What This Book Is About

“…the object and its color
are one and the same thing,
which by the way is one of the principles
of the theory of perception.
Form and color are inseparable.
Harry Gruyaert”

This book is about color in digital photography. It is written by a color photographer who, in his daily work, has to use the knowledge of color in art and the possibilities of modern image processing techniques. I did not, however, intend to write a manual on digital color correction – there are a lot of good ones out there already. Instead, my focus is on all things color; from color perception, interrelation between color and composition, evaluation of color intensity to planning and organization of photo shoots, RAW conversion and color correction in Adobe Photoshop. Many contemporary photographers lament the “lifelessness” of digital images. We look at the picture, admire its vibrant colors and sharp lines, and still can’t help but feel nostalgic for the photographs of the old, pre-digital age. This increasing lack of satisfaction with digital color has an explanation, which needs to be understood – and dealt with – to achieve an optimum in color intensity. This book is my account of what I have come to in my experiments with color.

To better understand the criteria that underline creative work with color, we need to take a small tour back in time, talk about artistic perception and analyze the experience of the film era in photography. Our task is not to imitate film rendition of color, but rather to discuss its core principles. For all the convenience of digital photography, it can be enriched with the application of approaches characteristic of such traditional media as paintings and film photography. I believe that it is the synthesis of technology that can lead to the most interesting and vivid chromatic solutions.

This book is my attempt to make sense of the experience I have had so far. It is also an extended answer to the question that I often get: ‘How do you manage those colors?’ When I ask people to specify “those”, the replies vary: “warm”, “breathing”, “like in the film photos”, “like in the movies”. For me, this is the highest form of praise, and yet another nudge to collect everything that I know in one cohesive volume.

For several years now, my blog has served as a platform for my colleagues and myself to talk about perception and harmonization of color. Sure, these discussions did attract professional photographers, but more often than not I would find myself trying to explain difficult things in a language that would be streamlined enough to be understood by a layperson. Instead of dumbing complicated issues down, however, I deepened my perception of photography and arrived at precise yet simple formulations to answer the most common queries.

“I have also conducted 18 seminars on color in 12 cities across Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and speaking live to a combined audience of about 1000 people definitely helped to further develop my ideas. While I do employ a lot of theory of color perception in my discussion of color, I still rely very heavily on my own understanding of what constitutes an aesthetically pleasing picture. I realize that a reader might find some of my examples insufficiently convincing. My task, ask I see it, is to offer some methods of transforming “direct” digital photographs so that they look attractive and pleasant. It does not necessarily mean that I am proposing a 100% guarantee, foolproof technique of turning just about any image into a masterpiece. After all, there is no “masterpiece” filter in any of the known software, just as there are no absolutes when it comes to beauty. If you really want to master color, you need to keep a critical distance from what I say in this book. Photographers are creative people, and they shouldn’t just take somebody’s word for granted. Instead, they should be analytical and pensive, and make their own conclusions. The conclusions, I have to add, that can be totally different from those I arrive at here. Mindless copying of the techniques will bear little result.

My book is neither a manual, nor a collection of exercises in design; I do not discuss airbrushing techniques, drawing or making photo collages. Instead, I wanted to draw the creative attention of my readers to the “photography-ness” of an image, so the main tool I do describe is RAW conversion. I do address processing images in Adobe Photoshop – but this is done in passing and to solve local tasks. Screenshots, graphs and numbers that I use may raise an eyebrow or two, and some people may wonder if a photographer (as an artist and a creative person) should bother with these technicalities at all. My answer is – definitely! Just as any aspiring artist should study brush techniques, color harmony and textures to create their paintings. “Artisanal” will not necessarily translate into “artistic”, but one can rarely find a musician who can’t read music either! If I talk about technical aspects of digital photography in this book, it is always from the perspective of creative perception. This is done so that the reader would know how use the tools I discuss to better implement their ideas. I will consider myself successful if my readers will want to experiment with their photographs and improve on the imagery that they normally employ.

Who This Book Is For

The book is addressed to photographers, but may be of interest to everybody who deals with color correction, design or other aspects of digital image processing. Those who have studied in art schools will find a lot of familiar ideas, but it is my hope that they can still learn something new about the technicalities of digital photography. They will, I hope, find some of my color harmonization solutions quite useful.

To understand this book, you need to have at least some practical background. I don’t expect novice photographers to fully appreciate this discussion – after all, it is addressed to those who have already experienced the challenges of digital color rendition. I assume that my readers are familiar with RAW conversion, know how to work with curves and have a basic understanding of RGB and Lab.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t read this book if you are a beginner. Chances are, you are already unhappy with how the colors turn out in your images, and in this case, this book will definitely be of help. Make sure you start your reading with Appendix A, How Curves Work, which I have written especially for those who might find themselves wondering what I am talking about in the first few chapters.

While this book does have a lot of practical suggestions, it does not contain any quick and dirty fixes for your color-related issues. What I have written will help to understand where these issues come from (in many cases the answers will be far from obvious) and how to choose the best strategy for dealing with them when they do arise. “Magical” recipes and one-fit-all solutions simply do not work in the real world.


There are many people who have helped me bring this book to life, and when doing so, influenced my understanding of how things work. I am grateful to all of them, and in no particular order, to:

Andrey Zeigarnik, for being a great sparring partner in many a creative discussion, for helping arrive at more precise formulations and for proofreading the final text;
Alexander Serakov, for contributing a chapter Samples of Adobe Camera RAW (Lightroom) Processing and helping out in the editing process;
Andrey Zhuravlev, for practical advice on the pre-print arrangement of the illustrations;
Alexander Zavarin and Viktoria Kirdy, for answering my art-related questions and advising me on all matters concerning color and the world of art;
Roman Palchenkov, for 3D renditions;
Ilya Borg, Andrey Tverdokhleb, Alik Voitekhovich, Alexander Onishenko, Kirill Rosinsky, for their invaluable comments and advice;
Petr Lovygin, for cover design;
Irina Grigoryan, for careful nitpicking and editing of my scribbles;
Anastasia Bruni, for stitching the book together and preparing the page layout;
and Leonid Gusev, for overall organization of editing, printing and for his never-ending moral support.

I would also like to take this opportunity and thank the readers of my blog for their feedback on my articles about photography and image processing. Not all of them agreed with me, but even critical remarks help me take stock of my creative process and move forward.

LIFELIKE: A book on color in digital photography

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