The Psychology of Color
Reprinted from Vol 5-1 of the BT Journal
In wildlife photography, I think the psychology of color plays an overwhelming role in the success of an image to communicate. I’ve waited a long time to present this piece and I can’t think of a better time than with the Journal’s first color issue to bring you what I think are critical concepts for success.
Advertising-grabbing the attention of the buyer to buy one’s product. In a sense that’s exactly what we’re attempting to do with our photographs. To be successful we should be doing it with color in mind just like Madison Avenue! We might not be selling a “product” with our images, but we are most definitely aspiring to grab our viewer’s attention. And if our ultimate goal is to communicate, then we really are trying to sell something, even if it’s no more than our vision.
When I was in college, I took a class that was just about color in advertising. One of our assignments was to go to the supermarket, glance up and down all the aisles, without walking them, and take note of the most overwhelming colors we saw. Twenty years ago when I did that assignment, the overwhelming dominant color was red. If you were to do the same assignment today, you’d find that red is nowhere near the most dominant color anymore.
There’s an age-old adage that when photographing birds, if you don’t have a good background, find something green to put behind them. Why is the color green important or so pliable that it’s a universal cure-all for the backgrounds for birds? What is it about color that grabs our attention in a scene to photograph it in the first place? What are we doing technically right or wrong in our photography to exploit people’s natural draw to color? Unlock these answers for yourself and your photography will span the rainbow!
The Basic Psychology of Color
With the human brain able to distinguish over two hundred shades of white, able to see the same color no matter the light source, saying color is essential to our perception is no slight exaggeration. Viewing a black and white scenic full of all the shades of gray that a good paper and photographer can bring to light, the emotions just those shades of gray can evoke is tremendous! But that’s just a small sampling of the potential a full palette of colors can bring to a photograph. I’m not going to pass myself off as a scholarly master of psychology or try to convince you that one must have one color over the other for a photograph to be successful. A sunset is going to be in a red band of light no matter what psychological message we might want to communicate. What I want to bring to the forefront of your photographic consciousness and understanding is what color can communicate and how you can make use of that in your photography.
When photographing wildlife, you’d be surprised by the emotional response color can evoke, and how color, especially the color of the background, can emphasize and enhance that emotional response. We can’t change the color of a subject to any great degree, but we can definitely alter the colors of the world around the subject to some degree, using various technical tools at our disposal. (If nothing else, this will help you understand what images to send and not to send to editors.) But which colors communicate what? Let me give you some very basic descriptions of colors and how we subconsciously perceive them. (It’s very important to realize that we are talking about psychology of colors here; folks don’t see certain colors, then rationally think about their emotional response to them.)
Yellow – is the most visible color and is the first color the human eye notices! Yellow, the color nearest to “light” leaves a warm and satisfying impression, lively and stimulating and in many cultures symbolizes deity. Dark yellow can be oppressive while light yellow is breezy. Yellow’s stimulating nature and high visibility to the eye is the reason why many road signs are bold yellow (contrasted by black text). Yellow birds, flowers and skies are sure to be eye-catchers just because of the way the mind and eye works!
Orange – is a good balance between the passionate red and the “yellow of wisdom.” Orange is symbolic of endurance, strength and ambition. It can represent the fire and flame of the sun. Orange is said to also have the cheerful effect of yellow, but is intensified in its closeness to the color red.
Red – is a bold color that commands attention! Red gives the impression of seriousness and dignity, represents heat, fire and rage, it is known to escalate the body’s metabolism. Red can also signify passion and love. Red promotes excitement and action. It is a bold color that signifies danger, which is why it’s used on stop signs. Using too much red should be done with caution because of its domineering qualities. Red is the most powerful of colors.
Pink – is the most gender specific. Pink represents femininity and has a gentle nature (which is not a bad thing). Pink is associated with sweets like candy and bubble gum. It also symbolizes softness. Because it’s so “feminine,” use of pinks should be well planned. Pink and blue color combos are most associated with babies, soaps and detergents.
Purple – is a mixture of somber blue and active red. It can represent coolness, mist and shadows. It symbolizes royalty and dignity and can be mournful, yet soft and lonely. Purple is described as an “unquiet color” being mysterious and mystic in a cultural sort of way. A study revealed that purple, the color of mourning among many peoples, meets with disapproval in six Asian countries.
Blue – represents temperature, sky, water and ice. It is the second most powerful color. It obviously represents coolness, mist and shadows. In some applications it can represent peacefulness and calmness. And as pink represents femininity, blue represents masculinity. Blue is often associated with somber emotions like sadness, gloom and fear. Blue is a contemplative color, meaning intelligence and strength. It is one of the most politically correct colors there is with no negative connotations of it anywhere on the globe.
Green – is the most restful color for the human eye. It’s the universal color of nature as well as represents fertility, rebirth and freedom. (That answers the question why it’s the best background for birds.) Bright green can be uplifting while dark green evokes a mental picture of a pine forest. Street signs are painted a metallic green background contrasted with white letters because the combination is believed to be the easiest to read and recognize for the human brain. However, as with most colors, green also brings forth some negative connotations. The phrase “green with envy” also gives way to guilt, ghastliness, sickness and disease.
Brown – is associated with nature, trees and wood. It represents conservancy and humility. Next to gray, brown, in one of its many shades, is one of the most neutral of the colors. It is useful in balancing out stronger colors, and because it is one of the most predominant hues in nature, it gives a sense of familiarity. Light brown confers genuineness while dark brown is reminiscent of fine wood and leather.
Gray – gives the stamp of exclusivity. It’s the color “around which creative people are most creative.” Gray is a neutral color that can enhance and intensify any other color it surrounds. It can enhance the psychological response of the other colors it supports.
Black – is associated with elegance and class (black-tie affair). It is the traditional color of fear, death and mourning. Look at the many terms using the word black to understand how it is perceived: “black sheep,” “black heart,” “black and blue” and “black mark.” Despite the negative imagery that black brings, it is a preferred color in many designs since it contrasts with most colors quite well. If used correctly, it promotes distinction and clarity in your images.
White – symbolizes purity, innocence and birth. It’s closely associated with winter and can also represent surrender or truth. In the color spectrum, white is the union of all the colors. Its neutrality and conservative nature is widely accepted. Its simplicity and subtle quality makes it an ideal color for establishing clarity and contrast in your images.
If you’re like most folks, you’ve probably never thought about color in this way. That’s partly why it’s called the psychology of color. It is truly a powerful part of communicating, which is used on a daily basis in selling products. You’re probably saying this is all well and good, but what does it really have to do with your photography? Well why not use the same principles to help sell your message, your photograph or photography? I bet that if you look at your favorite photographs, whether your own or someone else’s, and you look at the colors and then read the above definitions, you’ll soon discover just how important color really is. Let me further demonstrate with some examples.
The photo on the cover of this issue of the Journal of the male San Joaquin Kit Fox is a prime example. One of my signature images that has a huge publication history and has been used to help protect and preserve this endangered species for nearly fifteen years, grabs the viewers’ attention instantly. The dark background in concert with the fox’s posture brings out elegance and class. The brown coat is a color of familiarity and nature and with the slight orange tinge to the coat, brings warmth to the image. While these things are obvious in the photograph, the effects on the mental and emotional senses are not. It simply just grabs your heartstrings and doesn’t let go! Color is a big reason why!
Another good example of this is the photo of the Pacific Loon. This is as regal a pose as you can find, and as regal a bird as you can imagine! The early morning 5 am light of the tundra, the black body, white stripes and gray head are all dynamic colors. White and its purity, black with its elegance and gray with its depth make the loon stand out in the mind. But it’s the warmth of the yellowish gold background and foreground that give the image that “deity” feeling befitting the loon’s pose. Any other colors, and it would have been just a bird on the nest. But it’s the colors that make the image a standout and eye-grabber!
