, as that might be exactly the idea we want to convey, but it’s an example where how we play with the colour (and composition!) can change how we perceive the scene.

Mar del Plata beach

now, where did I leave my towel…?

Normally, by the way, the overall scene would appear a bit blue and maybe blurred the farther from the camera, such as around the horizon. This is a flare that occurs again due to all the particles in the air.

Of course, there are many other parameters that influence a photograph, and we will have a look at those as well! For now, I leave you with a few more examples on colour and black and white:

Landscape in colour

contrast, saturated colours, and dramatic sky

Landscape in manual B&W

again, same landscape, in manual black and white

Stockholm Town Hall B&W

the town hall in Stockholm, it looks nice, doesn’t it?

Stockholm Town Hall

I have to admit I prefer the colour one this time!

pink windows in colour with grain

adding grain gives a nice look to the image

hand bw with blue filter

do you like the different tones and contrast? that’s achieved by using a blue filter!

The key thing is to see… Look at every photograph you see, what do you like about them? There are many striking images you can find pretty much anywhere, especially in landscapes and travelling photography, in which you can see all the rich colours.

Normally, we are used to see landscapes, cities and groups of people in vibrant colours, and we tend to leave black and white for portraits, as they look more intimate, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a great portrait in colour, does it? We all remember the National Geographic Afghan girl by Steve McCurry! One of my favourite photographers is Sebastião Salgado.

I know it’s not a complete tutorial on colour, it’s an extensive subject! However, I hope you enjoyed it and it makes you wonder and want to try new things. You can of course ask me any questions you might have about the topic!

Take care and see you soon for the next part of the tutorial.


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Next: Exposure