About colour in photos

In my series of “travel tips”, here’s a thought or two about colour.

Colour is often nice when used very deliberately. And the good news: there are tricks to doing that.

Like using single colours. Whenever you see a strong primary colour dominate, consider whether this might contain a picture:

Blue Vegas

Or when you see opposite colours – like blue and yellow together:

Speed Humps!

(Can you see the use of flash in that image?)

Warm colours are good too – think about a sunset. Think of adding a little CTO filterin front of your flash (a gel – I use the Honl gels, which like the rest of the Honl range of modifiers, has made my life much easier).

And I especially like the combination of all three main primary colours, red, green and blue, all in the same image:

Sedona Afternoon View

You will see this in many of my images: here’s another one, an on-request snap of a couple of tourists in Sedona, AZ (can you see I used a long lens for this? Why?)

Sedona Tourists

Finally, candy colours can be fun too: we look at them, our eye is drawn to them:

Candy Cane Colours

So my lesson for today is: think about colour: how are you using it? Are you getting the best out of it?

Foot note: I mentioned David Honl above. Dave is coming to Toronto – he is my special guest in a three-hour course on “Event Photography and Creative Light”, on Saturday, 19 March 2011. The location is to be announced but it will be in, or right next to, Toronto. Let me know right now if you want to reserve your space.


Sunday, I spent the afternoon walking through Oakville with ten students for a Creative Urban Photography walk.

A few pictures here. I thought I would concentrate on colour. And even on a very cold fall afternoon, there is colour.

Like contrasting colour, in this case red and green:


Or harmonious pastel colour:



Or subtle single colour:

Coffee Beans

Coffee Beans

Or simple single colours:



Or beautiful fall colours:

Fall colours

Fall colours

Or colour warmed up by a gel on the flash:



So if a cold afternoon can show colours like this, so can anything else. As long as you spot the colours.

Your assignment, therefore, if you wish: Spend an afternoon shooting in the environment of your choice, looking only for colours.

And remember to:

  1. Set the correct white balance
  2. Expose well (do not overexpose; use your histogram or a Hoodman Hood Loupe)

Enjoy your outing!

Colour combinations

There are some colour combinations I always look for. If you see those, think “could there be a shot here?”

They include Red vs. Green, a combination that contrasts on the colour wheel:

Red and Green

Red and Green

But also:

  • Yellow vs. Blue, ditto, another contrasting combination.
  • And the following harmonious combination we find a lot in nature: purple and green.
Green and purple

Green and purple

And this one, shot in yesterday’s “Creative Urban Photography” walk that I did with nine students in Oakville:

Harmonious Colours,photo by Michael Willems

Harmonious Colours

So any time you see any of those combinations, ask yourself “could there be a picture?”. And if you see lots of green, look for some red; if you see lots of blue, see if you cannot find some yellow to add to it.

Update: two more notes. First, remember to set your white balance properly (e.g. on a cloudy day, use “Cloudy”). Second, the upcoming autumn is a great time. Cloudy, overcast days provide wonderful saturated colours, and of course the leaves are turning. Get Out and Shoot!

Bad light

Have you ever thought, or said, the following?

Waah. It’s raining, I can’t take pictures.

There’s no sun, I can’t take pictures.

Don’t you believe it. A cloudy, rainy day is better than a sunny day in so many ways.

  • No harsh shadows to wrinkle clothes (or faces)
  • No squinting eyes
  • Saturated colour
  • No impossible contrast to handle
  • Those great raindrops

The other day, I took a few snaps during the Henry’s Creative Urban Photography walkaround. Here’s a few of them: are those saturated colours not beautiful?

Leaf in the rain, by Michael Willems

Leaf in the rain

Flower in the rain, by Michael Willems

Flower in the rain

Turning Leaves in the rain, by Michael Willems

Turning Leaves in the rain

Oakville in the rain, by Michael Willems

Oakville in the rain

Tired Flowers, by Michael Willems

Tired Flowers

Oakville plants in the rain, by Michael Willems

Oakville plants in the rain

Oakville door, by Michael Willems

Oakville door

A rainy, overcast, dreary day: provided you expose properly (remember exposure compensation. Hint: it’ll likely be “minus”), there’s really nothing quite like it.

Calibrating your screen: why?

I received the following question:

At the Henry’s Show, you made reference to the importance of calibrating your monitor. Would you mind discussing that one day on your blog?  I’m utterly clueless about it. Thanks.  Enjoy your daily emails immensely!

Welcome, and the pleasure is mine. Solet me answer your question.

What does “calibrating your monitor” do?

It ensures that the colours it displays are as accurate as possible. So that white is real white, and so on.

How does it work?

You buy a “spider”: a light sensor that you temporarily hang right in front of your screen. Like a “Huey”, or various larger spiders. The software that comes with the sensor then makes the screen flash all sorts of colours. The sensor looks at these and can tell whether, say, red is a bit brighter than green. It then adjusts the output of your screen accordingly tp correct for this, and creates a new “monitor profile”. That ensures your colour is accurate.

Why should I do it?

Ah, good question.  Well, to understand this, imagine your monitor shows a bit more green than it should. When editing your images, say with Photoshop, you would decrease the green to make your images look good.

Now you send that edited image to a friend. Or you put it on a web site. The viewer look at it – and thinka it looks red (the absence of green makes it look too red)! Or if you print it, it would come out looking too red.

That is the reason you should really calibrate your monitor. It’s important!