The critters in these two images and their poses are the heart of these images, but it’s the colors that make them stand out! Could I have put a different color background behind these two photos? Was there an option? Nope, it is what it is. My point is not that we can radically change background colors or even that of the subject to any degree, just that those really memorable images have color combinations like those in these two images that play on the psychology of the mind. We need to recognize this and exploit it, for lack of better terms, whenever it’s possible! It’s part of that eight second clock I’ve talked about before, that clock that starts when someone first looks at an image and the time we have to grab their attention before it goes elsewhere. Color psychology is a big part of beating that clock!
Tools for Color Psychology
Being aware, really aware of these colors and how they affect our perception and the responses they evoke inside of us is important. Understanding how you can affect these colors with the tools we use every day is even more important. I’m not talking about Photoshop or some bizarre filter, but basic tools you should have in your camera bag or vest at all times.
The lens and its angle of view as described in the last Journal is a very important tool. The ability to manipulate the background with large or small adjustments of lens positioning, depending on the focal length, can make a world of difference to an image. At the same time, your ability to get close physically to a subject and then use optics to isolate it can also make a difference. The Arctic Hare is a good example of what I’m talking about. By getting in close, I could eliminate the gray of the surrounding boulders and snow on the right and focus in on just the colors of the hare, emphasizing the warmth of the pelt and the effect of the setting sun on that pelt. Let’s be honest, who really wants to see a portrait of a bunny? But when there is drama and dignity in the color and light, it makes you stop and look, and hopefully wonder.
The film you use most definitely makes an overwhelming difference in your photography when it comes to the psychology of color! The bias of your film has the most obvious affect on the psychology of color. Everything from the qualities of its white to the richness of its greens and every shade in between, film is the platform from which you build your vision! The contrast of your film all by itself can make or break your communication efforts. Black is an amazingly important part of color, a separator, definer, and enhancer unparalleled! This critical fact that was driven home to me when I learned to do color seps for this Journal and saw how important it is just for editorial publication! All of this starts, and ends with your film so don’t take it lightly!
The very exposure you select for your photograph greatly influences its color and its mental effect. A mere plus or minus of just 1/3 stop can radically change everything! This effect on the subject, the background and surrounding colors, making them darker or lighter in tonality, all play such an important role in your ability to communicate. The image of the Roseate Spoonbill is an excellent example of this. The pink of the spoonbill is such a subtle yet dynamic color that can be radically changed by a mere 1/3 stop, be it from exposure or, and probably more importantly, the quality of the light. Look at the spoonbill; you can see detail in the shadow areas, which tells you the quality of the light that was present. You thought quality of light had to do with just exposure, but it greatly influences colors and their mental reach to communicate!
The psychology of color is the main reason why I always use an 81a filter. I’ve written about this before in the Journal, but this very simple tool that you can always have with you can make a world of difference in your success as a communicator and photographer!
Flash is another critical tool in the psychology of color. As you’ll read in other articles in this Journal, flash brings the film’s 5500k to light so the true color of the subject can be captured. There are times when, depending on the light source, this can be a critical part of making an image happen!
Even simple tools like the Polarizer can greatly affect the colors of your image. The importance of removing the blue, cold tint of the sky from a scene or subject can’t be overstated! That blue reflection, emanating from the sky can be an image killer! By combining the 81a and polarizer, you can radically change the mental perception of your photograph. Instead of repelling the viewer, you can suck them right in. It’s all in the psychology of color!
I more than understand that many will read this and say, phooey! There are definitely two camps in photography, the technocrats and the impressionists. While I personally feel both are important in the creation of an image, it’s the impressionist’s slant whose images I truly enjoy and in the business world, are the ones that sell.
Photography seems so much easier when all you worry about are f/stops and shutter speeds, but it’s one heck of a lot more fun when you consider thoughts way beyond those basics. Photography is a whole lot more rewarding when you take it to a higher plane, leaving behind the day-to-day drudgery and make it into a quest. And when you go beyond that and start taking into consideration such subtleties as the psychology of color when communicating, well the joy it brings to you and the viewer of your images cannot be expressed in words. When all the elements that make a great image come together, which must include the psychology of color, you’ll know it because the viewer of your image will simply smile, a smile that comes from deep within and radiates out, reflected in your photography!
The sun is rising on another great day, time to go out and capture some more images. Make it a colorful one!