Chapter 4: Subdued Colors

It would have been unwise to limit our creative endeavors by only working with fully saturated colors. One can have a lot of amazing chromatic results while utilizing more washed out, less intensive tones. Let’s turn to Goethe once again: “The scale of positive (i.e. pure – PK) colours is obviously soon exhausted; on the other hand, the neutral, subdued, so-called fashionable colours present infinitely varying degrees and shades, most of which are not unpleasing”. To better analyze what Goethe calls neutral colors, I will divide them into two categories, soft and muted.

  1. Soft colors are moderately to very light, starting from 70L and up. With a notable exception of yellow, which reaches the peak of its saturation at about 95L.
  2. Muted hues ‘live’ in the half-dark to fully dark tonal range, from 10 to 70L. There is an exception here, too: blue can be saturated at as low as 3L.

Understanding soft colors is more or less straightforward: in the light ranges such as theirs full intensity is just not possible (except for yellow and its closest neighbors), which is why most of the lightest colors are perceived as soft. Often, these colors are also the basis for pastel palettes.

But what about medium dark or semi-dark tonal ranges? In previous chapters I have said that these are characteristic of saturated colors. I have also noted, however, that it is not always the case: yes, in the range of lightness from 10 to 70L colors can reach full saturation while maintaining the highest difference in hues, but it doesn’t have to be this way – a color just as well can stay undersaturated. The medium to semi-dark range allows for the greatest variations in saturation (from fully muted tones, almost neutrally grey, to highly saturated ones), lightness (from rather dark to relatively light), and in hue. It is in this range that the difference between the colors will be at its peak, since we perceive colors and details better when they are neither too light nor exceedingly dark. Our ability to tell between the colors will decrease with oversaturation: here, at the saturation limit, the hues will just collapse together. Let me show some examples.

Soft Colors

My first example is all about working with lighter hues, in cases when increasing saturation and color variety of a softly-colored image is neither necessary nor beneficial for the end result. To better illustrate my point I have chosen the photograph of a morning mist. Note that the picture doesn’t have a single black point (figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

It is possible to introduce this black point manually (and increase contrast, while we are at it): this will lead to a more saturated image with more color intensity. In doing so, however, we will lose the tenderness of the morning mist, and all that getting up early to capture this image will have been in vain. Think of how things look to you on a foggy day: the colors have softness to them, a certain washed out quality. Introducing high contrast and (screaming) color intensity gives us a cruder, more vulgar version of this originally very tender morning (figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Muted Colors

It will be slightly more difficult to illustrate working with muted colors in medium and semi-dark range, because one needs some visual experience to evaluate the difference between saturated colors and their more delicate versions. Unless a photograph is way oversaturated and too contrast-y, most people will prefer more intensive colors in a picture to more subdued tones. When we go from noticing an image in passing to really looking at it, we switch on our recognition of details and color variations. A more saturated picture will have less color variety, and will thus be less attractive for a fastidious viewer (yet quite possibly more fetching for the less picky, too). A critical glance at such an image will transform the first positive impression into indifference or even outright disregard.

For example, Figure 4.3 is a rather dark image with deep, saturated colors. Light areas of red, green and yellow tones vary in the ranges of 40–55L, 40–50L and 60–80L, respectively. While it is a ‘natural habitat’ for saturated red and green, the range is a little too dark for saturated yellow. Despite some overrides in color intensity, the image is not at all repulsive.

Figure 4.3

However, if we lower the intensity by about 30% (by setting a -30 Saturation in the Hue/Saturation tool), we will immediately see more variations of all primary colors (Figure 4.4). Red, in particular, will display a much more interesting variety of hues in the altered image. While the overall result may at first seem less exciting as far as the colors are concerned, a more experienced viewer will prefer the new look. Now, compared to the final version, the original image looks too bright. The resulting picture creates a more pleasant impression thanks to a number of factors, saturation and improved detalization being only two of them. Harmonization of colors (the degree of their ‘closeness’ to each other) is another important quality of an image that we are going to discuss in the following chapters.

Figure 4.4

To see if I am correct in my assumptions, let’s stage a small visual experiment. First, cover picture 4.4 and wait for about a minute. It needs to be done so that you forget the color nuances of the image. Now briefly look at picture 4.3 (3-5 seconds) and then back at picture 4.4. When we move our gaze like that, from the first image to the second, the latter seems to fade in comparison. However, after 20 or 30 seconds of looking at it, we get used to the muted colors, which, by that time, stop being so ‘boring’. Now, look at the first picture (figure 4.3) again. This second glance should leave you with a feeling of disharmony from all those oversaturated (if not outright lurid) colors and lack of tonal detail, even if you didn’t notice anything of this sort at first.

Everything is relative. Most people would be quite happy viewing both images if shown separately, yet by contrasting the two pictures we can prove that muted, subdued colors have the right to exist, and, what is more, that they can at times be more expressive than oversaturated tones. The more experience you have as a viewer, the easier it will be for you to pick up on those subtleties by just looking at one image without juxtaposing it with the possible variations. Beginners, however, may find this simple contrasting exercise quite useful in developing their own chromatic preferences.

What happened when we decreased saturation in our latest example? While staying in the selected lightness range, we slightly shifted all colors to the more neutrally grey, less vibrant, more subdued tones. The colors have, of course, lost their saturation, but it enabled us to separate the hues, which had been on the verge of collapsing onto each other in highly saturated parts of the image. In other words, we increased the color variation in lightness. At the same time, we moved the hues that were too contrasting closer to each other, which made the color palette of the entire image a little more pleasant to the eye.

As a fine art professor Betty Edwards writes in her book, Color, “…knowing how to lower intensity is one of the most powerful tools for harmonizing color”. This is especially true for the medium and semi-dark color range, where the human eye can better perceive color variety. Even a slight shift to the darker side proves to be advantageous not only to fully saturated tones, but also to the subdued ones.

LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography

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