The tools of the craft – camera, lenses, processing software – and the skills with which these tools are used are nothing but a system of support helping us deliver the message. By no means should they substitute creativity. A photographer with minimal knowledge of color theory but with good taste is able to overcome the majority of chromatic challenges. The opposite is also true: none of the post-processing recipes is capable of automatically beautifying an image. Randomly applied, a formula is just as likely to spoil an image, as it is to improve it.
A paradox, if you will, but with all the technological advancement of recent years, it is more difficult to be a photographer now that it has ever been. For one, we are lacking the kind of professional support in terms of color harmonization that analog photographers used to enjoy, which ideally makes us grow into better artists.
Generally, I try to steer clear of using the term “art photographer”. It has long lost its meaning through overuse; a lot of practitioners who are, frankly, quite mediocre, tend to stamp it on their business cards. However, if we strip the concept down to its original meaning, we will find it quite appropriate since it does reflect the challenge of contemporary photography.
Back in the day, I spent a lot of time studying the possibilities of image processing, asking myself what colors I wanted to achieve. All I could come up with was rather abstract requirements, like, for example, I want my colors to be “warm”, “lifelike”, “cinematographic”. Because these queries were so imprecise, I started to get frustrated: where should I go from there? In the meantime, I was also growing more dissatisfied with the colors I got from my standard raw conversion treatment. These frustrations led me to the study of color in art. I started with Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color, a veritable Bible for many artists. The book often states the obvious, but it has been quite helpful in shifting my study of color in the right direction. As Johannes Itten himself elegantly puts it:
“The doctrine to be developed here is an aesthetic color theory originating in the experience and intuition of a painter. For the artist, effects are decisive, rather than agents as studied by physics and chemistry. Because color effects are in the eye of the beholder, the many color plates were indispensable. Yet the deepest and truest secrets of color effect are, I know, invisible even to the eye, and are beheld by the heart alone.”
If you have ever attended an art school, taken art lessons or just visited a high school art class, you are likely familiar with the concept of the color wheel, the law of complimentary colors and color contrasts – in other words, you have already mastered the foundations of color expression theory. For those who have never held a brush in their hands, however, studying Itten’s book will definitely help achieve “lifelike” colors in digital photographs.
I must admit that the knowledge I got from books has not helped me specify my individual coloristic aims. Yet I did become much better at spotting the mistakes I had made while trying to achieve color harmony, and changed my whole perspective on color in general and color photography in particular. So reading The Art of Color was a watershed moment in my quest to find a “pleasing” digital color scheme. My usage of tonal adjustment sliders in raw conversion software and Adobe Photoshop became more meaningful since I started to rely on both my own visual cues and on an objective understanding of color perception. I switched from “getting rid of disharmonies” to making colors more expressive. These changes in philosophy may seem too subtle and difficult to formulate, but, as a photographer, they have become an ideal vehicle for moving forward. I see little point in retelling Itten’s book here, but I cannot recommend it enough – especially to those who are just starting out. The book is written in a simple yet informative way and reads like a bestseller. The Art of Color is structured as if it were tailor-made to suit novice photographers rather than artists, because it deals with the most basic of concepts. I am not sure, frankly, if any given artist will find this book as informative as a photographer will, because the latter really lacks this kind of insight.
Those who want some further reading on the artistic components of color should turn their attention to Mikhail Matiushin’s A Reference Book of Colour. The Laws Governing Variability of Colour Combinations, in which the author discusses both the form/color dichotomy and the diachronic changes in color perception. The list below contains some of the basic books on color in art that I often recommend to fellow photographers. The list is by no means complete, but it will give you a good jump-start on the topic:
The Art of Color by Johannes Itten
A Reference Book of Colour. The Laws Governing Variability of Colour Combinations by Mikhail Matiushin
Color: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors by Betty Edwards
Color and Contrast, Technology and Artistic Choice by Valentin Zheleznyakov
Color in Art by Nikolai Volkov
The Science of Color and Art by Alexander Zaitsev
Color and Psychology by Boris Bazyma
The Theory of Colour by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
You are, of course, welcome to proceed to the next chapter without addressing any of these references, but I still recommend you try going though them one day, if you are seriously interested in improving the colors in your photographs.
LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography